President of NUSAS, political activist, political detainee, banned person and exiled person.
Lives of Courage
Neville Wilson Curtis was born on 16 October 1947, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). His father, John (Jack) Curtis left Australia in 1930, at the height of the depression when he could not find employment. He lived in South Africa for many years, working in the mining industry and served in the South African Air Force during World War II. Jack Curtis eventually became a senior manager in the Anglo Vaal group of mining companies. He engaged actively in political life in the Progressive Party. His mother, Joyce, was a member of the Black Sash.
Neville Curtis attended Jeppe High School in Johannesburg. He went on to enrol at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg to study for an Arts degree, during which time he became active in student politics. Curtis and his sister Jeanette (Jenny) Curtis [Schoon] were very active in National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and as a result both were banned because of their anti Apartheid work.
In 1969, he was elected as Additional Deputy Vice President of the NUSAS to fill a vacancy caused by the government’s expulsion of the incumbent Deputy, Andrew Murray, who moved to Australia and became a Democratic Party Senator for Western Australia in the Federal Parliament.
In 1968 Curtis and Horst Kleinschmidt who became the Vice President of Nusas in 1969 led a march from Witwatersrand University to John Vorster Square to demand the release of people detained without trial. They were both arrested under the Riotous Assemblies Act. After becoming Nusas President in 1969 Curtis moved to Cape Town. He was central to the emergence of radical white student opposition to apartheid. During this period the NUSAS separated into two with the formation of the South African Students Organization (SASO), a black student organisation headed by his close friend Steve Biko, while Nusas remained a predominantly white student organisation.
When Curtis applied for a passport to travel, he was denied a passport in 1972.Curtis was banned in February 1973 with seven other student leaders on the grounds that they were a threat to state security. In September 1974, he was charged with breaking his banning orders, by communicating with another banned person and attending a social gathering. He 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. Thus, in September 1974, he boarded an Australian-bound ship, the 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. The Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, intervened and ensured that Neville was given permanent residence, not political asylum.
Curtis first came to Canberra where his uncle, Allen Curtis had a real estate business. The National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS), later the Australian Union of Students (AUS), quickly, sought him. 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. He helped strengthen the Whitlam government’s position in relation to apartheid, as the Australian Labour Party had significant internal differences on the subject. Largely due to his efforts, the subsequent Fraser government was even more strongly opposed to apartheid.
In 1973, Neville formed the first national anti-Apartheid network in Australia, the Campaign against Racial Exploitation (CARE), and toured Australia and New Zealand urging action against apartheid. 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. 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. He countered South African propaganda by exposing the realities of apartheid on the ground.
Curtis 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 to Tasmania.
While he was living in Canberra, he regularly protested outside the South African embassy and was involved in the Jobless Action group. During his last years in Tasmania, Neville undertook a range of social-minded activities.
Curtis lived in exile from his own family, in South Africa, 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. He was supportive of these young people and lobbied the Australian Government, and the New Zealand Government, to arrange educational and other opportunities for them in Australia and New Zealand.
He was a brave and highly principled man and 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.
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."
Curtis also had spinal problems, which in part dated back to injuries received when the security police dragged him down the steps during a demo at the University of Cape Town. Despite his severe illness, he continued to contribute to the fight against all forms of racism in Australia. Neville never married. Neville Wilson Curtis died at his home in White Bay, Tasmania on 15 February 2007 after a long illness.
He is survived by his brother David from Eden, New South Wales, a sister Joyce and her family in Cornwall, United Kingdom and his uncle Allen from Canberra.
• Forward, J., (2007), Neville Curtis, 1947-2007 from the GreenLeft, 24 February, [online], Available at www.greenleft.org.au [Accessed on 29 May 2013]
• Gosling,M., (2007), Former anti-apartheid activist, Curtis dies from Independent Online, [online], 16 February, Available at www.iol.co.za [Accessed on 29 May 2013