OBITUARY - JOHN (JACK) CURTIS
The following is a copy of what we sent to some of the national dailies after John died. John's son, David, helped us verify its accuracy. John lived next door to us for over six years, and brought a great deal of happiness to Elizabeth's mother, Grace. He would regale her with his political views and how she should view politics both here and abroad. She would smile sweetly, say, "yes, dear" and quietly turn her hearing aid off! He never noticed... What better way to die than to come home from a restaurant with your husband, take ill, and peacefully slip away 15 hours later. That's how Grace died at 86.
And now John has done the same - swimming, walking, touring, in the week before he went. His mind was as sharp as ever; he wrote to us on the state of the Middle East less than a week earlier. We regularly exchanged information on what we thought was really going on in international affairs. Right to the end. Way to go! Yes, he was a grumpy old man, unhealed from the hurt of being sent overseas at 18, and not returning for 63 years to live again in his homeland; but the tragedy that marked his life (widowed three times, two children, a daughter-in-law, and a grandchild all killed in awful circumstances) would wound the strongest man....
Born 31st August 1912 - Geelong, Australia; Died 24th February 2002 - Cornwall, England
John Curtis was born in Geelong, in 1912 - the 3rd of 9 children. He left school at 14 to start work and help provide for the family.
John is pictured here at 16 or 17. As a budding cyclist, he competed all the way up to the famous Warrnambool to Melbourne 280km road race (the legendary "Oppy" was also in the field).
His father lost his job with the onset of the Great Depression. With the family in financial difficulty, John left Australia in 1930 for South Africa to work as a tea packer in an Uncle's business - remitted money home to help his family in their need. He was just 18.
In Cape Town he became a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, working in the roughest dock areas. In 1934 he left Cape Town and went north to the Transvaal where he worked as a miner; there he married his first wife Agnes and their sons, Michael and David were born.
During this time he volunteered for the South African Air Force, qualified as a night bomber pilot and served abroad on active service in North Africa and Italy. In 1945 he returned to South Africa by troopship only to learn that his wife had died whilst he was on board.
John became once again a gold and copper miner, working hard to make up for his lack of formal education and to catch up with his mining contemporaries, many of whom had chosen not to enlist against the Nazi regime. Over the years he gained professional management, mining and engineering qualifications.
Shortly after, he became politically active, joined the Springbok Labour Party league.
Two years later he married Joyce, his second wife, and their three children Neville, Jeanette and Joyce were born over the next four years.
In 1959 he joined the newly formed Progressive Party and in 1960 stood for election to Johannesburg City Council, opposing the apartheid regime. In 1966 he stood for Parliament in a rural and mining constituency which was opposed to black people having the vote. He lost his deposit.
Around 1965, working for the mining companies
In 1972 John lost his eldest son Michael - also an engineer - and Michael's wife, Averil. Both were drowned whilst testing a sailing boat on an isolated reservoir in Argentina where they were living and working. John continued his political involvement and his opposition to the apartheid. He retired from the mines and became a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand where he addressed student rallies and involved himself in opposition to the government.
The following year he joined the staff of the Christian Institute, an organization funded by donations from anti apartheid supporters both in and out of South Africa, which was to be increasingly involved with the victims of apartheid. As a member of their staff he also became the target of government agents who sought to intimidate those who were prepared to make a stand against the evils of apartheid.
In 1972, John's son, Neville, an anti-apartheid activist was arrested not long after the death of his friend, Steve Biko. He was officially a "banned" person, before he fled South Africa for Australia where he continued his opposition to apartheid. In 1975, his daughter Jeanette was arrested and detained without charge. She was released from prison and solitary confinement after ten weeks. She left South Africa to continue her fight against apartheid in Botswana, Zambia and Angola.
Jeanette married Marius Schoon, an Afrikaner and avowed opponent of apartheid; Marius was regarded as a traitor by his own people, and was imprisoned for 12 years, suffering physical torture during his imprisonment. In 1984 Jeanette and her six year old daughter Katryn were the victims of a parcel bomb which killed them both. Marius was the target, but was absent from their home. This murder was planned and executed by the South African Government of the day, and was the subject of an inquiry in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's proceedings in 1999.
