Progs led the way to reforms in SA
Party pushed non-racialism and protection of human rights, writes Donwald Pressly
If the Progressive Party – and its successor parties – had not been beating the drum of non-racialism and the protection of human rights for some 30 years before negotiations began in South Africa, former Prog leader Colin Eglin believes the country may not have been ready for change when President FW de Klerk announced his reforms in February 1990.
“If we had not been at this for 30odd years, I don’t think that the country would have been as ready for it,” said Eglin, who with the now late Helen Suzman and seven others left the United Party (UP) in November 1959.
In the 1961 election Suzman was the only member to retain her seat – of a total of 11 MPs who by this time had crossed the floor from the UP and the Liberal Party – but the party’s performance declined in the 1966 and 1970 elections. Suzman, however, managed to retain her seat in Houghton.
It took 15 years for the party to return with seven seats in 1974, under Eglin’s leadership. By 1977, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) – as it had become – had dislodged the UP as the official opposition, ending 29 years of Sir de Villiers Graaff ’s – albeit declining – dominance of white opposition politics. It was the Prog message of non-racialism during the period of apartheid which began with the National Party’s ascension to power in 1948 and the notion of a universal franchise – albeit with the qualification of education and economic standing at first – which was revolutionary in the white community at the time.
The 50th anniversary of the founding of the Progressive Party is being celebrated in Cape Town this weekend. Peter Soal, former Johannesburg North PFP and then Democratic Party MP, has been the driving force in getting the party’s representatives – and representatives of its successor parties – to celebrations which are taking place at Parliament.
Interviewed at his elegant Constantia townhouse – with his cheerful Finnish wife Raili serving wine and fine food – Eglin ducks the question about how comfortable he feels about the DA, the national official opposition and main ruling party in the Western Cape. He says he is delighted by Helen Zille becoming the premier but mutters something about the DA being the product of the times. Zille will be playing a key part in this weekend’s celebrations.
Dwelling on the irony that the party of apartheid, the National Party – which the Progs had opposed bitterly – merged in 2000 with the then Democratic Party, which the PFP had become in 1988, Eglin says it was an act of political convenience to present a broad front for the 2000 municipal elections.
That new party was led by Tony Leon, with the New National Party’s leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk as deputy leader. One can sense that Eglin didn’t see the NP/DP marriage as one made in heaven, but he doesn’t say so. Notably, however, he doesn’t mention Leon – or Van Schalkwyk who left the alliance within two years – by name other than referring to Leon as having been a member of the four-person team – with Dene Smuts, Ken Andrew and Eglin himself – at the Codesa settlement talks in the early 1990s. In fact, Leon was a substitute delegate. Yet Eglin doesn’t seem to be bitter about the fact that the man he brought into the party, Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who won the Rondebosch parliamentary seat in 1974, dislodged him as leader in 1979. By way of explaining that Van Zyl Slabbert had the political clout to grow the PFP – increasing its support substantially in the 1981 election – Eglin provides a number of examples of star candidates whom he had drawn into the party over the heads of longstanding loyal members who had a lesser chance of winning seats. It went with the turf. He was there again to take over the leadership mantle when Slabbert left the party unceremoniously in February 1986. Unfortunately, Slabbert, who is in poor health, is unable to be at this weekend’s events. Leon, who is ambassador to Argentina, is not attending.
Eglin – who together with the current Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan served as rotating chairman of the government oversight body, the transitional executive council, in the run-up to the 1994 elections – is clearly proud of the fact that he played a key role in forging the constitutional dispensation. His heavily fingered copy of his book, Crossing the Borders of Power, is signed: “To Colin, Best wishes to a capable and experienced veteran. Mandela 27.3.07.” An anecdote in the book refers to bumping into Nelson Mandela “in one of the corridors” during the Codesa talks, sometime in May 1992. The National Party and the ANC were locking horns over systems of power in the postapartheid period. Eglin intervened: “… After all, we are the collective leadership of South Africa. What are we going to do about it? Look at the galaxy and the talent of the leadership that is here, and say we should take the first urgent steps to resolve the impasse.” Mandela drew up to Eglin and said: “Colin, that was a powerful intervention. You have given us all something to think about.” That weekend the Weekend Argus, under the headline “To the Rescue”, reported that De Klerk and Mandela had a dramatic late-night meeting to rescue Codesa from the brink of failure. It carried a photograph of them shaking hands, with Eglin in the background and the caption read: “Mr Colin Eglin, who was to play a crucial role in bringing the two leaders together, looks on.”
Eglin, who retired from Parliament in 2004, “looks on” at the new post-apartheid dispensation now, a little worriedly. “There is a central core of power in Luthuli House (the ANC’s headquarters)… Real power doesn’t exist in Parliament or in the executive.”
Was there something that could have been written in the constitution to prevent this from happening? Eglin argues that the ANC saw itself as the representative of “the people”. The members of Parliament were therefore merely pawns of the party bosses. The answer, therefore, to that question was probably no.
For a small party, the Progs played a substantial role in preparing the white minority for that change by its heavy emphasis on constitutionalism, over the years, beginning with the appointment, in the early 1960s, of the Molteno Commission which laid out a vision for a National Convention and an entrenched non-racial constitution with a common roll.
Eglin notes that the 1962 Molteno Commission – drawn up by academic Donald Molteno, who represented Africans as a Liberal Party MP from 1937 to 1948 – and appointed by the first Prog leader Jan Steytler was the first attempt by any political party in South Africa to formulate a comprehensive constitutional model for a non-racial and democratic South Africa. The Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People – representing the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Organisation, the Congress of Democrats and the South African Congress of Trade Unions – at Kliptown in June 1955 set out the kind of country it envisaged for the future “but stopped short of presenting a detailed constitutional model”, Eglin noted. Even though the commission was viewed with scepticism by most black leaders as well as the NP and derided by the UP, which said constitutions were not worth the paper they were written on, for 30 years the commission’s recommendations formed the only coherent basis for constitutional evolution and co-existence.
The Progs did, indeed, achieve a remarkable slice of what they wanted. Eglin argues that even the minority veto idea of the Progs has been entrenched in the constitution as certain entrenched clauses require a two-thirds or even a 75 percent majority to expunge. There may be flaws in the system and too vast power for party bosses, but South Africa had made the change to a non-racial democracy before it was too late. The Progs played a key part in preparing the white minority for that change.
24 OF THE 27 PFP MEMBERS AT PARLIAMENT: Front row from left, Colin Eglin (Sea Point), Helen Suzman (Houghton), Brian Bamford (Groote Schuur), Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert (Claremont), leader of the opposition and of the PFP, Ray Swart (Berea), Alf Widman (Hillbrow), Kowie Marais (Johannesburg North). Behind from left: Dr Alex Boraine (Pinelands), John Malcomess (Port Elizabeth Central), Harry Schwarz (Yeoville), Philip Myburgh (Wynberg), Harry Pitman (Pinetown), Nic Olivier (nominated member), Horace van Rensburg (Bryanston), Peter Gastrow (Durban Central), Brian Goodall (Edenvale), Dave Dalling (Sandton), Roger Hulley (Constantia), Ken Andrew (Gardens), E K Moorcroft (Albany), M Tarr (Maritzburg South), Major R Sive (Bezuidenhout), Tian van der Merwe (Green Point) and P Cronje (Greyton).