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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.
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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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