Deon Pretorius: A Rebel with a Cause – Transforming the World with a Vision for a Better Tomorrow

Today’s hero in our “Champions of Local Democracy” series can be introduced in plentiful ways: a South African Sociologist and Development Specialist, born into a conservative white Afrikaner family, a descendant of Pretoria’s founder, an egalitarian from a young age, an ardent anti-apartheid activist, a rebel, a student of the legendary Margaret Archer, the husband to Adri whom he met at age 15, and a co-founder of a branch of the Union of Democratic University Staff Associations. Allow us to introduce our ICLD mentor, Deon Pretorius.

Becoming an egalitarian against all odds

Deon was born in Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa founded by his ancestor Marthinus Wessel Pretorius. However, he emphasizes that this family connection to the Afrikaner pioneers holds very little significance to him. At the age of six, Deon’s parents divorced, an event he believes had a major impact on the rest of his life. The divorce not only caused instability and insecurity but also compelled him, the second of five children, to assume the role and responsibilities of an adult at a very young age.

It is also a part of the story that Deon grew up in a conservative Afrikaner family. Being a white conservative South African during that time meant embracing Afrikaner nationalism, which was rooted in white supremacy. And that didn’t suit Deon well:

– From a very early age in my life, I felt myself in opposition to that and as a consequence became alienated from my own family and my own community.

Finding it difficult to make friends due to the insecurity brought on by his parents’ divorce, Deon found companionship in an unlikely place: his grandparents’ house. To ease his single mother’s burden, he would regularly bring one of his younger sisters along and stay at his grandparents’ for a week or two. This is where Deon became friends with the black servants who worked at the household. The boy would often play soccer with them in the backyard and share meals around the fire during lunchtime, much to the disapproval of his Holland-born grandfather who was a prisoner of war under the British in South Africa during his earlier years.

– He hated everything that’s English, Jewish and Black, Deon Pretorius says. He was the classical authoritarian personality described by Theodor Adorno.

There were numerous instances when the grandfather would threaten those young black men, and during one of those times, six-year-old Deon would place himself in the middle, preventing the grandparent from hitting his friend.

– To say that he disliked me for the rest of his life until he died in 1976 is to put it mildly. That was only the start. I became known in my family as a traitor. A traitor of my own family and a traitor of my own culture.

The hero of our article reflects that his early experiences led him to become introspective and to analyse his relationship with his surroundings and his society. As a result, he developed an interest in Sociology and Psychology, which became his majors for his first degree. Deon notes that many Psychologists are drawn to the field as a means of understanding themselves, a motivation that resonates with his own journey.

– I wasn’t interested in studying until I discovered Psychology and Sociology. And then boom! The lights went on.

Deon’s fight for democracy

As we could gather earlier, Deon Pretorius’ journey towards democracy began in his childhood when he became aware of race relations, power, and politics at a very young age. In his early twenties, it became impossible for him to live in Pretoria with his conservative family, and so in 1984, he took up a job as a junior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Port Elizabeth and, together with his wife Adri, moved 12 hours away to Port Elizabeth (now known as Gqeberha).

Ph.D. Graduation Day at the University of Warwick with wife Adri 1994. Photo: Private

Quite soon Deon found himself in conlict with university leadership. This was due to his research on segregation, which demonstrated that the country was ready to move beyond Apartheid and which seemed not to sit well with the university management. The young researcher was quickly labeled as a problem person. Adding to his challenges, he recounts joining a group of young academics, politicians, and journalists to visit the ANC (African National Congress) in exile in Zambia in 1989. This was during a time when many people considered the ANC a group of terrorists.

– I was seen as a dangerous person. In fact, many people kept their eye on me. I had people coming into my office at night, going through my files and seeing who I communicate with. And I have got threatening phone calls and people telling me all kinds of horrible things.

With Margaret Archer

Despite the challenges he faced in the early years at the university, Deon’s hard work and dedication paid off and he was accepted to do his PhD at the University of Warwick in England, where he had the privilege of being supervised by Margaret Archer, one of the world’s most well-known social and systems analysts, who is still his mentor to this day. It was the end of the 1980s when the young professional engaged with the anti-apartheid movement in the UK on an individual level and then started becoming involved in the democratic movement in South Africa.

– I just felt and realized that that is where I am positioned ideologically, Deon says.

After returning from England, Deon Pretorius co-founded a branch of a higher education union called the Union of Democratic University Staff Association (UDUSA) as part of the democratic movement. As a shop steward in higher education for almost a decade, he became involved in the National Education Coordinating Committee (NECC), which was a proxy for the future Education Department of the ANC. The speaker spent six years on the Regional Working Committee, gaining valuable experience in grassroots politics of education in South Africa, particularly in township schools.

– That is what has molded me and shaped me and gives content to the way that I still look at the world today. And I still look at the world through the eyes of someone that wants to transform the world, make it a better place. And at heart, I’m still an activist.

In the late 1990s, Deon grew disillusioned with the Democratic Movement, feeling that the ANC was losing its heart and soul, and he took the decision to ”escape from South Africa” by accepting the invitation to work as a Visiting Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. While there, he also worked extensively with First Nation Reservations, which he describes as a very interesting and enriching experience.

Transitioning to development and local democracy work

After returning to South Africa, Deon Pretorius was disappointed with how things had unfolded since 1994, realising that the country had been moving in a wrong direction. Therefore, he made the decision to leave the university and establish his own research and development practice, moving towards his vision of a society that is based on sound principles and values. He has been actively involved in various development and research projects in his hometown of Gqeberha, focusing on socio-economic development initiatives such as poverty alleviation, local economic development strategies, and demographic updates. In the last six years, he has also been working as ICLD mentor for projects between Swedish and South African municipalities.

With Pallo Jordan exiled ANC leader in Lusaka, Zambia 1989
With Pallo Jordan exiled ANC leader in Lusaka, Zambia 1989. Photo: Private archive.

– I think with all the things that I’ve been involved in working with ICLD, it quite remarkably is still one of the highlights of my career. I have become a big fan of the Nordic model, which I believe to be the most advanced way of organising society that we have yet seen in the world.

The mentor believes that countries like South Africa can learn a lot from the Nordic countries, but it is not a one-way process. It should be a mutual learning process where both sides can benefit and learn from each other.

Empowering local democracy through mentorship

On being asked about his best success story as an ICLD mentor, Deon confidently replies that it is in the Sundays River Valley local municipality. Despite facing internal conflict and tension, the work that he has been involved in for over four years has led to the creation of the Sundays River Valley Collaborative, which is based on an idea of multi-sectoral collaboration.

– Slowly but surely we are seeing how not only the local government in the Sundays River Valley are becoming more developmentally orientated, but more importantly, the people of local civil society structures, community structures that have been trained. They are now becoming people that are playing their role in local development.

As the interview draws to a close, our interviewee circles back to the question of his vision for South Africa. He emphasizes the importance of overcoming structural inequality and creating a society based on inclusive wellbeing and quality of life. Ultimately, the goal is to provide every individual with access to opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential and live a decent quality of life:

– And if we can have societal systems and institutions that can facilitate that, then we will be achieving our goals, says ICLD mentor Deon Pretorius.

ICLD Champions of Local Democracy

Gender or status does not matter, the important thing is that the person we are looking for has democratic values to live and inspire others. They may have gotten through difficult situations – but never backed down from the front lines of democracy, and they all have a personal story to tell. They have also been or are part of our operations. We present them in our series “Champions of Local Democracy”. Get inspired!