A Tribute to Colin Eglin

Colin Eglin was a founder Trustee and one of the initiators of the Helen Suzman Foundation. During planning for the 1994 election with Colin, Zach de Beer, James Selfe, me and others, it was suggested that a Foundation be established as a vehicle for raising money abroad. The intention was that it would revert to a research organisation after the election, a task it has fulfilled admirably.

We agreed on its establishment and I was sent off to seek Helen’s permission, which authority she readily gave.
Colin remained involved with the Foundation until recently when he retired as trustee. He was then made a Trustee Emeritus. This pleased him as he and Helen had a strong mutual regard and fondness for each other. It was Patty Suzman who wrote recently that Helen regarded Colin with great admiration - a high accolade as the list of those she admired wasn’t very long!
Colin was born on 14 April 1925 into a modest Methodist family living in the first South African garden city of Pinelands. His father died when he was 9 and he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle who farmed near Hobhouse in the Eastern Free State. There he attended a mainly Afrikaans medium school and gained insight not only into the language but the psyche of the people. This stood him in good stead in the years to come when, as leader of the Party, he launched his ‘Modern City Afrikaner’ programme which was to produce, amongst others, Van Zyl Slabbert.
Following Hobhouse he attended the de Villiers Graaff High School at Villiersdorp where he matriculated at 14. At this tender age he registered at UCT for a Bachelor of Science degree in Quantity Surveying. War had been declared a few months earlier and Colin watched developments with great interest. It is romantic but incorrect to claim that Colin faked his age to go to war. In his memoirs he makes it clear that when he turned 18 in 1943 he came to an arrangement with his Professor that he would enlist and return after the war to complete his degree.
Now followed one of the most formative periods of his life. It included the battle of Mount Solé on his 20th birthday, a few weeks before the end of the war, an event which made an indelible impression on his soul. It was during these years that his commitment to democracy and liberty deepened. Mount Solé was a shrine for him as he returned there on many occasions during the next sixty eight years to stand gazing at the mountain where, as a young man, he became an adult. Colin’s last trip to Mount Solé was just a few months ago.
He returned to UCT and completed his degree, married Joyce and moved to Pinelands. It was during this period that his interest in politics was awakened and he became a member of the Torch Commando. He was now deeply involved in politics and became a member of the United Party being elected to the Pinelands Municipal Council, the Provincial Council and, in 1958 as the Member of Parliament for Pinelands. In 1959 he one of a small band, disillusioned with the UP lurch to the political right, who broke away and formed the Progressive Party. He and all the rest, except Helen, lost their seats in the 1961 election. Then followed the long slog to 1974.
Colin became the leader of the party in 1971 and in three short years, with his steely determination and unflagging energy, transformed it into a formidable force. In the 1974 election we won 6 seats and Pinelands followed at a by-election a few months later so that, in the words of Helen, “Mrs Rosenkowitz and her sextuplets” could march into Parliament when it reassembled shortly afterwards. Before he was re-elected to Parliament in 1974 he and Helen did a tour of Africa visiting a large number of important countries and speaking to their leaders, being warmly welcomed wherever they went. His intrigue with China led him to many visits and the appeal of that vast country and their people was such that he arranged for a number of groups to visit.
Internally, Colin was determined to improve the situation of the party and negotiated mergers with the Reformists in 1975 when they broke away from the United Party and with the Japie Basson group in 1977 when they declined to join the merger between the United Party and Theo Gerdener’s Democratic Party. The new Progressive Federal Party became the Official Opposition at the 1977 election. Further challenges were put on hold as Van Zyl Slabbert became the leader of the party and Colin could devote his time and energy to his other loves – travel and Africa. He had a fascination with Africa and as the now spokesman for Foreign Affairs, visited most parts meeting with heads of state and influential decision makers. In later years he was a founder of the African Liberal Network.
But it was at Kempton Park that Colin came into his own. Many have said that it was as though his life to then had been preparation for just this moment .Much of our oft praised liberal constitution is due to Colin’s clear grasp of the principles of liberal democracy and the constraints and provisions of those institutions charged with protecting and advancing these. Colin’s negotiating prowess was recognised by Joe Slovo in particular and, when an impasse was reached, the two would get together and generally find a compromise and way forward that enabled talks to continue and, eventually, a worthy constitution to emerge. His intellect, presence and engaging manner were recognised and respected by all in those tumultuous years of 1990-1993.
Following Joyce’s death in 1997 he married Raili who cared for him tenderly in later years. He loved his family, especially his three daughters and was enormously proud of his five grandsons.
Colin had a vastly generous character and I don’t just mean that he always wanted to pay for lunch! He had a generosity of spirit and wanted the best for all. He worked for the common good. When the Progs were formed in 1959 we adopted a policy of qualified franchise on a common roll which was bold at the time. But, following the mergers in the 70’s, he set up a committee under the chairmanship of Van Zyl Slabbert to review our policies. He privately urged Van Zyl to arrive at a recommendation which included a general, universal franchise as this would include all our citizens and keep the PFP relevant.  
Colin had a love for freedom, democracy, South Africa and all its people. David Steel has described him as “A giant of practical Liberalism” and that he certainly was, always providing sensible and realistic alternatives.
I join Andre du Toit when he writes that Colin made a remarkable and sustained contribution to our politics and public life for close to six decades and he will be sorely missed.      
Rest well, dear friend.

By Peter Soal