Progs led the way to re­forms in SA

Party pushed non-racial­ism and pro­tec­tion of hu­man rights, writes Don­wald Pressly

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - Pressly is Cape Ed­i­tor of Busi­ness Re­port based at Par­lia­ment. He is a for­mer Young Pro­gres­sives chair­man at Rhodes Uni­ver­sity cam­pus.

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).

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