Tributes to Jon White

Jon White

On the Thursday afternoon, 14th March, Jon White, long time resident of Pietermaritzburg, lawyer and activist passed away peacefully after a year long battle with cancer.  As a father of three and a grand-father, Jon invested a great deal of love and care in family.

There was another remarkable side to Jon that I must honour – one that was perhaps not so visible to many, as it was just something that Jon got on with and did.

Jon made a truly remarkable contribution to nation-building, to changing the world and making it a better place – and this legacy lives on, and people must know of this.

Jon took his personal commitment to human decency and human rights and translated that into meaningful action.  Yes, Jon was always up for a good protest or picket against injustice, whether with the Black Sash and Lawyers for Human Rights in the dark days – or with his friends in the environmental justice community.

More than that though: Jon was a tireless and constant builder and nurturer of organisations - volunteering his time, insights and wisdom working for the greater public good. In addition to his humorous punny gift, Jon was able to grasp complex and complicated situations and come up with simple and elegant solutions.

Jon was integral to the establishment of three civil society organisations important to the environmental and social justice fabric of South Africa.

These organisations variously have gone on to realising remarkable achievements: stopping the import of toxic wastes, challenging the spraying of hormone herbicides (which Jon also fought as a lawyer) successfully pushing for an environmental right in the new Constitution; ensuring that the concept of “environmental justice” was enshrined in our law, through the environment white paper. More recently Earthlife Africa scored a huge court victory in scuppering Jacob Zuma’s nuclear deal.

Alongside a small group of us, Jon was a founder member of Earthlife Africa in 1988. He made a huge contribution, sowing the seeds for the emergence of the Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF) in 1992, and then groundWork in 1999.

In 1992, we were trying to convince international donors to contribute funds to launch a network that would amplify the growing environmental justice voice in the opportunity that was the new South Africa. How could these wary donors be sure that their funds would not be miss-spent? Jon came up with a solution – he took responsibility for the funds through his legal fidelity fund.  Jon signed all the cheques and would see to it that proper book-keeping and an audit would take place each year (pro bono).

When EJNF had run its course and Bobby Peek, Gill Addison and Linda Ambler set up groundWork in 1999, Jon again took to looking after their funds and writing their cheques.
Jon became the founding Chairperson of groundWork’s board, and served continuously on that Board until his passing.

I do not exaggerate when I say that Jon’s tireless voluntary pro-bono investment in building a better society – for making the world a better place – has made a huge difference and leaves a legacy that sustains and continues to bear fruit.

We will miss you Jon – there is much to treasure and remember.

Chris Albertyn
Founding member of Earthlife Africa and first Director of EJNF


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The night subs’ desk on the Witness in the early 1970s was an irreverent place. Jon White was one of those who set the tone. He was part of a cohort of people who went to work there shortly after graduating from the Maritzburg campus of the University of Natal (as it then was). We were not, for the most part, aspirant journalists. The Witness just seemed like the best option while we decided what to do next.

Jon is the second of that group to die. Chris Gilbert got a cancer on the brain and died aged 54 in 2004.

Jon was on the sports desk. This was not a place from which to take life seriously. What was wanted was a good pun to fit the headline. Preferably with a double entendre. But if a good pun was not available, a bad pun would always do. A cricketer’s wedding invariably had him bowling a maiden over. 

He also did duty on the news pages. Vorster was then prime minister. We thought he was a buffoon, the primus inter pares in a cabinet of fools. But they were frightening fools in command of men with guns and the state security apparatus – the spies and endless brutality.

For several of us, what to do next was leave the Witness, leave Pietermaritzburg, leave the country. Jon stayed on. He moved from sport to politics and from subs to reporting from parliament for the Witness. A whole house puffed up with self-importance.

By the time I returned to South Africa, he’d also left the Witness but stayed in Maritzburg, did law and, as a lawyer, did a fair bit of pro bono justice work. He was then one of the first members of the Maritzburg branch of Earthlife Africa. That commitment to environmental justice stayed with him. In 1999, he became the first hard working chair of the groundWork Board.

David Hallowes, groundWork Researcher