Colin Eglin, 88, Key White Opponent of Apartheid, Dies
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: December 6, 2013
Colin Eglin, a South African politician who was at the forefront of his country’s white, liberal opposition to apartheid and who then helped draft the Constitution that ended it in 1993, died on Nov. 29 in Cape Town. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, a multiracial party considered to be the successor to the all-white liberal group led by Mr. Eglin intermittently from 1971 to 1994, when South Africa held its first multiracial elections.
Mr. Eglin was known as a shrewd tactician and political organizer who leveraged the influence of a tiny liberal minority — within South Africa’s ruling white minority population — to achieve modest but symbolically important victories.
He was among the few white members of Parliament to visit the black activist Steve Biko before Mr. Biko died in his jail cell in 1977 from repeated police beatings. Mr. Eglin’s Progressive Reform Party sent the first delegation of white politicians to hold talks on ending apartheid with leaders in the so-called tribal homelands, impoverished territories where the government forced many black South Africans to live. Blacks outnumbered whites in South Africa by about 37 million to 10 million.
Mr. Eglin’s commitment to gradual change made him a stabilizing force, and a target of vitriol from all sides, in South Africa’s increasingly polarized atmosphere during the final decades of institutionalized white supremacy.
Prime Minister John Vorster called Mr. Eglin’s party a “coffee club” for wealthy whites who could declaim against apartheid, secure in the knowledge that they would never actually govern.
Other anti-apartheid activists and revolutionaries, including members of the African National Congress, the country’s dominant black political organization, considered Mr. Eglin no less guilty than the governing far-right National Party for the sins of apartheid rule, simply by virtue of his participation in the system. Fellow liberals less patient than he with the pace of change often called him irrelevant.
He nonetheless held to the middle ground.
Refusing to join a boycott of elections in 1987, he proclaimed that “at this stage in our country’s history” the Progressive Reform opposition party in Parliament was essential “to oppose and expose the policies and excesses of apartheid.”
Mr. Eglin’s pragmatism, and his ability to maintain communications with all sides, made him an uncontested choice to serve on an interracial national committee charged with drafting a new Constitution in 1990, when President F. W. de Klerk began what became a three-year process of ending apartheid.
In “One Law, One Nation: The Making of the South African Constitution” (2011), by Lauren Segal and Sharon Cort, Mr. Eglin was quoted describing his strategy in negotiating with both the African National Congress and the National Party. “I had a simple rule,” he told the authors. “If you wanted anything in the Constitution, you had to sell it to the A.N.C. If you wanted anything out of the Constitution, you had to persuade the Nats to block it. At times you had to go to the media. You always had to ask, ‘In addition to charm and intellectual arguments, how can you have more clout?’ ”
Colin Wells Eglin was born in Sea Point, South Africa, on April 14, 1925, the son of Elsie May and Carl August Eglin. Both parents belonged to the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, whose hierarchy had opposed apartheid since it was introduced in 1948 by the National Party. The apartheid laws stripped black and mixed-race people of their citizenship, prohibited interracial marriage, and sanctioned policies restricting the job opportunities, education, housing and general freedom of movement of all nonwhites.
After Mr. Eglin’s father died in 1934, his mother sent him to live with a married older sister on a farm in the eastern part of the country. He attended public school there and graduated from the University of Cape Town.
After serving in the Army during World War II, he joined a construction company as a surveyor. He had become a partner in the firm by the time he won his first election to public office, as a town councilor in Pinelands, a suburb of Cape Town,in 1950.
He then became involved in the Progressive Party, and later the Progressive Reform Party, which merged with other groups to become the Progressive Federal Party in 1977. The new party’s Constitution called for full citizenship rights for all South Africans regardless of race or color.
Mr. Eglin led the Progressive Federal Party caucus in the House of Assembly, the whites-only national parliamentary body, from 1977 to 1979 and again from 1986 to 1988.
His first wife, Joyce Mabel Cortes Eglin, died in 1997. He is survived by his second wife, Raili; three daughters; and five grandchildren.
In his later years, as democracy took root in South Africa and the African National Congress became the governing party, Mr. Eglin came to see that political equality was only the beginning — and that all bets were off for democracy in his still-divided country unless its growing numbers of poor and unemployed citizens could find work.
“In the long run, multiparty democracy will only work if multiparty democracy delivers the goods for the people of the country,” he said in an interview for the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, the national archive, in 1999. “The greatest single challenge is getting a dramatic increase in economic growth.”