Conor Cruise O’Brien and an African tragedy

When the greatest living Irishman came to lecture in Cape Town, he had to defend free speech against the anti-apartheid boycott

R. W. Johnson

Conor Cruise O’Brien, pictured when he was Editor-in-Chief  of “The Observer”, 1978-1981 (© Evening Standard/Getty Images)

It might be best to begin by saying how I came to be interested in the 1986 visit to South Africa of Conor Cruise O’Brien, the great Irish statesman, diplomat, writer and public intellectual. I was born on Merseyside but my father was later transferred to Durban by his employers, so I finished my schooling there and then attended the University of Natal, where I was heavily involved in anti-apartheid activities. A Rhodes Scholarship took me to Oxford just before the Security Police came to detain me. I was to stay in Oxford for many years as student and teacher, well aware that it would be unsafe to return to South Africa. I finally did so in 1978 and thereafter returned frequently to teach and to write about the evolving situation for The Times and Sunday Times. Ultimately I left Oxford in 1995 to return to South Africa where I ran the Helen Suzman Foundation. I have ended up living in Cape Town. Throughout these many years I have heard countless friends and colleagues discuss “the Conor Cruise O’Brien affair”, which was quite a landmark in South Africa, particularly for liberals. This always intrigued me, for I had got to know Conor a little through his son, Donal. The account which follows depends heavily on the oral testimonies of eye-witnesses.

Conor visited South Africa on a number of occasions and was considerably interested in its politics which he, among many others, compared with both Israel and Northern Ireland. During several of these visits he gave lectures at the University of Cape Town (UCT) — generally regarded as the country’s premier university — and these were sufficiently well received for him to be invited by Dr David Welsh to return as a Visiting Professor to the university’s political science department in 1986.

This was, however, the era of the academic boycott of South Africa called by the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). The boycott was continuously controversial with those (like Conor) who felt there should never be any impediment to the free movement of people and ideas. Over time the AAM, which was always controlled by the African National Congress (ANC) and often by the South African Communist Party, had succeeded in getting apartheid branded by the UN General Assembly as a “crime against humanity”, a fact which served to heighten the AAM’s sense of self-righteousness. In turn, of course, the political atmosphere both within South Africa and outside was charged by the increasing tide of revolutionary protest led by the United Democratic Front (UDF), which acted as a surrogate for the banned ANC. On the English-speaking university campuses, student feeling had become increasingly shrill, a development much strengthened by the decision to open these universities to students of all races.

One of the key pillars of the apartheid regime had been the Separate Universities Act of 1959, which forbade racial integration at tertiary education level. This was a tremendous blow to the liberal English-speaking universities — Witswatersrand (Wits), Natal, Rhodes and UCT, which all fought and protested strongly against the new Act. Thereafter black students were consigned to (inferior) “tribal colleges” within the so-called “black homelands”. Inevitably, political dissent spread from the black campuses into black schools, finally resulting in the explosion of the Soweto riots of 1976 which then spread right round the country. This in turn created a climate of continuous unrest in the nation’s black schools. The exiled ANC naturally seized on this new opportunity and extensive political mobilisation took place within these schools under the (educationally disastrous) slogan of “Liberation now, education later”. In practice this meant continuous school boycotts, stay-aways and protests and the enrolment of many schoolchildren as full-time political activists. The result was a steep decline in the standard of these “Bantu Education” schools, leading to a so-called “lost generation” of schoolchildren whose school lives were punctuated by continual and often violent clashes with authority.

Thus when the apartheid system began to crack in the mid-1980s and the English-speaking universities were again allowed to admit first a trickle and then a flood of black students, the situation quickly became very difficult. (I was teaching at the University of Natal in my Oxford vacations in those years and experienced the resultant problems at first hand.) Inevitably, the black students now pouring into these universities were hugely disadvantaged — many not even all that literate. The universities hurriedly devised remedial courses for them but this often only deepened the resentment such students felt at finding themselves at such a disadvantage compared to their white, Indian and Coloured peers. They were also in a high state of political turmoil and were continuously ready for protest action of one sort or another. Some were engaged in guerrilla activities for the ANC and carried weapons.

More and more this made these campuses a cauldron which it took considerable political agility to negotiate. I write advisedly for I was a regular visitor to these universities in those years, something I managed unscathed only because I had grown up in South Africa, was thus returning home and anyway knew the ropes. Even so, I was often greatly taken aback as, for example, when I was interrogated by student leaders in Durban as to my attitude to freedom of speech. When I said I favoured it they furiously denounced me: the official “line” was now that that would mean giving Chief Buthelezi an equal right to that of the United Democratic Front leaders to speak on campus. Similarly, I could hardly be unaware that one of my faculty colleagues clanked when he walked because of a large amount of concealed weaponry and that he was meeting at night with black students to plan armed raids (“in self-defence”) against their Inkatha enemies.

