C.J. (Jonty) Driver (1939-2023): Moments and memories

Portrait by Ellen Elmendorp.

Jonty Driver – student leader, political prisoner, educator, poet and writer – died on 21 May 2023 in a hospital in Bristol, England. While studying at UCT, he was president of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1963 and 1964. In August and September 1964, he was detained without trial and held in solitary confinement. Following his release, he left for England and continued his studies at Oxford University. The South African government refused to renew his passport, and after being stateless for a number of years, he became a British citizen.

During and after his studies at Oxford he taught at several schools in England, including Sevenoaks School and Mathew Humberstone Comprehensive school. He then became principal of Island School in Hong Kong, Headmaster of Berkhamsted School, and Master of Wellington College. He was also a noted poet and writer, and held honorary teaching posts in literature and creative writing, as well as fellowships associated with writing programmes.

Jonty and Maeder Osler, owner of Hanglip Farm and founder of Toverview, were close friends, and were sharing accommodation in Cape Town when Jonty was detained. Maeder stood in for him as NUSAS president during his detention, and succeeded him in this position after his departure. They were able to renew their friendship in the 1990s, when Jonty was allowed to return to South Africa, and Jonty, his wife Ann, and their children became regular visitors at Hanglip Farm.


By Maeder Osler

Jonty in the 1960s.

What strikes me most about Jonty’s death – like those of other friends and acquaintances in recent years — is how lives lived in so many different times and so many different places can be compressed and imagined into a single instance of grief and celebration, shared among family, friends and colleagues, both locally and abroad.

While I, and many others, seek to come to terms with the death of a friend, it’s a far greater challenge for Jonty’s wife, Ann, their children, Dominic, Dax and Tam, their spouses, and eight grandchildren.

In an email, Dominic thanks Les and I for ‘the kind words about our Dad, your old friend … At the funeral, besides the church where Dad will be buried, we’d like to invite donations to the Hantam Community Education Trust … Is that OK with you?’

He adds: ‘We are trying to arrange live-streaming of the funeral service, it’ll be on 19th June at 11:00 UK time, further details to follow. You may be glad to know that the wake will be in the White Dog Inn, a pub next to the church that had become their “local”. The owner, Hattie, grew up in the house next door to my parents in East Sussex. She asked if we wanted a bar tab, or whether guests should pay for their own drinks. Dax said if we didn’t have a bar tab, that’s the one thing that’d probably make Dad come back from the grave … ‘

Les replies: ‘We are so touched that the HCET will be a co-recipient of donations at your dad’s funeral. He was a constant and generous supporter of the Trust, and always had such good things to say to anyone who would listen. He said when he was overwhelmed by all the negative things happening in South Africa, the work of the HCET restored his hope once again. We will pencil in the date and hope to be part of the service, even from so far away.

‘We will miss Jonty’s regular emails and conversations, which eventually replaced his visits. He was a special man and a dear friend. We are so grateful that he brought all of you and your families to visit us on Hanglip Farm. We have so many special memories of all the times we spent together. … And you are so right about the bar tab …’


Picture by Douglas Reid Skinner.

In the meantime, the obituaries proliferate, not always to good effect. The one I like best is that of fellow poet, translator and publisher Douglas Reid Skinner, mainly about Jonty as a word artist. It underscores that, in the final instance, it is Jonty’s poetry and other writings that stand for his life, as it (or any other artistic endeavour) should for us all – for everyone to discover, read, listen to, translate and share. I once tried to explore this idea with Jonty when feeling him out on prospects for an independent association of rural writers, based in Colesberg (which has since begun to come to pass). I could sense that he was hesitant, wondering whether this vision could work. There was a practical edge to his love for poetry and other forms of writing, as well as his career, as is evident in the tributes from the educational institutions he served in various capacities in many parts of the world. (If you google his name, something like 480 000 internet entries will pop up in 0.37 seconds – and that’s disregarding AI, which I suspect he must have abhorred). Some of these obits are inaccurate and some seem opinionated, manipulative and arrogant … but be that as it may …


My own stories about Jonty are legion, involving many places at many times, as they should for all close friends. If I ever get around to telling more of them, they would include our meeting with Nobel Peace winner Dr Albert Luthuli, learning of deep homesickness in exile from the late Sam Nolutshungu (who nearly became vice-chancellor of Wits University before dying suddenly, still in the United States, in August 1997); dancing and more at the epic Catacombs Night Club in Cape Town; many events on Hanglip Farm; road trips, music, songs and poems in old churches; assassination threats; some encounters with (other) wild game; some fine family gatherings, plus many shared experiences in NUSAS, including working together in its prison education scheme, and participating in the defence of Nelson Mandela and others at the Rivonia Trial.

