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.

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