Despite these personal losses and the fragmentation of his family, John's faith supported him through these years and his belief that apartheid would end did not waver. He was to be proved right!
He was able to vote in South Africa's first democratic election in 1994. Shortly after the ANC government came to power, his second wife died.
A childhood sweetheart from his teenage church days, Grace Renowden (nee Holland), recently widowed herself, wrote to John on hearing of the loss of his second wife. Letters, then numerous phone calls were exchanged. When Telstra sent Grace's phone bill a month early ($1240 in two months!), her son-in-law urged her to marry him before she bankrupted the family estate!
This press photo was taken just before he left South Africa in 1994, commemorating his 40 or so years of press correspondence - it probably appeared in the Rand Daily Mail.
So, in 1993, at the age of 81 he returned to the land of his birth, Australia, and married Grace (80), and settled in Sydney. He had been away 63 years....
It was a very different Australia he came home to, and he continued his lifetime passion for writing letters to friends, foes, and media outlets, expressing his opinions on developing world affairs.
John and Grace were married for six happy years. He loved Sydney with its train and ferry access to the beaches and their seawater swimming pools! They would go off to Cronulla for a week at a time and stay on the South Cronulla Manchester Unity flats. At 17 John had raced against the likes of Oppie in the Warrnambool - Melbourne cycle classic, and now at 85 he was carving up the swim lanes at Cronulla's rockpool!
After Grace's death in 1999, he went to live in Cornwall UK with his daughter, Joyce, and her family. He attended the local Anglican Church and made good friends there.
In the week before his death, John went with his family to St Ives - he swam in the hotel pool, walked on the beach, ate good food and drank fine wine. He visited the remains of Cornwall's mining industry, upon which some of his own training had been based. He played chess with his son, David, read and discussed the news, continued writing to his many correspondents around the world, and watched with increasing distress the unfolding of world events, especially in the Middle East. He suddenly became very ill and died. His son, David, had come down from London to visit him, and was with him at his death.
[Jack Curtis at 89, days before his death, at "home" amongst the ruins of the ancient tin mines on the Cornish coast]
Over the nearly 90 years of his life he saw and took part in many matters of world significance - the return of the Anzacs from the Great War, the poverty of the Depression, emigration and resettlement, and the end of imperialism and colonialism. He survived great danger underground and in the air, and also at the hands of the secret police. He held responsible positions in multinational mining companies, and earned the respect and trust of both management and workers.
In his "retirement", John lectured at University on mining engineering. His specialty was deep-mine rock bursts, which he often said unnecessarily killed far too many black miners at calculated attrition rates.
Despite the rise in his fortunes, he remained true to his fundamental Christian belief in the rights of Mankind. From this he derived his very fierce opposition to tyranny and his championing of the oppressed. He worked alongside and supported people such as Trevor Huddleston, Albert Luthuli, Helen Suzman, Byers Naude, Cyril Ramaphozo, Steve Biko and Donald Woods..
Albert Luthuli was a Zulu chief who was banished by the government to a remote part of kwaZulu because he would not cooperate with the apartheid policy. John sought him out to talk to him and hear his views. He was profoundly influenced by Albert Luthuli.
John carried deep pain in his spirit for most of his life - the loss of family ties at 18 (it was 45 long years before he saw his family and Australia again); the loss of three wives; the murder of his daughter and grand-daughter, after the imprisonment and torture of their husband and father; the accidental death of his son and daughter-in-law. This pain surfaced at times in his old age. He would still speak out against the injustice he saw about him in world affairs, and towards the end, commented to his adopted son-in-law (Brian) that he had "lived too long and seen too much"....
John lived nearly 90 years with critical energy and fire. He made a mark on the world and left it a better place.
[compiled by Brian Rensford (son-in-law) in Sydney from family sources at John's funeral service].
Jack's South African family
We still stay in touch with Jack's grandson (Fritz) and his adoptive mother (Sherry, whom Marius wed after Jeanette was murdered). We met up with them again in May 2007 in Joburg, where Fritz is preparing to commence a doctorate in Political Studies - taking up where the grumpy old granddad left off all those years ago.
Jack's son, Neville Curtis, died in Tasmania in Feb 2007, after settling there years ago. The following is extracted from his funeral services, and will remain a testament to a "soldier" in South Africa's darkest days...
