03 Dec 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Colin Eglin joins the pantheon of political leaders of the modern, much contested, liberal tradition in South Africa, writes Tony Leon
COLIN Eglin, who died on Friday in Cape Town, joins the pantheon of political leaders of the modern, much contested, liberal tradition in South Africa. Jan Steytler, Zach de Beer, Harry Oppenheimer, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Harry Schwarz and Helen Suzman had all gone before him, and each of them held high political office on the opposition side of the fence, but none of them ever attained political power. Oppenheimer certainly exercised vast economic influence, and for critical years also funded the liberal opposition, but in political terms he was never in power.
Strangely enough, Eglin titled his memoir Crossing the Borders of Power, although they are a plainly written testament to the prodigious pursuit of principles and ideas in a mostly unforgiving political climate. It is not clear at which point, if ever, this highly intelligent, palpably decent public servant crossed the boundary separating the power of ideals from the ideals of power. Perhaps his short stint on the transitional executive council at Kempton Park, which briefly exercised authority in tandem with the departing National Party government between December 1993 and April 1994, provides a clue.
I always thought that Eglin’s political and personal friend, De Beer, who also succeeded him as party leader, came closest to nailing the liberal purpose in the body politic, when he dusted off the old and bleak aphorism of Prince William the Silent, "One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere." In an appropriately more unvarnished style, Eglin provided his party, during the two terms when he led it, with the caution that they were involved in "the politics of the long haul".
Eglin, a quantity surveyor by training and constitutional lawyer by inclination, held fast to the idea that the only bridge across the chasm of 350 years of racial division and conflict would be constructed of durable material forged in the furnace of direct political negotiations between hitherto warring parties: a nonracial, democratic constitution built by consensus and underpinned by strong checks against an overcentralising political authority. He once self-deprecatingly remarked at a Liberal International conference at Oxford in 1997, shortly after helping to midwife more or less just such an instrument, "if we were ‘stupid enough’ to share political power, we’d better be ‘stupid enough’ to make sure we share the economic wealth of the country as well."
He saw, earlier than many others, that the lurking danger for the new South Africa was a separation, again racial, between the holders of political authority and the possessors of the country’s economic patrimony. But he was not blind to the limitations and contradictions of present transformation, which he perceived to be a top-down reshuffling of elite wealth, not an inclusive and sustainable construction of a shared economy.
The roll call of white liberal leaders past indicates they were more successful, ironically, in glimpsing, and in some measure shaping, the future of the new South Africa than they were in constructing a political vehicle to enter it. This had much to do with their political provenance. With the exception of Van Zyl Slabbert, each of them had risen up the political ladder of the old United Party (UP), which they kicked away, first in 1959.
In fact, before 1994 every liberal political iteration was essentially involved in the rearrangement of political furniture from the disintegrating UP. It is quite striking, from today’s vastly changed vantage point, how very few voters were attracted from the majority ranks of the National Party to the Progressive Federal Party and its successors.
The grafting of an Afrikaans leader, variously Steytler, Van Zyl Slabbert and De Beer at the top of the party did not move Afrikaans votes any more than the bilingual, but English-speaking, Eglin could, or could not. Perhaps, with adaptation, there is a cautionary lesson here for the present opposition as it considers its future leadership. It was only the separation of Afrikaans voters from the levers of political power after 1994 that led to their migration, en masse, from the ranks of the National Party, which, shorn of power, was soon enough bereft of political purpose and existence.
Eglin lived a long and purposeful life. But he did not live long enough to see whether the political history he helped to shape on the white opposition side of the fence, might, as history so often does, repeat itself in the broad ranks of the black liberation movement — the African National Congress — an organisation he in some ways admired, but opposed.
Certainly some familiar stress fractures are in plain sight: the circular firing squad between warring alliance leaders, the looting of state assets and the confusion between personal and party interests on the one hand, and the national and constitutional interests on the other. But even a veteran like Eglin never hazarded a guess as to how long the disintegration would take, or whether some act of renewal would arrest the process.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA