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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.
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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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