My favourite story, for now, involves Jonty and the late Archishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at an event at Westminster Abbey on 3 March 2014. It resonates with another event at Umso Senior Secondary School in Colesberg, many years earlier. And both events revolve around Nelson Mandela as well as William Shakespeare. But let me start at the beginning …


One day in the early 2000s, Jonty and I were labouring up a steep track to the top of Suzanne’s Kop, a stony koppie with San engravings on Hanglip Farm from which, as a young boy, the late John Bell senior had watched Boer War horsemen converge on the neighbouring Vergelegen farm, where they shot several young Australian troopers enlisted to fight for the British Empire. (The koppie always reminds me of the statement attributed to a //Xam Breakwater prisoner in the 1800s: ‘My Heart Stands in the Hill’.)

This was still during Jonty’s marathon running days, so he was breezing up the hill, while I needed to stop every now and then to catch my breath. Acting on impulse, I asked him to address learners at Umso Senior Secondary School in Colesberg, where I was then the principal, in what would be the inaugural talk of a visiting speakers’ initiative. He readily accepted, and said he would speak about leadership, largely with Mandela as example.

Jonty was due to leave in a few days, so I had to communicate urgently with Lindiwe Maliti, a member of the HOD team at Umso. This required a degree of rural agility in a context of bad phone lines and no cell phones, and then some logistical acrobatics from Lindiwe in the form of moving chairs and benches and rearranging classes so that a special assembly could be accommodated.

At the time, Mandela had retired in some triumph after serving a single term as president of the supposed ’new South Africa’ – which I found hugely ironic, seeing that, not too long before, at a stage-managed provincial and local farmers’ union meeting, ostensibly about farm labour, I was singled out as a farmer in league with ‘the devil’. But I digress …

There is a local myth, which the local creative writer Phakamisa Mayaba is trying to track down, that at some point in the distant 1960s ‘our father’ had been allowed to spend an evening with a family in a local township while being transported by police or prison guards through the Karoo.

Albie Sachs has told Les a similar story: that, while passing through Colesberg in captivity in midwinter, the commander of the local prison insisted on housing him and his co-accused in a prison cell, where could be fed and sleep in greater comfort that in the back of the police van. The commander has died, but Albie recently made contact with his daughter to confey his thanks for that act of compassion.

At much the same time as Jonty’s Umso address, I was invited to a Freedom Day event at the Colesberg prison where I proudly told prisoners about the prison education project NUSAS had implemented, which –  together with many other meaningful domestic initiatives over time — has been airbrushed out of ‘struggle history’. What a quaint word, ‘airbrush’, for the vicious manipulations of these self-appointed gatekeepers …)


Come the day, more than a thousand mainly isiXhosa-speaking learners assembled in Umso’s grassless quad, under a blue Karoo sky. Addressing them from a stairway, Jonty spoke passionately about Mandela, his unique leadership qualities, and how these also involved following the wishes of his people and their struggle for human rights. He gave other examples of compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. and expressed the hope that South Africa’s’s new constitution would succeed in delivering those rights to people and communities on the ground, to the extent that this would be reasonably possible. (But that’s another big and ongoing story as well. … )

The translator and facilitator was a charismatic young teacher, Sizwe Dyasi, then a popular figure at the school and among the town’s young people in general. At the time, Jonty remarked: ‘That young man deserves a good future.” Whether or not this has come to pass is of course yet another story.


The Arch in action in Westminster Abbey. Picture: BBC.

Fast forward to March 2014 and a memorial service held in the historic Westminster Abbey in London for Mandela, who had died in December the year before. Guests included leading British clerics, politicians and celebrities. The Queen was represented by Prince Harry, then still a working royal, before meeting his match in Meghan Markle. Highlights included tributes by Kgalema Motlanthe, then South African deputy president, the anti-apartheid activist Peter Hain, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The event was enlivened by the Soweto Gospel Choir. (For the BBC report on the event, click here.)

Jonty also spoke – he was asked to read the following passage from the play ‘Julius Caesar’, taken from a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works which had circulated among prisoners on Robben Island, and which Mandela had signed on 16 December 1977:

Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. …

[For more details, click here]


The programme for the memorial service usually stands in the entrance hall at Hanglip Farm, next to the collected works of C.J. Langenhoven, collected editions of Punch and other colonial magazines, farming manuals, family bibles of a branch of the Van Zyl family, and stern family portraits. In the Anglo-Boer War, Hanglip Farm had served as headquarters for General Koos De La Rey, and later for British soldiers under Lord Kitchener.

