Peter Brown

Ally of Alan Paton in the Liberal Party of South Africa
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Brown was a white South African liberal par excellence. His great friend Alan Paton labelled him, half in jest, " 'the Sir Galahad of the Liberal Party [of South Africa]', a man knightly in every way, except for his sardonic wit".

Peter McKenzie Brown, politician and farmer: born Durban, South Africa 24 December 1924; National Chairman, Liberal Party of South Africa 1958-64; married 1950 Phoebe Barlow (two sons, one daughter); died Pietermaritzburg, South Africa 28 June 2004.

Peter Brown was a white South African liberal par excellence. His great friend Alan Paton labelled him, half in jest, " 'the Sir Galahad of the Liberal Party [of South Africa]', a man knightly in every way, except for his sardonic wit".

An outstanding figure in the struggle against white racial supremacy in South Africa, Brown was closer to Wordsworth's "happy warrior". His "high endeavours" were made as National Chairman of the Liberal Party from 1958. His liberalism was the "inward light that made the path before him always bright", in the mad world of South African apartheid and after.

Born in 1924 in Durban, of Scottish and English pioneer stock, in a family of considerable means, he had a traditional upbringing - the right prep and public school (Michaelhouse, where he was head boy and in the rugby XV) and, after three years with the 6th South African Armoured Division in North Africa and Italy, Jesus College, Cambridge, to read Agriculture.

One night he went with other South African undergraduates to challenge the speech of a black writer from the Johannesburg slums, Peter Abrahams. It was a turning point. He left Cambridge after only a year and transferred to the University of Cape Town to read what was called "Native Law and Administration", learned Xhosa and Zulu, and, already a confirmed liberal, dedicated himself to the struggle against the racist policies of the Afrikaner Nationalist regime.

Back in Natal, he took up social work in the black "locations", making valuable friendships across the colour line. With Selby Msimang, a founder in 1912 of the South African Native Congress (now the ANC, of which he was Secretary-General in the 1930s and 1940s), he drove to Cape Town in May 1953 to join in the inauguration of the Liberal Party of South Africa, the first party in South Africa to be founded by both black and white. There followed a dozen action-packed years building up a national non-racial party, opposing the ever harsher apartheid legislation and seeking to defend its victims.

He never disowned his own kind, however, marrying Phoebe Barlow in 1950 at Vergelegen, her family's historic estate near Stellenbosch, playing polo for Natal and keeping up friendships with other farmers in the Natal midlands, where he and Phoebe made their home. His natural good manners, common touch and personal warmth, with Phoebe's constant support, won him countless friends and admirers in all walks of life.

As National Chairman from 1958, with Paton as President, he was an inspiring leader of the Liberal Party, most of whose members never knew how much the party depended on his full-time and unpaid service, his leadership and generous financial support. The government of Hendrik Verwoerd unwittingly awarded him the true badge of honour among the oppressed by sending him to prison, with hundreds of others, in its panic after the Sharpeville shootings in 1960. In Pietermaritzburg jail for three months, he, typically, refused, after intercession in high places, to give undertakings that would have set him free while blacks and whites throughout the country stayed in prison.

He led the party for four more stormy years. The Congresses were outlawed and their leaders jailed, silenced or in exile and the party fought alone though worn down by banning orders served on 50 leading members, Brown, in July 1964, among the first to be thus made a "non-person". Within four years, new legislation outlawed racially mixed political activity, removing the Liberal Party's non-negotiable raison d'être.

Brown remained "banned" for 10 years, after which hopes of a revival of his brand of liberalism had faded. His work was far from over, and he took a lead in developing African agriculture in Natal and beyond, editing the monthly Reality, which succeeded Liberal Opinion and Contact, and chairing his local Dependants' Conference, which financed legal defence in political trials. In 1979 he founded the Association for Rural Advancement (Afra), with which he fought against the dispossession of black farmers.

As the rule of apartheid neared its end Brown went with other political and business leaders to Lusaka to meet the ANC leaders, and in 1994 was hailed by Nelson Mandela as a fellow freedom fighter. He remained faithful to the memory of Alan Paton, for whose papers and as an archive of the liberation years he helped establish the Alan Paton Centre in the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, where he was given a long overdue honorary DLitt in 1997.

Brown was an active chairman of governors of King's School, which had defied the colour bar in the days of Verwoerd, and founded the South African Liberal Association, the last repository of the ideology he had championed for much of his life, at such cost. With a moral integrity that shone through his striking good looks, he expected and received no reward. It came as the love and respect of so many and the knowledge, though ever vigilant, that the democratic South Africa he had struggled for had come about.

Randolph Vigne