Colin Eglin

COLIN Eglin, who died on Friday aged 88, will be remembered as much for his key contribution to the development of liberalism in South Africa and internationally as for his leading role in the drafting of our post-apartheid constitution.

Described by Nelson Mandela as “one of the architects of our democracy”, Eglin received the Order of the Baobab in April this year “for serving the country with excellence and for his dedication and courage in standing up for the principles of equality for all South Africans against the unjust laws of the past”.

Both tributes were fitting for a man who believed that involvement in politics was not about money, ego or position, but about service to the people of South Africa, irrespective of colour. It was his commitment to a democratic South Africa, free of racial oppression, that saw him move from his post-World War II involvement in the anti-fascist Torch Commando, first into the United Party and then, disillusioned with that party’s move to the right, into the 1959 formation of the Progressive Party.

Ever the pragmatist, Eglin negotiated several mergers with breakaway groupings from the United Party and built the Progressive Party, with the lone voice of Helen Suzman in Parliament, into the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), which became the Official Opposition in 1977. It was the PFP that is, in almost all respects, the forerunner of today’s opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

But Eglin will also be recognised worldwide for his role in building traditions of liberalism in Africa and globally as a key member of Liberal International, a role recognised by DA leader Helen Zille, who describes him as “one of the great liberal internationalists of our time”.

In his memoir, Crossing the Borders of Power, published in 2007, Eglin warned that the greatest threat to South Africa’s democracy was “widespread unemployment, pervasive poverty, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor… they are driving people towards populism as a cure for their problems. In short, they are undermining our new democracy.”

His words were apposite then, and apposite today. We would do well to heed them.