Neville Wilson Curtis (16 October 1947 – 15 February 2007).
The small White Beach cemetery is on a sandy rise about thee hundred yards inland from the beach. Behind it, the forest rises steeply up the hillside to meet a clear sky. To the sounds of a guitar lament, Neville’s body was carried from the hearse to the grave. The bearers included young Kerrie Douce, Long John van der Vlist and Stewart Jenkins. Their families were also present. John and his brother Hans had come to Port Arthur with Neville from Canberra, where Neville was their foster parent. More recently, Neville had cared for Kerrie, now 17. Kerrie with his partner Beccy are proud parents of a baby girl. Stewart’s practical help with the funeral was indispensable. He also organized flowers and the music.
The officiant, Richard Measham, introduced Neville’s brother David, who said: We are all here to celebrate the remarkable life that Neville lived. As his friends we know about the world in which he lived. Around us we see the earth, the forest, the sea and the sky. These are the things that Neville loved. This is what brought him to White Beach. This is the special place where he chose to live. And in this natural world of ours we see the cycle of life and death and the rebirth of life. We can take comfort at a spiritual level in the ancient beliefs that follow from what we see in the natural world around us.
Neville’s uncle, Allen Curtis, then spoke: I was unaware that Neville’s second name was Wilson. That was, named after my father, Neville’s grandfather, who was a true Irishman; and I’m sure that Neville lived up to such a reputation.
I first met Neville in 1969. His father had left Australia in 1930, sailing away because it was the height of the depression and there was no employment and he left to go to South Africa to work with his relatives; and he began a long life of working in the mines where he noticed the difference between the treatment of white and black; and this was engendered into Neville, I’m sure. From then on he wished to carry on seeking social justice for all.
When I arrived in ’69, 39 years later, also sailing across to Cape Town, Neville was not present. He was in Durban leading a peaceful demonstration that was apposing the inequality of black professional doctors receiving less pay than white doctors – yet they were equally qualified and doing the same work. That of course he carried on through many, many years. He became a banned person with every likelihood that he would be imprisoned; so he then managed to get aboard an Italian ship and sailed to Australia, where I met him in Port Phillip Bay in 1974.
Fortunately, coming from Canberra, we were able to take him up there and Mr Whitlam gave him permission to remain – almost immediately. And I leave the activities, to those that are here today from Canberra. They know better how he worked amongst people, and that was, as was his lifestyle. Mr Measham will be reading a eulogy from Di Johnstone, who will explain far better than I, the many years of time that Neville put into working for the benefit of people in all walks of life.
Richard Measham then read what two of Neville’s close friends, Marie Robb and Di Johnstone, wrote about Neville’s life. Marie Robb, of Eaglehawk Neck wrote: On 11 February 1990, the day he was released from Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela paid tribute to many individuals and organizations who had been strong opponents of apartheid. Mandela specifically said “I also salute the Black Sash and the National Union of South African Students. We note with pride that you have acted as the conscience of white South Africa. Even during the darkest days in the history of our struggle you held the flag of liberty high”. Neville and his sister Jeanette (or Jenny) both were very active in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Both became banned persons because of that involvement. Neville became President of NUSAS in the early 1970s; during his term in office he gave it the moral backbone to join the anti-apartheid struggle, applauded by Nelson Mandela.
Neville Curtis’s mother was a proud member of the Black Sash movement. Neville’s father Jack was a senior manager in the Anglo Vaal group of mining companies. He engaged actively in political life through the Progressive Party. Neville’s sister Jenny subsequently married another banned person, Marius Schoon, escaped with him to Botswana, then Angola, where the South African security services finally tracked them down, posted a parcel bomb which Jenny opened, destroying her and her young daughter.
Neville Curtis died peacefully at his home in Tasmania on 15 February 2007 after a long illness.
