John Jacques William Aitchison was born to Harold Aitchison and Phyllis Jacques, in Durban, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) on 2 June 1944. He was brought up by his grandparents as his mother passed away a few days after he was born.
Aitchison grew up in Durban where he attended the Durban Prepartory High School for his primary education and Durban High School for Secondary education. He then went to Pietermaritzburg to study at the University of Natal and remained in Pietermaritzburg until relocating to Durban in 2011.
Aitchison joined the Liberal Party of South Africa in 1963 in his second year of studies at the University of Natal, where he was studying theology. He played an active role in the Liberal Party as well as being active in exposing the forced removal of black people from freehold land they owned in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).
After the banning of the National Chairperson, (Peter Brown who worked full-time at the Pietermaritzburg headquarters of the Liberal Party in Pietermaritzburg until he was banned in 1964) Aitchison played a central role as the Secretary of the Party in Natal. Atchison worked with organisers such as Christopher Shabalala and Mike Ndlovu, to keep the Party active in rural areas of Natal despite severe government repression. He was banned in May 1965 and briefly after his release in 1970, banned again for another five years from 1971 to 1976. He also served a period of imprisonment for breaking his banning orders.
After 1976, he worked in a number of distance education and adult education programmes including the SACHED Trust and Theological Education by Extension College. He lectured in Theology and Biblical Studies at the Federal Theological Seminary and the University of Natal. He is an ordained deacon in the Church of the Province of Southern Africa and he worked as an Education Officer for the Diocese of Natal from 1979 to 1981.
He also worked as a sound recordist with an independent documentary film production company, called Ikon Films. He was involved in two documentaries - one on the Anglican Church in Zululand (which celebrated its centenary in 1970) and one on agricultural development work that focused on the Valley Trust, a rural development organisation in Natal.
In April 1981, he joined the University of Natal’s Centre for Adult Education, of which he became Director in 1992. Among the projects Aitchison was involved in at the Centre were training courses for adult educators at certificate and post-graduate diploma levels and initiation of academic support programmes for disadvantaged students. He was also invovled in research projects regarding farm schools, school dropouts, non-formal education and adult basic education.
He initiated a newspaper supplement called Learn with Echo that was itself in a weekday supplement called Witness Echo the Pietermaritzburg newspaper the Natal Witness (now Witness). It has continued without interruption since 1990. It is four pages of material in both Zulu and English and, though aimed at adults with low levels of formal education, the publication is frequently used in schools. This newspaper supplement has a circulation of 55,000 copies in the Natal Midlands.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Aitchison and the Centre were noted for their analysis of the political violence in the Natal Midlands and for exposing its dynamics. He has played a significant role in adult education in South Africa, particularly in developing adult education and adult basic education policy at both national and provincial levels. He became head of the University's School of Education, Training and Development (incorporating the Centre) from 1999 to 2002. Aitchison retired from the University in 2007 though he remains active as Emeritus Professor of Adult Education.
A long time resident of Pietermaritzburg, he is known for his strong commitment to education and non-governmental organisation development in the kwaZulu-Natal Midlands. He was active in a number of human rights and rural development non-governmental organisations such as the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) of which he was Director for a time after he retired from the University. He was a founder member of AFRA and has been on its board since it was founded. In 2009, Aitchison served as its Director for about a year. His involvement in the resistance to forced removals in the province in 1960s and the documentation he had collected, over the years, was a useful resource for the organisation in its early years.
Aitchison has a large number of publications, from the period 1988 to 1994, on the conflict (civil war/state dirty tricks) in the Natal midlands to his credit. The Centre for Adult Education provided an enormous amount of accurate information and analysis of the conflict and helped demystify the apartheid state's propaganda on "black on black" violence.
John Jacques William Aitchison was one of the main movers that led to the Joint Staff Association of the University of Natal to be the only university in South Africa to formally align itself with the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Email correspondence from John Aitchison dated 30-11-2012 & 6-12-2012 to SAHO