(Don’t even ask me about the ironies around the photograph of General Smuts and a restored painting of Queen Victoria above bookshelves built from scrap wood by our friend the extraordinary Johann Schaeffer who has, among many other things, walked across much of the country, mostly without socks.

What a mixmatch. The more so because the pictures in and around the hallway include examples of old stone engravings and stone age technology on Hanglip Farm by the earliest peoples on this land. The imagination boggles, if you so will.


But back to Westminster Abbey. Jonty — tall, spare, and probably a bit nervous about appearing before this august audience — enters in the duly prescribed way. So does Archbishop Desmond Tutu — short, bubbling, excited by the opportunity to address the gathering from this ancient pulpit. In this hallowed, vaulted space, the Arch sees Jonty, says loudly: ‘Hey, Jonty – High Five!’, and proceeds to give him one with a loud slap from an upraised palm. (Jonty also talked about another interesting, though much less affectionate, greeting by one of the Pahad brothers … once again, perhaps, a tale to be told at another time … )

Jonty recovers his gravitas after being high-fived.

I love that story, related to me by Jonty himself, because I can picture it and hear it. Among others, I like it because greetings are part and parcel of South African rural life, and important signifiers of respect and affirmation. Our greetings are enough to heal any exile’s broken heart.

In my teaching days, Mr Williams, then principal of Colesberg Primary school, invariably greeted me with: ‘Not too dusty, thank you Maeder. And how are you?’ I wished he had been my primary school principal for his sense of humour alone. He was also feted for engineering breaks in the sun in mid-winter at sombre education department meetings, so he could enjoy a puff or two at one of his endless cigarettes. He is still on the go, I am told, in Adelaide in the eastern Cape. I miss him sorely.

Today, many years after my retirement from Umso, I am still greeted as ‘My Prince’, ‘My Teacher’, ‘Sir’, ‘Meneer Prince’ , ‘Meneer Teacher’, even sometimes ‘Meneer Prince My Teacher Sir’, when I appear or reappear in the village. (Many who do so ever hopeful that their school education could somehow be transformed into sustainable employment … )

These days, former learners, other community members and I usually meet while I am trying to reorganise my life and deal with generations of farm files at Hanglip Farm – the farm that Jonty kept coming back to once he was ‘permitted’ to re-enter the country, usually with his gracious wife Ann, as well as their two sons and daughter, their spouses, and eventually their grandchildren, all aimed at giving them a greater understanding of what his exile had been about. The farm where the Westminster Abbey programme stands among pictures of ancient stone engravings and a host of historical photographs.

Some former Umso and Colesberg High school graduates and I come together at a restaurant in town to chat about old and new times, but also about our current independent media projects – my Toverview site, Phakamisa Mayaba’s Eparkeni site, Janco Piek’s Colesberg Information site, and Mbulelo Kafi’s travel and tour Facebook page. Other prominent Umso graduates include the current premier of Northern Province, Zamani Saul. So the vision Jonty was skeptical about has begun to come together.


Events in Westminster Abbey and those in faraway Colesberg also share a common thread in the form of William Shakespeare. When, at one stage, I taught matric learners at Umso Senior Secondary – the biggest school in this mission station become settlement become village become town become SA microcosm alongside the N1 highway — I worked my way through that same play by Shakespeare on the life and death of Julius Caesar, including the extract signed by Mandela and read by Jonty. Learners chuckled as they remarked: ‘These lines, Sir … about daggers in men’s smiles … we know all about that here in our township and town …’

I learnt to respect these sorts of observations, even when a senior educator at the school demanded that we drop ‘colonial’ writers such as Shakespeare because they had ‘nothing to offer us’. Ironically, she was in the staffroom when Jonty addressed the entire school on the topic of leadership, identifying and commending the special qualities of Nelson Mandela, who had led a unique and massive project of national reconciliation after being incarcerated for almost three decades.


The Soweto Gospel Choir, swinging in the Abbey. Picture: BBC.

So this is about how one story becomes many more, only to converge and blend back into one – Westminster Abbey, weaving in and out of Umso Senior Secondary school, the vaults of a gothic cathedral alternating with an equally impressive roof as skies, or skies as roof. A small Archbishop enthusiastically and loudly ‘high-fiving’ a friend appears alongside the same man at a younger age, talking about leadership qualities to learners assembled in Umso’s open quad, with magnificent singing and swaying by Umso learners and the Soweto Gospel Choir … merging in a single lived moment and a memory


Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap