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By this stage the protesters were threatening to burn down university buildings unless the O’Brien lectures were cancelled. Conor, for his part, refused to be intimidated and persisted in his attempt to give his course of lectures. On each occasion he was interrupted and harassed but, being Conor, he took some pleasure in stating very plainly the essential principles of free speech which they were violating. This was regarded as further provocation. In the then fashionable vocabulary of the United Democratic Front, students demanded to know if Conor had “consulted his community” before deciding to disregard the academic boycott — shorthand for consulting “progressives” such as Kader Asmal. Conor’s reply — that he had hardly required the consent of such folk when he had served in the Congo or in Ghana or on previous visits to South Africa — was regarded as “arrogant”, though to be fair by this stage nothing that Conor might have said would have placated his opponents.

Towards the end of the second week of term, with Conor still attempting to plough on with his lectures, the university’s Vice Chancellor, Stuart Saunders, called a meeting of the Academic Staff Association and asked whether Conor’s lecture course should be cancelled. It was an anguishing choice: on the one hand the university was proud of its liberal traditions and of the way it had upheld free speech under apartheid; on the other hand, all present were extremely concerned by the threat of arson and also realised that any person voting “in favour of O’Brien” would quickly become known to the protesters who would doubtless target them. For by this stage the threat of student violence was exercising an intimidatory pressure on faculty members at large. In the end it was decided to cancel the lectures — an obvious slap in the face to Conor. Those who felt shamefaced about this consoled themselves with the thought that it had effectively become impossible for Conor to continue his lectures anyway.

The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg had also invited Conor to give some lectures there. These were now hurriedly cancelled too. True to its liberal tradition, the South African Institute of Race Relations quickly stepped in and invited Conor in its place. This event took place without disturbance. Conor then returned to Cape Town to pack up amidst the wreckage of his visit. Like many faculty members, he had been shocked by this complete victory of mob rule. It was well-known that the United Democratic Front activists among the students had imported many non-students onto the campus to reinforce their numbers (a common UDF and later ANC tactic) and their victory had been won by physical force and the threat of violence, not by voting or using any of the established procedures or institutions.

Wryly considering this scene Conor expressed to Hermann Giliomee the concern that South African universities might soon find themselves under the thumb of Red Guards, as had happened in China. Conor never visited South Africa again.
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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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