In memoriam: Jonty Driver 1939-2023

RW Johnson writes on the life of one of the greatest of the great Nusas presidents

Jonty Driver, 1939-2023

The death of Jonty Driver rings a loud bell for those who remember the peak apartheid years. As President of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) Driver was the single most radical anti-apartheid figure in the country, for Nusas had long since accepted the UN Declaration of Human Rights which, inter alia, specified universal suffrage. Under Driver Nusas openly declared its support for “the liberation struggle”.

Driver was repeatedly attacked by furious Nationalist cabinet ministers – for Nusas was the country’s most powerful anti-apartheid organisation. All the English-speaking university student bodies belonged to it including some representation from black students and even a small branch at Stellenbosch. And it was well organised – it ran student travel, health and book discount schemes, the Sached scheme to provide university training for black students outside the “tribal colleges” and much else besides. It was also well connected internationally and even hosted Bobby Kennedy on his famous visit to South Africa.

Both Jonty’s father and grandfather were Anglican ministers – his father was the chaplain of St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, which Jonty attended before going on to UCT. A striking figure – 1.93 metres tall and strongly built – Jonty looked like a natural lock forward but in fact his passion was English literature, especially poetry. He wrote verse all his life, publishing several volumes of poetry as well as a novel and two biographies. He was a fine speaker and an inspiring leader.

Jonty became Nusas President (in 1963) at a difficult time. He had already grown suspicious of his predecessor, the charismatic Adrian Leftwich. Nusas had always espoused non-violence but Adrian then attempted to recruit Jonty into the African Resistance Movement, a sabotage organisation in competition with MK.

To his horror Jonty discovered that Adrian had recruited many other white liberals and, worse still, had made it his business to learn who had joined ARM in other parts of the country. When Leftwich was detained he immediately cracked and gave the police all these names and then testified against them in court, sending many of them down for long prison terms. In addition, another ARM member, John Harris, was hanged for placing the Johannesburg station bomb.

Inevitably the police assumed Nusas was behind ARM. They frequently raided Nusas offices and Jonty himself was detained for a while. At the same time Jonty had to keep black students on board at a time when some were being recruited into MK while others, like Steve Biko, were talking of pulling away. But Jonty got on well with black student leaders and they trusted him.

He was much anguished when Biko later broke away to form the SA Students Organisation (Saso) and felt sure this wouldn’t have happened had he still been President. It might not have. In truth, Saso never amounted to much and Biko himself continued to spend a lot of his time in Nusas circles where he had felt most comfortable.

Once Jonty got out of jail he left South Africa to attend Oxford university. But the police had taken away his passport and he was stateless for a number of years. As far as I could see – I had known Jonty in Nusas and then again in Oxford – he was always set on schoolteaching and never considered an academic career.

Again, his family background was probably decisive in this. He set off on a distinguished career, first as a teacher but quite rapidly as a headmaster at a variety of schools, including five years as head of the Island School in Hong Kong but climaxing as Master of Wellington College, one of the most famous British independent schools.

1994 saw Jonty back in South Africa like a shot. His Nusas years had been more exciting, frightening and above all, more intense than any other part of his life. I often imagined that if Jonty went to heaven and St Peter said “Weren’t you Master of Wellington ?”, Jonty would reply, “More than that, I was Nusas President”. For those years and experiences never left him.

Like most white liberals he was desperately keen to see the new ANC government succeed, slow to understand that they were failing and then simply disgusted by the corruption and incompetence which were ruining the country he still loved. Even so, he kept returning, nowhere more happily than the Karoo farm of his great friend (and Nusas comrade), Maeder Osler and Maeder’s indomitable wife, Lesley.

But by then Jonty also had British citizenship and an English life in Sussex with his wife, Ann. And crucially his three children and eight grandchildren were there too. Even so, it was only when he became seriously ill that he gave up hopes of returning to South Africa at least one more time.

I saw him on many of his visits here. A theme which always came up was always “Why on earth did the Nusas leadership commit suicide and hand the organisation over to Sasco?” For, of course, Sasco was not a patch on Nusas. It had none of its activities nor its organisational flair, let alone its selfless principles. And the point about Nusas was that it had organised and trained the young intellectual elite, schooled them against apartheid and taught them to stand up bravely against a powerful government it didn’t respect. It was always building a new, post-apartheid South Africa, long before 1994 hove into view.

The more Jonty was distressed by what had happened to ANC-ruled South Africa, the more he felt the need for just that sort of agency of renewal – in a word, another Nusas: an organisation which could steel students to stand up against corruption and the new forms of racism and to fulfil the promise of the long struggle for democracy and non-racialism. That struggle ran through Jonty’s life like a silver thread. He was a deeply honourable man and he was brave, his bravery usually exercised for others, not himself. We shall not quickly see his like again.

R.W. Johnson