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Looking back, it is easy to see that Conor considerably misjudged the situation. He had been to UCT often before and given lectures in much the same setting that would have applied in an English or Irish university of the time, with a polite, well-educated audience, well aware of who he was and what he had done and interested in what he had to say. What he stepped into in 1986 was a Third World pre-revolutionary ferment in which he was wholly unprotected by any sense of his eminence or prestige or, indeed, by any conception of academic freedom. Not only did township youths know nothing of this but they often enrolled township schoolchildren into their cause — who knew even less. In the situation of 1986 this generation, sensing the demise of apartheid, were full of anger and excitement, caring only for “the line” the liberation movement preached.

In that sense it is difficult to see that any other outcome was possible. Yet, 30 years later, the verdict of 1986 has been wholly reversed. The ANC government, when pressed on its attitude to the denial of human rights in Zimbabwe, Iran or North Korea loudly says that it has never believed in sanctions or boycotts. It is as if the academic boycott had never existed (except, of course, in the case of Israel.) Most of the promises of liberation are now mere ashes in the mouth. The commission which denounced Conor is now remembered with shame and embarrassment. Conor’s own reputation was undamaged; indeed, he is remembered for the courage and determination with which he stood up for what he believed in an impossible environment.

The story has an unmistakeable resonance today in the era of “no-platforming” and so-called “safe spaces”. One can imagine without difficulty what Conor would have to say about that. But the story also has something to tell us about the politics of free speech. It is tempting sometimes to believe that free speech was one of the very earliest civil rights achieved en route to democracy and thus requires little defending today. On the contrary: it is a right which has to be fought for and regained time after time.

Second, it is sometimes tempting to believe that there may be crisis situations (or even, on some contemporary campuses, quite routine situations) in which it might be politic and prudent to limit or even suspend free speech. In fact, of course, it is precisely in such situations that we need free speech more than ever. As Conor’s example shows, the path of those brave enough to insist on exercising free speech may be not at all easy. But with the passage of time, it is that courage which is admired and commemorated, while with those who, under whatever banner, sought to curb and prevent free speech, the very best we can do is to try to find excuses for them.
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