Japie Basson, who died aged 94 in Cape Town on Wednesday, was sometimes called the butterfly or the chameleon of South African politics because of the many times he switched parties.
He retorted that he did so not because he changed his principles, but because the parties changed theirs.
He was right, in a way. The political parties of the old order did shift positions back and forth as they tried to deal with the increasingly obvious fact that a small white minority’s control over an overwhelming black majority was never going to last.
Somehow the position he took seemed broad enough to fit with the ideologies of several parties as they passed through his firmament of thinking.
He could certainly not be accused of switching parties for the sake of personal gain. He was at one time a prime candidate for the Nationalist cabinet, which would have secured him the prestige and comforts several of apartheid other reluctant adherents chose to enjoy instead.
Basson was an individualist, the kind societies need more than the hacks who serve their parties unquestioningly. He was also an Afrikaner nationalist in the better sense of the world.
He strived to promote the cause of his people, but in ways he preferred not to be hurtful to others and which he thought should ensure the respect of the international community.
He believed in unity between Afrikaans- and English-speaking citizens and, in the broader political sense, between white and black.
He supported the republican ideal, but he wished it to be brought about without South Africa forfeiting its membership of the Commonwealth.
It was these sentiments that put him at odds with fiery Natalian MP Douglas Mitchell of the old United Party and the mean-spirited nationalism of apartheid’s ideologue Hendrik Verwoerd and his ilk in the National Party.
It was also this that made him leave and rejoin both parties, and throw in his lot with others in-between, as they swayed between less and more acceptable positions.
Born Jacob Daniel du Plessis in the Western Cape town of Paarl on July 25 1918, his free-thinking showed early on. At the age of 21, he chose to support General Jan Smuts in siding with the Allies against Hitler’s Nazi Germany rather than follow the example of his father, later a senator, in standing by defeated Prime Minister JBM Hertzog who wanted South Africa to stay out of the Second World War.
His political ambitions in support of the internationalist Smuts-style approach of the United Party took him to South West Africa, now Namibia, as a party functionary. But after Smuts’s defeat by DF Malan’s National Party in 1948, and even before his admired leader’s death shortly after, his affinity with the Nationalist government’s pro-Afrikaner sentiments and republican aspirations saw him drift into the Malan party’s arms, later to become its MP for the (Namibian) constituency of Namib.
No sooner had he settled into his new political home, he started showing discomfort with the hardline racist and, in some instances, anti-Jewish elements of the National Party. Unlike other sceptics he showed courage criticising, though guardedly, prime minister Hans Strijdom, for his use of the word “baasskap” in reference to what he saw as the divine right of white people to hold dominion over the black people of South Africa.
Strijdom merely reprimanded him for his insubordination. But Verwoerd proved a different kind of disciplinarian when he took over on Strijdom’s death in 1958. When Basson criticised him for wanting to abolish the existing black representation (by whites) in parliament as part of his homeland policy, Verwoerd had him expelled from the party.
Basson tried his hand at having his own party, the National Union, before he drifted back to the United Party. He followed it and its offspring into what eventually became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), variously led by Colin Eglin, Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Dr Zach de Beer.
It was in his capacity as MP for the Johannesburg constituency of Bezuidenhout that he caused a drastic alteration in the course of political events – and in the fate of powerful figures sitting across the floor from him in the House of Assembly.
The Information debacle was only beginning to unfold, and amid growing suspicions about the new government-supporting the Citizen newspaper, Basson asked Connie Mulder, the minister of information and crown prince of the National Party, whether the government was funding it.
Mulder, with then prime minister John Vorster sitting next to him, at first evaded the question. When challenged by Basson he said the department of information gave no money to The Citizen.
“And the government?” asked Basson. Mulder shifted his feet before responding: “The government does not give any funding to the Citizen.”
The lie, uncovered in the course of the Information probe, put paid to Mulder’s premiership hopes and ultimately wrecked his political career.
It was the final nail in the coffin of the grand apartheid dream which Mulder and his band of ideologues promoted – that of a South Africa divided into a vast white-controlled state and a smattering of independent homelands where black people could exercise their political rights.
It saw Vorster step down as president, following his retirement as prime minister. He left political life a lonely, broken man for his complicity in the lie and his Information department’s excesses. It also brought Cape Nationalist leader PW Botha to power, whose less rigid racial views and attempts at dismantling apartheid in favour of power-sharing, however contorted, was more acceptable to Basson’s Cape Afrikaner thinking.
It was not surprising then that when Basson fell out with his colleagues in the PFP, he soon found himself back with the National Party.
He was certainly one of the most colourful politicians of the old order.