Adieu to a ‘particular kind of liberal’


Peter Brown is likely to be remembered in South Africa as the national chairperson of the Liberal Party. He was one of its founders in 1953 and was its chairperson when it disbanded in 1968, owing to the prohibition of racially mixed political organisations.

Brown epitomised a particular kind of liberal in the era of increasingly repressive apartheid. He worked full-time in the interests of the Liberal Party and, in so doing, kept in regular contact with the leadership of the African National Congress as he laboured to represent the interests of African landowners, who were being forcibly moved off their land as part of Hendrik Verwoerd’s mad plans for rural apartheid.

His steady guidance led the Liberal Party to join the ANC and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in the 1959 campaign to have the British people boycott South African produce. That was the beginning of a new kind of politics and led eventually to sports boycotts and disinvestments.

But Brown also worked to bring different interests and movements together. As Allen Cook, former deputy director of the International Defence and Aid Fund, said: “Peter was a wonderful, humane and humorous person — notable in his willingness to work with others towards the common objective of defeating apartheid.”

His influence was felt particularly in Pietermaritzburg, where he was based. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there were continuous protests by African women over the inability of their families to earn enough to stave off starvation.

And time and time again, their “asinamali [we have no money]” protests would be broken up by police. In this turmoil, in which the ANC and the NIC intervened, the voice of the Liberal Party would be present, trying to explain why women were risking their lives in protest.

As a sportsman, Brown declined to represent South Africa in the game of polo. Banned for 10 years, he opened a branch of the family wholesale business so that he could keep in contact with people in the KwaZulu-Natal region through the storekeepers and traders who did business with him.

Perhaps Brown’s greatest legacy lies in the work that he did in support of African landowners being forced off their freehold. Subsequent to a series of dispossessions, he worked with John Aitchison to form the Association for Rural Advancement to assist African farmers to reclaim, resettle and work their land.

As Massachusetts Chief Justice (and former president of the National Union of South African Students) Margaret H Marshall said in response to the news of his death: “Peter was a great human being with a great heart.”

Brown is survived by his wife Phoebe, three children and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at the Anglican Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg on July 9 at 2.30pm.

Peter Brown, born in 1924, died June 2004, aged 79.

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