This, then, was the world that Conor was to step into when he arrived in Cape Town in 1986. His only preparation for what lay ahead derived from his disagreements within the AAM over the academic boycott of South Africa which the ANC had called for. Conor’s disagreement with the moral absolutism of the AAM over the academic boycott and related questions had brought him into conflict with Kader Asmal, a South African émigré lawyer based at Trinity College, Dublin, who was the founder and head of the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement. Asmal was a somewhat self-important man who took it as almost a personal affront that Conor felt free to disregard the AAM “line” whenever he disagreed with it. Conor, with typical self-confidence, felt that his anti-racist credentials were well known, that his record in the Congo and Ghana was internationally respected and that he was therefore immune to the charges of reactionary and racist attitudes which the angry Asmal flung at him. Similarly, when Asmal claimed he had helped find IRA volunteers to help the ANC, Conor denounced any links with the IRA. But, of course, although these disagreements were often fierce they were essentially academic and contained within the usual law-abiding limits of public debate.

Word of Conor’s invitation to the University of Cape Town quickly reached the ears of Asmal, who was, of course, incensed that Conor was going to practise what he preached and would thus disregard the academic boycott. Telephone messages flowed in rapid succession to the ANC high command and the AAM in London and to the Student Representative Council at UCT where, according to contemporary witnesses, the UDF activists were instructed to “make it hot for O’Brien” and to “kill him”. The result was that news of Conor’s impending visit spread across the campus, as did a wave of student protests demanding cancellation of his visit. Conor was aware of this effervescence but decided that it was a matter of principle for him to go ahead and insist on free speech. Conor’s adopted son, Patrick, himself of African descent, decided to accompany his father.

Conor was greeted in Cape Town by a lunch party in his honour given by the university’s Vice Chancellor, Dr Stuart Saunders, in the fine setting of the UCT medical school. But by this time student protest against Conor’s visit had become fairly noisy so when Conor got down to business with his first public lecture before an audience of some 200 in the main lecture hall in the Leslie Building (the Social Science block) the doors were locked shut once the hall was full — a most unusual precaution, for such lectures were open affairs. No sooner had Conor begun speaking than an angry crowd of around 200 mainly black demonstrators began hammering on the doors, eventually breaking them down, and invaded the room, disrupting the lecture. Conor was unable to proceed and instead faced a series of angry comments and questions about his defiance of the boycott.

At this point Conor, lacking local knowledge, made two critical mistakes. First, he pointed out that he could hardly be accused of racism. His record was clear enough and, after all, he had come to Cape Town accompanied by his own black son. This seemed only to madden the demonstrators, who claimed that Patrick was a mere token black. In any case, it was in their eyes a mere diversion from their central ideological cause. The real question was: how could Conor dare to ignore a boycott policy which had the backing of the liberation movement itself (then conceived as an almost god-like entity)? Conor replied that he had never believed in the academic boycott which was “a Mickey Mouse affair”. This was seen as tantamount to mockery of the anti-apartheid cause and enraged the students further. It was clear the lecture could not continue and Conor was hurriedly smuggled out through a side door to avoid matters getting further out of hand.

The demonstrators, now thoroughly aroused, marched on the political science department, demanding to see “Conor” — they never really grasped his whole name. However, the news of what had happened at Conor’s first lecture had thoroughly alarmed members of the department. (Dr Welsh was so alarmed that he retreated to his house where he hired two armed guards — for by this time the protesters were threatening arson. He vanished for several days.) Other members of the department also decided that the absence of body was preferable to the presence of mind.

It is worth mentioning at this point that what these Department members knew all too well was that the great bulk of black students were very poorly educated, had only the most parochial conception of events and had only heard of Conor a week or two before. In addition, they came from township backgrounds where violence was always a ready and immediate response. Anyone who taught such youngsters was soon aware that they were a somewhat explosive quantity, especially since they were inflamed by millennarian expectations and (an altogether reasonable) sense of grievance.

So when the protestors reached the department they found only Professor Hermann Giliomee, a liberal Afrikaner recently hired from Stellenbosch University, taking a cup of tea in the departmental tea-room. Addressing Giliomee as “the Comrade Professor”, the protesters’ leader, one Comrade Ziko, demanded to know where “Conor” was and which was his study. Giliomee, unperturbed, said Dr O’Brien was not there and nor would he tell them which was Dr O’Brien’s study for he did not feel confident that they would not molest it. On this he would not budge and eventually the protesters dispersed. They seem to have been a little flummoxed to meet a calm and benign Afrikaner rather than the heretical Irishman they had sought.

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.

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.

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.

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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