Colin Gardner, academic, politician, activist dies

2013-10-11 00:00

PROFESSOR Colin Gardner (79) — Pietermaritzburg academic, politician and human rights activist — died yesterday in the Midlands Medical Hospital.

According to his wife Mary, he fell about 10 days ago and broke his hip. He had been in hospital since as doctors could not operate because of the weakened condition of his heart.

Gardner’s life intersected with just about every aspect of Pietermaritzburg society and he was at the forefront of many of the changes in the city — either agitating for that change or ushering it in.

A Rhodes scholar, Gardner lectured in the English Department at the local university for 38 years — more than 20 of those years as head of the department, following in his father’s footsteps.

Born in London, he came to South Africa with his parents after World War 2. He was a pupil at Maritzburg College and Mary recalls that he horrified the school because he was a soccer player. He soon learnt rugby, but soccer remained his first love and he played for both Maritzburg City and the South African Universities team.

Gardner was a member of the Liberal Party in Pietermaritzburg and a member of Beyers Naude’s Christian Institute (CI). Although he downplayed his contribution to the struggle, always pointing out those who had sufffered, Gardner is remembered with deep gratitude by the families of political prisoners and detainees for his role in their lives, as leader of the local Detainees’ Support Committee.

Over the years he worked towards pushing for a more progressive agenda. He was part of the first non-racial University Joint Academic Staff Association — and caused a stir among his more conservative academic colleagues when the organisation affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF).

He joined the ANC and was a city councillor and Speaker in the first democratically elected local council in the city.

Despite ill health in recent years, he continued his involvement in civic affairs. He only resigned as chairperson of the Community Chest earlier this year, but remained involved with the organisation.

He served on several boards, including those of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (Pacsa), King’s School and Edendale Hospital.

The Gardners, long-time members of St Mary’s Catholic Church, had been married for 55 years. Mary recalled that they had met at a St Patrick’s Day dance in the St Mary’s Hall. They had five children and five grandchildren.

South Africa’s Minister of Communications, Pietermaritzburg resident Yunis Carrim, phoned from Burkina Faso last night to pay tribute to Gardner. “I first met Colin in 1971 at a National Youth Action (NYA) event. I was still at school and I shared a platform with him and Saths Cooper. He was a wonderful man, kind, loving with a deep commitment to fairness, justice and democracy,” Carrim said.

Funeral arrangements are still to be announced.

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