Former anti-apartheid activist, Curtis dies

By Melanie Gosling Time of article published Feb 16, 2007

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Neville Curtis, former student leader and anti-apartheid activist who fled South Africa in the 1970s, died in Tasmania yesterday of respiratory problems. He was 60.

His half-brother, David, said from Australia that Neville had also had spinal problems, "which in part date back to injuries (received) when he was dragged down the steps by the security police during a demo at UCT".

Neville Curtis was president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) in 1969 and is credited with transforming Nusas into a political organisation.

He was the brother of Jeanette Schoon who, with her six-year-old daughter, Katryn, died when a parcel bomb, sent by apartheid spy Craig Williamson, exploded.

Horst Kleinschmidt, who was vice-president of Nusas in 1969, said: "Neville and I led a march in 1968 from Wits to John Vorster Square to demand the release of people detained without trial. We were arrested under the Riotous Assemblies Act.

"Later, (Neville) was silenced … through a banning order. It is a great sadness that we lost someone who would have loved to work in the new South Africa".

Curtis, born in Johannesburg, obtained a BA at Wits University, where he was president of the Students Representative Council. After becoming Nusas president in 1969 he moved to Cape Town.

Sheila Barsel, former general secretary of Nusas, said: "Neville was a major influence in Nusas. He transformed it from a student union into a political organisation, and he took people to the streets. He launched many campaigns, like 'Too many laws, too little justice'. We were all banned together, eight of us, from 1973 to 1978."

Neville Rubin, who is writing a history of Nusas, said Curtis had helped to create many political structures in Nusas and to develop the organisational base of black trade unions. "He introduced important political changes that underpinned change in South Africa."

Curtis and his sister lived in Cape Town in the early 1970s and were harassed by the security police.

Curtis was denied a passport in 1972, but escaped the country on a ship using the passport of an American draft dodger. He settled in Canberra, where he worked for the Labour government.

"There was a cartoon in the Cape Times afterwards," said David Curtis. "It showed a dejected Jimmy Kruger, then-minister of police, standing on the dock, watching the wake of a disappearing ship. Next to him was a person holding a bunch of flowers, and the caption read, 'A young man asked me to give these to you'."

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