John (Jack) Curtis was born on 31 August 1912 in Geelong, Australia, the third of nine children. He left school at 14 to start work and help provide for the family. His father lost his job at the onset of the Great Depression. With the family in financial difficulty, Curtis left Australia in 1930 for South Africa to work as a tea packer in an uncle's business, sending money home to help his family in their need. He was just 18.

In Cape Town, he became a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, working in the roughest dock areas. In 1934, Curtis left Cape Town and went north to the Transvaal (now Gauteng) where he worked as a miner. Here he married his first wife Agnes and their sons, Michael and David were born.

During this time, he volunteered for the South African Air Force, qualified as a night bomber pilot and served abroad on active service in North Africa and Italy. In 1945, whilst he was on board a troopship, returning to South Africa, he learnt that his wife had died. After the Second World War, Curtis became once again a gold and copper miner, working hard to make up for his lack of formal education. Over the years, he gained professional management, mining and engineering qualifications. Two years later, he married Joyce, his second wife, and their three children Neville, Jeanette and Joyce were born over the next four years.

He became politically active and joined the Labour Party and the Springbok Legion. In 1959, he joined the newly formed Progressive Party and in 1960 stood for election to the Johannesburg City Council. In 1966, he stood as a candidate for Parliament in a rural and mining constituency that was opposed to black people having the vote. He lost his deposit.

Curtis was known as a very fierce opponent to tyranny, Apartheid and his championing of the oppressed. He worked alongside and supported people such as Trevor Huddleston, Chief Albert Luthuli, Helen Suzman, Beyers Naude, Cyril Ramaphosa, Steve Biko and Donald Woods. When the government banished Chief Luthuli to a remote part of Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) because he would not cooperate with the apartheid policy, Curtis sought him out to talk to him and hear his views. He was profoundly influenced by Chief Luthuli.

In 1972, Curtis lost his eldest son Michael - also an engineer - and Michael's wife, Averil. Both drowned whilst testing a sailing boat on an isolated reservoir in Argentina where they were living and working.

He retired from the mines and became a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand where he addressed student rallies and involved himself in opposition to the government. He lectured on mining engineering. His specialty was deep-mine rock bursts, which he often said unnecessarily killed far too many black miners at calculated attrition rates.

The following year he joined the staff of the Christian Institute, an organisation funded by donations from anti apartheid supporters both in and out of South Africa. The organisation  became increasingly involved in assisting with the victims of apartheid. As a member of their staff, he also became the target of government agents who sought to intimidate those who were prepared to make a stand against the evils of apartheid.

In 1972, his son, Neville, the President of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), an anti-apartheid activist was arrested and then banned before he fled South Africa for Australia where he continued his opposition to apartheid.

In 1975, his daughter Jeanette was arrested and detained without charge. She was released from solitary confinement after ten weeks. Jeanette left South Africa to continue her fight against apartheid in Botswana, Zambia and Angola.

His second wife died shortly after South Africa’s. first democratic elections. At the age of 81, he married Grace Renowden (nee Holland), (80), and settled in Sydney.

After Grace's death in 1999, he went to live in Cornwall UK with his daughter, Joyce, and her family. He attended the local Anglican Church and made good friends there. Curtis continued to speak out even in his old age against the injustice he saw about him in world affairs.

John (Jack) Curtis died on 24 February 2002 in Cornwall, England.


Rensford B., (2007). Obituary - John (Jack) Curtis, from Holroyd New Life Church, [online], Available at [Accessed 29 May 2013]   

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