Biography of Peter Brown, South African liberal leader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I generally enjoy reading biographies, but Michael Cardo’s biography of Peter Brown is the the first one I have read that is about someone I knew fairly well, so I read it with more than usual interest, and perhaps more critically than usual. I read it to discover more about someone I had known, but also to discover whether the person described in the biography was the same as the person that I knew. And on the whole, I have to say yes — the character of Peter Brown that Michael Cardo captures is indeed the Peter Brown that I knew.
Peter Brown was one of the founders and leaders of the Liberal Party of South Africa, which, in the 1950s and 1960s, stood for the principle of a non-racial democracy in South Africa, and Peter Brown was one of its most principled and consistent exponents.
His background made it seem unlikely that he would be such a thing. He came from a fairly wealthy and privileged white farming and merchant family, and white farmers in South Africa were not generally known for their liberal political ideas. The Liberal Party did manage to attract a few, some of whom, like Roy Coventry in northern Natal and Jean van Riet in the Free State, are mentioned by Cardo.
It was largely due to Peter Brown, though, that the Liberal Party was not merely non-racial in its aims and ideals, but also in its membership. Cardo (2010:89) notes that in 1953 Brown was elected Natal Provincial Secretary of the party, though not yet 30 years old, and that he “traversed the province from the Midlands to the northern parts of Zululand, south towards the Transkei, and along the coastal regions and communicated the Party’s message to voters.”
He communicated the party’s message to non-voters as well, to blacks, coloureds and Indians, so that “by 1956 Natal had the largest membership, the highest proportion of black members and a significant sway over the national leadership”.
Randolph Vigne wrote a history of the Liberal Party, published in 1997, Liberals against apartheid, but Vigne was in the Western Cape, and his history is rather skimpy on Natal. Unfortunately, this is also a weakness in Cardo’s book.
One thing that struck me was that Cardo gives an extraordinary smount of detail in the section on Church Agricultural Projects (CAP) and Neil Alcock, and very scanty detail on the Liberal Party in the 1960-65 period. While Brown was involved in CAP, most of the initiative and the actual work was done by Neil Alcock, with Peter Brown as an onlooker and adviser. But Brown was far more closely involved with the Liberal Party, and much of the initiative, planning and action was his. Even after he was banned in 1964, he continued to take a close interest in the rural branches of the party, and at one point complained that the Midlands branches that he had founded were being neglected, while those established by Enock Mnguni were getting more attention (especially before Mnguni himself was banned). Yet virtually nothing is said about these branches.
After Peter Brown was banned, those from Pietermaritzburg who attended rural branch meetings on Saturday afternoons would usually call on the Browns on the Saturday evening or the Sunday to let Peter know what had happened, as a kind of debriefing. He would often ask questions that we were unable to answer, about the people who were at the meeting, and what had happened to them. He would ask whether such and such a person was there, and then would tell us something about the person and their family.
Some 10-15 years later, when I was involved in rural ministry in the Anglican Church in Zululand, I was struck by the similarity between rural church congregations and the rural branches of the Liberal Party. And then in retrospect Peter Brown seemed like a kind of secular pastor or a bishop. He knew his sheep, he shepherded his flock and they heard his voice — not in a paternalistic way, but rather in a caring way. He knew the people and cared for them, and they knew him and cared for him. And indeed, the Zulu name for the Liberal Party — IBandla leNkululeko — could be translated back into English as “Church of Redemption”.
When Elliot Mngadi and Peter Brown were banned in 1964, others stepped in to take their place. Mike Ndlovu took over from Elliot Mngadi as northern Natal regional organiser, until he too was banned. John Aitchison and Chris Shabalala took over some of the work done by Peter Brown in the Midlands, and they were both banned in 1965. I tried to visit some of the branches after they were banned, though also preparing for my final exams at university, then went home to Johannesburg for the vac. My banning order was signed on 11 January 1966, but I left the country to study in the UK after an all-night drive to the border on 18 January, before it could be delivered.
When Elliot Mngadi was banned, Peter Brown helped him to set up a business of a fish and chip shop at his home at Roosboom, near Ladysmith, which was under threat of ethnic cleansing. He had given up his job as a court interpreter to become a fulltime-organiser for the Liberal Party and the Northern Natal African Landowners Association. When he was banned he could not enter any court except as a complainant, defendant, witness or accused, so he could not go back to his old job.
The Liberal Party was not the first non-racial political party in South Africa; that honour belongs to the Communist Party. But the Communist Party was not always non-racial, and at one time was associated with the slogan “workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa”. It was when the party line from Moscow changed that the Communist Party became non-racial. And perhaps the fact that the Communist Party was the first to become non-racial was what led the Nationalist government to identify non-racialism with communism, and to regard liberalism and communism as the same thing.
After the Communist Party was banned in 1950 white communists and leftists formed the Congress of Democrats, and formed part of the Congress Alliance. And though the ANC was willing to cooperate with the Liberals, and quite a number of Liberals, like Selby Msimang, were dual members of both the Liberal Party and the ANC, the Congress of Democrats wanted nothing to do with the Liberal Party, and their hostility persists to this day. Only last August Rica Hodgson (formerly of the COD) repeated in a radio interview the tired old communist canard that the Liberal Party did not allow blacks to join.
So Michael Cardo’s biography of Peter Brown does a great deal to set the record straight, and he covers the relations between the Liberals and the Congress of Democrats fairly well. It’s just a pity that it wasn’t about 10-15 pages longer, giving more detail about the Liberal Party in Natal between about 1962 and 1965. If that would have made the book too long, then something could have been cut from the story of Church Agricultural Projects, which, though it deserves to be recorded in its own right, was less central to Peter Brown’s concerns.