St John's College

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Dave Matthews at Gaudy Day in 2016

With David Matthews's death on 26 April 2024, Southern Africa has lost a great pioneer in post-apartheid education.

David was born on 12 February 1936 and entered St John’s Preparatory in 1944, where he was affectionately known as ‘Doggie’ to his friends. David had an exceptional career in the College where he achieved mathematics distinctions year upon year and was an allrounder on the sports fields. He played rugby for the First XV, often scoring penalties and converting tries. He also played cricket for the Second XI and excelled in athletics, coming first in the high jump, hurdles, and discus throw.

David served as a House Prefect in Nash House and was the chairman of the Scientific Society. He also excelled in Cadets, attaining the rank of Sergeant and winning competitions as the smartest NCO.

An early intimation of David’s social conscience was when he successfully won, by a large majority, a debate motion that the integration of Africans was essential for the future welfare of South Africa. David was in his last term when Deane Yates, another giant in the world of education, arrived as headmaster at St John’s College. A bond between schoolboy and headmaster was immediate: Deane went home for lunch one day and told his wife Dot, after meeting David, “Today I had a rather wonderful experience”, and said that the boy had shown “real sensitivity towards a new Headmaster”. In her memoir, Dot noted that David was a boy who would play a great role in her and Deane’s life. She mentioned that David had ‘great insight and understanding of people’.

After attending university, where he was an inter-varsity rower, David returned to St John’s in 1958 to teach Mathematics. He had gone to Dublin, Ireland, to gain an extra qualification, where he met his wife, Estella. David served as assistant Housemaster in Nash and then Housemaster of Hill House from 1964 to 1968. In 1969, David asked for leave to return to Ireland as Estella’s mother was dying, and returned to the staff at St John’s in 1971. Deane Yates then told David about his plans to leave St John’s College to start a school in Botswana.

The news of this great man's passing has elicited many memories and tributes from past students on the social media sites of MaP and Tiger Kloof School—the messages all speak of overwhelming affection, admiration, and thankfulness for his inspiring life.

David was interested in this new venture and asked Deane if he could accompany him on his next visit. David was excited when he saw the Botswanan veld and asked if he could join Deane on this new venture. It was brave of the Matthews couple to move to Botswana as they had young children, and there were no nearby medical facilities, let alone paediatricians. And so, Maru-a-Pula School (MaP) gained its founding Deputy Headmaster.

David Slater, the archivist at Maru-a-Pula School, eloquently described the early years at MaP: David and Deane were the only full-time teachers when the school opened with 25 students. “those were tough days, and the staff had to do everything: cook meals, do the laundry, wash up the dishes, keep the school clean, run the school – and teach”. (During this time, the Matthews couple had their fourth child.)

When Estella became ill, the Matthews family was forced to return to Johannesburg. In 1978, David rejoined the staff at St John’s, teaching Mathematics and becoming the Director of Sixth Form. He was also the MiC of Rugby. Sadly, David suffered a great loss when his wife subsequently succumbed to cancer, leaving him to care for his four small children.

In 1981, David returned to Botswana as Headmaster of MaP when Deane Yates retired. With great energy and commitment, David enlarged the school, taking it from 270 to 470 students during his tenure. Many anecdotes and tributes remain on social media and other writings, recording David’s congeniality, kindness, and compassion, both to staff and students. David Matthews retired after ten years as Headmaster at Maru-a-Pula School.

The next phase of David’s life tells a truly remarkable story. Often, when returning from holiday at Knysna, David had noticed forlorn ruins of buildings that used to be a school, founded in 1904 by the London Missionary Society. The school was called Tiger Kloof, situated some miles south of Vryburg. The school had fallen victim to the Bantu Education Act in 1953. The fact that this school had produced two presidents of Botswana, as well as most of the Botswana cabinet, was ignored by the then government and the school fell into disuse when a further blow forced it to close as the area surrounding it was proclaimed to be for Whites only in terms of the Group Areas Act.

David Matthews had a vision to resurrect this school and started campaigning for funds. He also had the vision to start several other initiatives. In his words, recorded in The Johannian Magazine, he “started a brickmaking project, organised a building skills training course and opened a literacy programme which started in conjunction with the restoration of the buildings in January 1994”.

David was a great champion of learning while doing. He inspired many old students, notably Dr Ruth Mompati, to rally around, and the school re-opened its doors in 1995. The church was rededicated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose mother had also been a student there.

David met and married Hilary Ashton, whom he had met during his fundraising efforts – she had been the chairperson of the Nedbank Chairman’s Fund. Tiger Kloof School is now a premier school in South Africa, catering mainly for the disadvantaged community surrounding it. During his tenure at Tiger Kloof, David played a major role in the Round Square Schools Association, as well as the International Conference of Heads of Schools. After retiring from Tiger Kloof School in 2001, David was awarded a visitorship to Deerfield, Massachusetts, where he and Hilary spent a remarkable year.

In 2016, David Matthews received the Golden Eagle Award from St John’s College for his innovative thinking and significant contribution to education in Southern Africa.

The news of this great man's passing has elicited many memories and tributes from past students on the social media sites of MaP and Tiger Kloof School—the messages all speak of overwhelming affection, admiration, and thankfulness for his inspiring life.

David leaves his wife, Hilary, his daughter Margaret, and his sons, Edward and Robert.

The St John’s College community extends our sincere condolences to the Matthews family for this great loss. — Jenni Millward, retired St John’s College Archivist

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Mr Mathews at the opening of Maitisong in 1987
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At Maru a Pula 1990