You are here:   Features > Conor Cruise O'Brien and an African tragedy

As an authoritarian Afrikaner nationalism gave way to an equally authoritarian African nationalism and the years slipped by, the Conor Cruise O’Brien affair remained a key point of reference for South African liberals who saw it as beginning of a slide away from civil rights under ANC governance. Chaskalson was appointed the first head of the country’s Constitutional Court, while Ismael Mohamed was made head of the Supreme Court of Appeal. Kader Asmal returned in triumph from Ireland to become a minister in the ANC government. Dr Welsh continued his distinguished career at UCT through to retirement but expressed complete alienation from the institution in the wake of the O’Brien affair. His magisterial work, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, signals his honorary attachment to Stellenbosch University and makes no mention of UCT.

A generation later in 2015-2016 the Rhodes Must Fall movement began at UCT when a student threw a bucket of faeces over Rhodes’s statue in an event carefully planned with the ANC-supporting Cape Times, who helpfully had a photographer on hand at that exact moment. Gradually the Rhodes Must Fall movement morphed into a demand for free university education and for the “decolonisation” of higher education.

Rhodes Must Fall was a wholly unelected movement (which often included township activists brought onto the campus to swell its ranks) and it used violent means to gain its ends. Hundreds of paintings belonging to the university were hauled out and burnt, the Vice-Chancellor’s office was burnt down and on other campuses copycat action followed in which all manner of student residences, libraries and lecture halls were torched. Other students and faculty were intimidated, rapes occurred, syllabi were changed under threat and all manner of university norms violated. Faculty morale plummeted, with many academics seeking to leave UCT or take early retirement. UCT fell sharply in the international university rankings and applications from foreign graduate students fell too, as did alumni donations.

The Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, again followed a strategy of accommodation, exculpating the Rhodes Must Fall activists, even those found guilty of violence, agreeing to “decolonise” the university and to do it in conjunction with the activists. The university agreed to set up its own version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to inquire into the guilt of the university and its faculty under apartheid. In effect the authorities’ decision to take the path of all-out concession meant that faculty felt completely unprotected from the intimidation that was now rife. But every new concession was denounced as insufficient by the activists who had demanded it, causing the authorities to make yet further concessions. The era of the Red Guards had indeed arrived. It was not clear what would be left of South African higher education at the end of this tumult. Older faculty members looked back to the O’Brien affair, sighed, and wondered if it might have been different.
View Full Article
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.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.