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This, then, was the world that Conor was to step into when he arrived in Cape Town in 1986. His only preparation for what lay ahead derived from his disagreements within the AAM over the academic boycott of South Africa which the ANC had called for. Conor’s disagreement with the moral absolutism of the AAM over the academic boycott and related questions had brought him into conflict with Kader Asmal, a South African émigré lawyer based at Trinity College, Dublin, who was the founder and head of the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement. Asmal was a somewhat self-important man who took it as almost a personal affront that Conor felt free to disregard the AAM “line” whenever he disagreed with it. Conor, with typical self-confidence, felt that his anti-racist credentials were well known, that his record in the Congo and Ghana was internationally respected and that he was therefore immune to the charges of reactionary and racist attitudes which the angry Asmal flung at him. Similarly, when Asmal claimed he had helped find IRA volunteers to help the ANC, Conor denounced any links with the IRA. But, of course, although these disagreements were often fierce they were essentially academic and contained within the usual law-abiding limits of public debate.

Word of Conor’s invitation to the University of Cape Town quickly reached the ears of Asmal, who was, of course, incensed that Conor was going to practise what he preached and would thus disregard the academic boycott. Telephone messages flowed in rapid succession to the ANC high command and the AAM in London and to the Student Representative Council at UCT where, according to contemporary witnesses, the UDF activists were instructed to “make it hot for O’Brien” and to “kill him”. The result was that news of Conor’s impending visit spread across the campus, as did a wave of student protests demanding cancellation of his visit. Conor was aware of this effervescence but decided that it was a matter of principle for him to go ahead and insist on free speech. Conor’s adopted son, Patrick, himself of African descent, decided to accompany his father.

Conor was greeted in Cape Town by a lunch party in his honour given by the university’s Vice Chancellor, Dr Stuart Saunders, in the fine setting of the UCT medical school. But by this time student protest against Conor’s visit had become fairly noisy so when Conor got down to business with his first public lecture before an audience of some 200 in the main lecture hall in the Leslie Building (the Social Science block) the doors were locked shut once the hall was full — a most unusual precaution, for such lectures were open affairs. No sooner had Conor begun speaking than an angry crowd of around 200 mainly black demonstrators began hammering on the doors, eventually breaking them down, and invaded the room, disrupting the lecture. Conor was unable to proceed and instead faced a series of angry comments and questions about his defiance of the boycott.
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Garreth Byrne
December 17th, 2017
10:12 PM
Kadar Asmal was indeed an intelligent professor of law at Trinity College Dublin who had begun his legal studies in London before moving to Dublin, which he made his home. His wife Louise was white and in Ireland they raised two children, Irish citizens like themselves. The Asmals as a mixed-race couple could not return to their native South Africa, one contributory factor among others for their resentment at Conor Cruise O'Brien (a vice chancellor of Trinity College) deciding to break the British academic boycott of apartheid South Africa. Asmal was a powerful platform orator, and while distinguished Irish public figures like the left-leaning Dominican priest Fr. Austin Flannery served as President of the Irish AAM, Asmal and his wife never let ideological control of the movement out of their own hands. Asmal helped set up the ICCL (civil liberties association) and carefully juggled the contending ideological rivalries of ordinary members who favoured the Workers Party (Sinn Fein before the 1970 split that gave rise to the Provisionals) and the miniscule but influential Communist Party of Ireland and the Irish Labour Party of which O'Brien had been a leading member from 1973-1977. Asmal for all his years in Ireland kept in discreet contact with civil rights activists in Northern Ireland, and with CPI members in both parts of Ireland. Asmal did not favour O'Brien's so-called Two Nations line on Northern Ireland, so this may also have flavoured his opposition to O'Brien's independent liberal approach to the South Africa problem. Conor Cruise O'Brien was much influenced by the gradualist approach to political change of Edmund Burke (d. 1797) and didn't favour revolutionary violence to remove oppression. Cruise O'Brien openly described himself in 1972 as a Liberal Conservative. The general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O'Riordian (a veteran of the International Brigade who fought against fascism in Spain) acidly described O'Brien as "a self-described liberal conservative who had infiltrated the labour movement". Conor Cruise O'Brien knew from historical experience that today's liberators can become tomorrow's oppressors. He had a run-in with Robert Mugabe before the 1980 Lancaster House agreement that gave Rhodesia/Zimbabwe its African majority rule. O'Brien in retrospect foresaw Mugabe's despotic rule. He had witnessed Nkhrumah's messianic despoticism while teaching in Ghana. O'Brien was a globetrotting intellectual of great range and literary ability. Asmal was a shrewd political networker with a subtle legal mind and passionate desire to help dismantle apartheid. He did trojan work as Minister for Water Affairs in South Africa which benefited the shanty towns. Nevertheless Cruise O'Brien's assertion on Irish television that Asmal was 'devious' will probably be remembered by liberal scholars who write about him.

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