Obituary: Zach de Beer

AT THE moment of celebration at the ending of apartheid, the political career of Zach de Beer - leader of the Progressive Federal Party in South Africa and its successor, the Democratic Party, from 1987 until 1994 - came simultaneously to fruition and defeat. As leader of the Democratic Party during the transitional negotiations towards a new constitution in the early 1990s, de Beer and his political colleagues realised the objectives of their party more completely than any other long-standing political current in South Africa.

The agreed constitution of the "New South Africa" (the "Rainbow Nation", in Archbishop Tutu's phrase) secured each of the major goals of the Democratic Party, and with them of de Beer's own political hopes. These were, first, the dismantling of the racist constitution of the old South Africa together with the entire apparatus of racist legislation erected on its basis, and second, the preservation - untouched - of the powerful economic infrastructure of almost entirely white-owned private property, in finance, industry and the land.

By comparison, under the then President F.W. de Klerk, the former ruling National Party - the exclusive political master of South Africa over 40 years - was compelled to consent to the dismantling of its cherished ideological project of white political supremacy and the systemic separation of the races. The now ruling African National Congress, too, under Nelson Mandela, had to consent to abandon the core of its economic and social programme, enshrined in the Freedom Charter of 1955. This programme had represented all things to all people within the alliance between the ANC and the South African Communist Party: a fudge between centralised state control of the "commanding heights", as in the model of the Soviet Union and the Cold War states of eastern Europe, and a heavily statised capitalist economy on the model of, say, Sweden, or pre-Thatcherite Britain.

In this sense, the outcome of the South African transitional negotiations, coming after the downfall of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the Cold War, together with the radical defeat of the Keynesian agenda in the 1980s, marked a triumph in South Africa for the political middle ground headed by de Beer and his companions-in-arms.

Within South Africa, de Beer and his political colleagues (the best known of whom was Helen Suzman) remained in continuous, and honourable, conflict with the apartheid despotism. In Western Europe, however, their trajectory would be considered largely conservative. The resulting economic and social "conservatism" of the new South Africa is very much what de Beer, Suzman and their powerful supporters in the inner chambers of the economy wished it to be. Zach de Beer was himself for many years a director of the Anglo- American-De Beers nucleus in southern African mining, finance and industry.

The overwhelming majority for the ANC in the first post-apartheid general election of 1994, however, further marginalised the Democratic Party. De Beer took personal blame for this defeat and resigned as party leader. Recognising the talents and integrity of this Afrikaans-speaking, pro-capitalist liberal, President Mandela appointed him as South African ambassador to the Netherlands, home of his father's ancestors.

Through various changes of name and programme, as the Progressive Federal Party, and before that as the Progressive Party (the "Progs"), de Beer's political current derived originally from the former governing United Party, led most famously during the Second World War by Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts. The United Party, in turn, came out of the South Africa Party, formed by Smuts and General Louis Botha in the first decade of the century.

Both senior commanders of Boer forces in the war in South Africa against Britain in 1899-1902, Smuts and Botha made the crucial compromise with the superior power after the military defeat of the Boer states, and helped write the constitution of the unified South Africa in 1910 - basically, the racially exclusive constitution ensuring white domination which came to an end in 1994.

In this sense, de Beer continued an almost century-long tradition of Afrikaner pragmatism - of adaptation to the stronger current of the time, in order to save what could be saved. His motto could have been that of the old Sicilian prince in di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, who argued that, for things to remain the same, things had to change.

At the transitional negotiations - in which de Beer played a leading part in 1991-92 - the Democratic Party was the only major party with a long-lasting, tried and tested commitment to the values of civil society. De Klerk's National Party, with its history of contempt for the compromise agreed by Smuts and Botha in 1910, was steeped in blood. This was the party which, in the name of the Afrikaner volk, had ruthlessly administered the power settlement of the South African state through methods of unfettered terror, administered over 30 years by the "Securocrats" of military intelligence and the secret police.

The ANC, similarly, had operated what was in effect the machinery of a one-party state in its refugee camps in exile, on a model similar to the regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union which provided it with funds, weapons, military training and propaganda support. Particularly in its gulag for ANC political dissenters at Quatro camp in northern Angola, the ANC and its ally the SACP had shown contempt for crucial values of a liberal society.

Over these terrible decades in South African life, de Beer and Suzman and their handful of (almost exclusively white) colleagues hammered away at the regime when it muzzled the press, trampled on civil rights, and jailed, tortured and murdered at will. With Helen Suzman, and supported by Laurence Gandar, editor of the Rand Daily Mail, de Beer was one of the most consistent voices of Western liberal values.

President-to-be Thabo Mbeki has already given evidence of the leanings he acquired during his decades as "dauphin" within the apparatus of the ANC and the SACP Politburo in exile. For de Beer, however, it was unthinkable to have called for suspension of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because of its recording of human rights abuses (in this case, committed by the ANC against its own members in exile), any more than he could have contemplated the removal of senior journalists of integrity from the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation, because of their independence from the governing party's "line". Yet this appears to be the direction of the future, under the new president.

Born to an Afrikaans-speaking father and a Scots mother in the western Cape in 1928, Zach de Beer received an education at an English-language public school, followed by a medical degree at the University of Cape Town. He qualified and for a time practised as a doctor (like his father), but, in Suzman's phrase, "politics was his abiding passion".

He entered the South African parliament in the general election of 1953, in the same year as Suzman. Along with Suzman, Colin Eglin and Ray Swart, and the senior politicians Harry Lawrence and Dr Jan Steytler, he resigned from the United Party in 1959 - the year before the massacre at Sharpeville - when its national congress voted that no further land should be returned to blacks for occupation and use.

This resulted in the birth of the Progressive Party, with its policy of a qualified franchise. This was very different from the universal franchise advocated at the time by the much smaller, infinitely more impoverished and much-maligned Liberal Party, headed by the novelist Alan Paton; a policy later accepted by de Beer, Suzman and their colleagues.

Helen Suzman has given credit to the early backing of Harry Oppenheimer, who in 1957 had left parliament to run the Anglo American Corporation founded by his father. The close congruence in views between the leaders of the Progressive Party and the dominating colossus in the South African economy gave de Beer's views a weight and stability - and a factor of financial support - out of all proportion to the party's minority vote within the minority white electorate.

Losing his seat in the 1961 election, he joined an advertising agency - "a job at which he excelled", recalled Suzman, "but then Zach would have done well at anything he chose as a career". Later he moved to Anglo American. In 1977 he was re-elected on behalf of the Progressive Party, and remained in the forefront of South African life throughout the years of crisis until the disbanding of apartheid.

Talented, handsome, persuasive, de Beer provided a strong measure of sanity in South Africa through troubled decades. How, though, the elements of a liberal society can be created in a society with such an illiberal disposition of wealth was a conundrum which his death, like his life, leaves without resolution.

Paul Trewhela

Zacharias Johannes de Beer, politician, businessman and medical practitioner: born Cape Town 11 October 1928. married first Maureen Strauss (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Mona Schwartz; died Cape Town 27 May 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas