Johannes Jacobus Degenaar was born on 7 March 1926 in Ladysmith. As a young man he was sent to the Cape to study at the University of Stellenbosch, where he completed his M.A. in 1948 and a D.Phil in 1950. He later went on to study at the universities of Groningen, Leiden, Oxford, Berlin and Heidelberg.
From 1949, he lectured in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch, and became professor and Head of Department in 1969. He held this position until his retirement in 1991.
Degenaar broke new ground in the rigid and oppressive academic ethos of the University in the 1950s, when he began to lecture on the existential philosophers Kierkegaard, Camus and Heidegger. Inspired by the prison writings of Bonhoeffer, the philosopher, Christian and Nazi death camp victim, Degenaar became deeply absorbed by the problem of secularization, which led to the writing of the book Die Sterflikheid van die Siel (The Mortality of the Soul).
The publication of this thought-provoking book led to friction and open hostility from mainstream Afrikaner organizations such as the Dutch Reformed Church and the Broederbond. However, Degenaar consistently refused to conform to apartheid ideology and to curtail his ideas.
In his writings, Degenaar uncompromisingly denounced the apartheid ideology and examined the notion of plural democracy and its viability in the South African context. He also investigated structural violence, analysed notions of ethnicity and explored Afrikaner thought.
In 1958, he formed an informal discussion of likeminded intellectuals of mostly non-Broederbonders. The burden of fending off sustained pressure to rein him in and contain his teaching at the university eventually compelled him to accept a different position. Degenaar therefore became the head of a separate and new Department of Political Philosophy, where he continued to demonstrate his independent-mindedness.
Degenaar later turned to aesthetics and literary theory, and his lecture course in the 1980s is still regarded as one of his most valuable philosophical contributions, along with his recent research into models of nation building. Degenaar published over 150 articles in scientific journals and a dozen book contributions. His publications range from monographs on N.P. van Wyk Louw, de Chardin and Camus, to philosophical anthropology and political philosophy. He was also involved in a documentary film on the psychology of fairy tales entitled “Understanding Little Red Riding Hood”.
Despite being condemned, ostracized and vilified as a traitor by the Afrikaner establishment, Degenaar remained unbending in his convictions. His consistent opposition to apartheid despite official persecution, and his intellectual rigour and depth have made him the embodiment of intellectual honesty and moral integrity.
Degenaar was awarded the Stals prize in 1984, the N.P. van Wyk Louw Medal in 1998 and D. Phil, honoris causa, by the University of Stellenbosch in 2001.
For his excellent contribution to philosophy and literature, his intellectual honesty and principled role in the broad struggle to resist conformity to the apartheid ideology, the South African Government bestowed Johannes Jacobus Degenaar with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the National Orders awards on 19 October 2004.