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At this point Conor, lacking local knowledge, made two critical mistakes. First, he pointed out that he could hardly be accused of racism. His record was clear enough and, after all, he had come to Cape Town accompanied by his own black son. This seemed only to madden the demonstrators, who claimed that Patrick was a mere token black. In any case, it was in their eyes a mere diversion from their central ideological cause. The real question was: how could Conor dare to ignore a boycott policy which had the backing of the liberation movement itself (then conceived as an almost god-like entity)? Conor replied that he had never believed in the academic boycott which was “a Mickey Mouse affair”. This was seen as tantamount to mockery of the anti-apartheid cause and enraged the students further. It was clear the lecture could not continue and Conor was hurriedly smuggled out through a side door to avoid matters getting further out of hand.

The demonstrators, now thoroughly aroused, marched on the political science department, demanding to see “Conor” — they never really grasped his whole name. However, the news of what had happened at Conor’s first lecture had thoroughly alarmed members of the department. (Dr Welsh was so alarmed that he retreated to his house where he hired two armed guards — for by this time the protesters were threatening arson. He vanished for several days.) Other members of the department also decided that the absence of body was preferable to the presence of mind.

It is worth mentioning at this point that what these Department members knew all too well was that the great bulk of black students were very poorly educated, had only the most parochial conception of events and had only heard of Conor a week or two before. In addition, they came from township backgrounds where violence was always a ready and immediate response. Anyone who taught such youngsters was soon aware that they were a somewhat explosive quantity, especially since they were inflamed by millennarian expectations and (an altogether reasonable) sense of grievance.

So when the protestors reached the department they found only Professor Hermann Giliomee, a liberal Afrikaner recently hired from Stellenbosch University, taking a cup of tea in the departmental tea-room. Addressing Giliomee as “the Comrade Professor”, the protesters’ leader, one Comrade Ziko, demanded to know where “Conor” was and which was his study. Giliomee, unperturbed, said Dr O’Brien was not there and nor would he tell them which was Dr O’Brien’s study for he did not feel confident that they would not molest it. On this he would not budge and eventually the protesters dispersed. They seem to have been a little flummoxed to meet a calm and benign Afrikaner rather than the heretical Irishman they had sought.
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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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