John Daniel: Activist, exile and a truly inspiring academic

RIP: Professor John Daniel. (Supplied)

RIP: Professor John Daniel. (Supplied)

John Daniel (1944-2014)

Professor John Daniel was an internationally respected researcher and academic who first made his mark as a young student activist, but he continued to be an inspiring mentor throughout his life.

Born in Pietermaritzburg, he earned his BA in political science from the University of Natal in 1964 while serving two terms as the president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas).

It was Daniel’s invitation to United States politician Robert F Kennedy to visit South Africa in 1966 that forced him into exile in 1968. “Not only was I impressed with Kennedy’s speech in Jameson Hall [at the University of Cape Town],” recalled academic and labour consultant Dr Duncan Innes, who succeeded Daniel as Nusas president, “but I was even more impressed with John’s fighting speech that he gave after Kennedy had spoken. To this day, I remember the powerful impact it had on me and, truly, it changed my life.”

Daniel won fellowships to study in the US, earning a master’s degree in international and African studies from Western Michigan University and a PhD in political science from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1975.
He then returned to Africa and taught at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, where his students included eventual South African Cabinet ministers such as Lindiwe Sisulu and Nathi Mthethwa.

While chairing the Swaziland scholarship committee for South African refugees and working with the Geneva-based World University Service, Daniel continued his activist work in support of the banned ANC.

He did so “without fanfare or submitting to intrigue”, in the words of Horst Kleinschmidt, a fellow Nusas activist. Daniel was deported from Swaziland when the Swazi government banned the ANC in 1985, then spent a year as a research fellow at the University of Amsterdam, and five years as Africa editor at Zed Books in London.

Daniel returned to South Africa in 1991 as a senior lecturer in international relations at Rhodes University, and in 1993 was appointed chair of political science at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW). From 1997 to 2000 he was a senior researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with a focus on documenting human rights violations committed by the apartheid state.

In 2001 Daniel moved to the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). He worked both as research director on governance and democracy and established HSRC Press, co-founding and co-editing the first four volumes of the bestselling State of the Nation series with Professor Roger Southall.

“I perceived John, from student days onwards, as someone whose profound political commitments were undeterred by risk,” commented former HSRC head Dr Mark Orkin. “He chose increasingly to express those commitments through scholarship of impeccable integrity, not only his own but in generously collaborative ventures, and through all this was unfailing patient, courteous, and wryly humorous, and always ready for a beer and irreverent political gossip.”

Daniel retired from the HSRC in 2006 and joined the School of International Training (SIT) in Durban, taking over as academic director until 2011.

“John was the consummate example of what we all strive for, but few ever attain,” noted Daniel’s successor as SIT director, Imraan Buccus – also a former student of his at UDW. “He had an unwavering commitment to justice and to ensure that all people question alleged authority.”

Daniel’s greatest legacy remains his interaction with his students, from exiled South Africans in Swaziland in the 1970s to international scholars at SIT in Durban, until his death from cancer in July 2014.

“John loved his country for its imperfections and that love translated into living for something bigger than himself,” recalled Filipino student Enzo Pinga, who studied at SIT under Daniel in 2010. “The few months spent under his guidance shaped the person that I am today.”

Daniel is survived by his wife Cathy and his three children. – Julie Frederikse

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