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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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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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