He was born on 16 October 1947 in Johannesburg to Jack and Joyce. Jack was Australian born, but had lived in South Africa for may years, working in the mining industry, serving in the South African Air Force during World War II. Neville was educated in the public system at Jeppe High School in Johannesburg. He went on to the Witwatersrand University to do an Arts degree, during which time he became active in student politics. In 1969 he was elected as Additional Deputy Vice President of NUSAS to fill a vacancy caused by the government’s expulsion of the incumbent Deputy, Andrew Murray, who is now a Senator for Western Australia in the Federal Parliament. Shortly afterwards Neville became NUSAS President for two years, during which time he, and his close friend Steve Biko, separated the student body into two, one black (the South African Students Organization – SASO), one white (NUSAS), so that they could fight the fight more strongly. Neville led from the front during his time in office. He was banned in February 1973 with seven other student leaders on the grounds that they were a threat to state security.
In September 1974 Neville was charged with breaking the banning orders, by communicating with another banned person and attending a social gathering. Neville knew that he would be imprisoned if found guilty. He believed he could fight better against apartheid outside of prison, so he fled South Africa. He boarded the Australia-bound Guglielmo Marconi, using an American friend’s passport. He declared himself on arrival in Fremantle, sought asylum, and remained on board ship until it reached Melbourne. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam intervened and ensured that Neville was given permanent residence, not political asylum.
Neville first came to Canberra where his uncle, Allen Curtis had a real estate business. He quickly was sought out by the National Union of Australian University Students NUAUS, later the Australian Union of Students, AUS). They immediately funded him to visit Australia and New Zealand universities to speak against apartheid, and then to many countries around the world. He spoke forty times within two weeks in New Zealand. Having helped strengthen the Whitlam government’s position in relation to apartheid, as the Australian Labor Party had significant internal differences on the subject, he was delighted to see that the subsequent Fraser government was even more strongly opposed to the evil of apartheid.
Neville worked post 1975 for some time with Senator Arva Gietzelt, formerly Minister in the government. Gietzelt gave him total freedom to engage actively in the continuing apartheid debate. From about 1977 he took a public service position in the Department of Science and Technology and was part of the formation of the Australian Human Rights Commission, until he resigned and moved permanently here to Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula for which he had developed a love while on his speaking tours.
Neville thought about a political career. He hoped he could become a Senator for Tasmania, but he soon discovered another better qualified candidate was looming, so he supported Bob Brown in his successful quest for a seat. During his last years in Tasmania, Neville undertook a range of social minded activities – and many of you here would be aware of them. Neville never married. He is survived by his brother David from Eden, New South Wales; a sister Joyce and her family in Cornwall, UK; and his uncle Allen from Canberra who actively supported him in several times of most need; and a small group of very close friends here in White Bay and Nubeena, Tasmania, whom he regarded as his family.
Di Johnstone wrote for the occasion: I knew Neville in the 1970s when he was an anti-apartheid activist. This was first by reputation, when I was based with the Australian Embassy in South Africa, and where I met his family after Neville had left South Africa in 1974 to seek asylum in Australia. Later I knew Neville in Canberra, where he was a high profile and highly effective anti-apartheid campaigner, speaker and media commentator. Speaking as he did with direct and terrible experience of the horrors of the regime in South Africa, he made a great impact on Australian community attitudes to apartheid. He countered South African propaganda with the truth.
He was a highly effective lobbyist for the anti-apartheid cause with governments and politicians. His quiet, logical but utterly determined approach and his mastery of the facts made a very great impact on those in government with whom he dealt at that time.
At the time too, and as you know, Neville lived in sad exile from his own family, with whom he could not communicate without seriously jeopardizing their safety. As such, he had a deep personal understanding of the plight of the many other young South Africans who fled the regime. Neville was very supportive of these young people and lobbied the Australian Government, and I recall, the New Zealand Government, to arrange educational and other opportunities for them in Australia and New Zealand.
We met frequently in Canberra at a time that I was working in government on Australian policy towards South Africa. I recall occasionally in the gardens opposite Old Parliament House, we talked about how, in our respective ways, we could work to change the policies of the Australian Government towards South Africa and support efforts to bring an end to apartheid and oppression in South Africa. I was one of those Australian officials lobbied hard by Neville to do what I could to assist the many exiles from apartheid then living in Australia and New Zealand.
