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The affair had cast the University of Cape Town in a bad light internationally and was also bitterly controversial on the campus itself where Dr Welsh expressed outrage at the way his distinguished guest had been treated. Accordingly, Dr Saunders — in consultation with the Student Representative Council — decided to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the affair. This was to consist of three men: Professor D.J. Du Plessis, a former Vice Chancellor of Wits, and two prominent lawyers, Ismael Mohamed and Arthur Chaskalson. Both men were known to have strong ANC sympathies (indeed, Chaskalson had only been dissuaded from joining the Communist Party by the party’s chairman, Jack Simons, who felt Chaskalson was more useful to the party as a nominal independent). Undoubtedly the choice of these two men pre-determined the commission’s findings, for it was inconceivable that they would reach a finding not acceptable to the ANC. But choosing such men was inevitable once Saunders decided that the selection of the commissioners had to be made in conjunction with the Student Representative Council, for the UDF activists there were bound to insist on such a choice. They were, after all, in continuous communication with the UDF leadership and the underground ANC.

The commission’s report was a foregone conclusion: it emerged that the student demonstrators had to be exculpated for their use of violence because Conor was a “controversial” figure who had behaved “provocatively”. Indeed, Dr Welsh was criticised for having invited him in the first place. (The report mis-spelt Conor’s name throughout.) Even among those who had supported the cancellation of Conor’s lectures there was embarrassment at this finding. In effect the commission had decided that although the principle of freedom of speech (and every other notion of academic freedom) had been grossly violated, it turned out that the person to blame was . . . Conor himself.

A meeting of the UCT Senate was then called to consider the report. A record turnout crammed into the Baxter Hall but it was, for all concerned, a very sad occasion. Even those who felt the report had to be approved were extremely unhappy at the precedent thus set and realised that their approval of the report would further tarnish the reputation of the university. Against that, Saunders was popular and to vote against the report would now be to disavow him. Worse, the threat of arson and of violence against those who defied the academic boycott was still very much in the air and the assembled professors knew they would be closely questioned by angry students if they voted in an “incorrect” fashion and that reprisals against such “incorrect” voters were likely. In the end the report was overwhelmingly approved, though only against the passionate opposition of Dr Welsh and his supporters.
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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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