Neville was a brave and highly principled man. As you know he suffered greatly, as did others in his family, for his strong principles, his active opposition to all forms of racism, in particular to apartheid, and to an oppressive regime. He suffered too for his support of others in those times, in particular leaders of the black students’ movement, including his friend Steve Biko. Neville put himself on the line for what he believed in. He put these principles before his personal safety and wellbeing. His was a commitment that risked not just his personal future but his life, as he well knew. In South Africa and while in exile in Australia he made a substantial contribution to the new and free South Africa. This has been acknowledged in South Africa through a prominent photograph on display in South Africa’s “Apartheid Museum” in Johannesburg, which honours the contribution of those who helped to bring an end to apartheid and oppression in that country. This photograph shows Neville, then President of NUSAS, standing proudly alongside his close friend Steve Biko, then President of SASO and later murdered by the security police. Neville’s contribution has also been well recorded in a book that his uncle, Allen Curtis, arranged to have published last year. But Neville will be remembered most in their hearts by those who knew him during these terrible times, for his great courage and selfless commitment to their cause.
It was an honour to have known Neville. It is very sad indeed that he died before his time. He contributed so much to the struggle for freedom in South Africa. When I last spoke to Neville, at the time of the launch of his father’s book last year [
South African Saga: a Political Odyssey, by Jack Curtis. Edited and published privately by TW Campbell, PO Box 5063, Braddon, ACT 2612. Canberra, 2006. Book launched at Manning Clark House, Canberra, November, 2006], he mentioned when questioned about it, and with his usual modesty and understatement that, despite his severe illness, he was continuing to contribute to the community of Port Arthur and to the continuing fight against all forms of racism in Australia. He was indeed a remarkable man.
The following tribute from Annie Corbett was then read: I had the special privilege Neville, of stumbling into you as a wild, rebellious and confused teenager of eighteen, back in ’78, in Canberra. You took me into your home and your heart, never failing to give support and friendship and advice concerning this world, which is with me every day. You were the most extra-ordinary human being I have ever met; a man who abhorred and openly derided the evils of racism, sexism and violence towards humans, animals and the very earth itself. You selflessly and endlessly supported others as they journeyed through their lives. Even though you were ripped off and disrespected by some, you did not judge but always extended your help and support regardless. You loved instead of hated, you forgave where many would not. You always put other people’s needs ahead of your own, quietly, consistently and expecting nothing in return. Within our many and varied discussions Neville, you once revealed to me that you did not believe in God, yet I have never met anyone who so epitomized and practiced the values and ethics of Jesus Christ himself. Repeatedly and with a natural humanity and love for your fellow human beings, you put us all to shame. I always loved and admired you deeply, Nev. While wracked with grief at your passing, I’m glad that you are finally free. I know I will see you again my friend. But I’ll know you’ll be there to greet me. Anne Corbet. P.S. Store up a good bottle of red and set up the Scrabble board – love you always.
There followed a moment of reflection. It was an opportunity for those present to mull, along with all that had been shared, over special memories of Neville and the times and the occasions when he touched their lives.
So we have remembered him today, and in remembering Neville, we have celebrated his life. He has run his race, he has fought his fight, and it is time now for him to be at rest. And as we say our good byes, Bob Marley is going to sing: “Get up, Stand up!” just like Neville has done.
Get up, stand up! Stand up for your rights.
Get up, stand up! Stand up for your rights.
Get up, stand up; don’t give up the fight.
Messages of condolence were received, among others, from: The Honorable Anthony Mongalo, South African Ambassador to Canberra. The Honourable Andrew Murray, Senator for Western Australia. Sherry McLean, from Maputo, Mozambique, working for Irish Aid. Fritz Schoon, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Neville’s nephew. John Curtis-Rouse, Cornwall, United Kingdom. Laurie and Terri Curtis from Ontario, Canada. Annette Hammond, Sarah Curtis, Alf Cutis and family. Ross & Anne Phillips and family, Melbourne. Steve Broekmann, Cape Town, South Africa Lynn Francis of White Beach, working in Perth, W. Australia. Max McMullen and Martina Ball, of Hobart, Tasmania. Tom Campbell, Canberra, ACT. James and Anna Crighton, Queanbeyan, ACT
In Canberra, Tom Campbell and Di Johnstone, contributed generously to obituaries, as did Marie Robb in Tasmania, Brian Rensford in Sydney and Steve Broekmann in Cape Town, South Africa. Thank you to these I know about, and also to those I don’t.