A noble and principled maverick

2009-02-03 00:00

Jan van Eck, who died last week, was one of the very few MPs who were able to be both effective parliamentarians and respected activists during the apartheid era. Pierre Cronjé was another.

Inside Parliament, Van Eck went straight for the jugular of successive presidents and ministers of law and order. He repeatedly embarrassed, shamed and infuriated the ruling party. It had no answer other than to banish him from Parliament from time to time. At the height of repression, and with the press unable to report on security issues, Van Eck used Parliament to demand answers about the disappearance of political activists — most notably Stanza Bopape from the Mamelodi Civic Association. His persistence resulted in even the New York Times reporting on the matter.

Van Eck’s fearless, strident and relentless pursuit of justice was not fully supported by the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), so he resigned from that party and represented Claremont as an independent from 1987 until 1989. Consequently, his candidacy as a Democratic Party (DP) MP in 1989 was controversial.

Nonetheless, he was elected and continued to be an independent thinker, whose support of the United Democratic Front (UDF) almost inevitably led him to the ANC. Van Eck’s standing in the Western Cape enabled a number of DP MPs to join the 1991 march on the tricameral Parliament, much to the annoyance of many of our colleagues.

In April 1992, Van Eck, Cronjé, Jannie Momberg, David Dalling and I joined the ANC, and until 1994 we served as independent MPs.

On June 2, 1992, the ruling party moved a resolution that Van Eck be suspended from Parliament because he had stated in Parliament that he had information that the government was responsible for the killing of a large number of black radicials. Hansard records how Van Eck responded:

“Mr Speaker, I stand up not to even attempt to reply to the sham allegation made against me in the two minutes that I am allowed. I shall stand here in silence for two minutes on behalf of myself and my four colleagues as a mark of respect for the thousands of South Africans on all sides who died during the apartheid war. I request hon[ourable] members to observe this silence of two minutes.”

Of course, bedlam broke out with the ANC being called “a gang of murderers, plunderers and bombers”. A member suggested to the Speaker that “a turn to speak is allocated so that one can make a speech. A speaker cannot use his turn to speak to stand in silence.” The Speaker then twice asked Van Eck whether he had finished speaking and when Van Eck replied “yes”, the Speaker ruled that he “must please take his seat”. The question was put and carried, and Van Eck was ordered to leave the chamber and serve a two-month suspension.

Van Eck served as an ANC MP from 1994 until 1999 and then involved himself in the search for peace and reconciliation in Ruanda and Burundi.

He also enjoyed close links with the Dutch anti-apartheid movement and he took a keen and concerned interest in the violence which our province endured. He visited and spoke in our city on several occasions.

Above all else, Van Eck was a maverick in the noblest sense of the word: an independent and principled thinker and doer, who did not sit comfortably in any caucus which was compromised. He was vilified and he was hounded, but his accusations and actions, were clearly vindicated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — Bopape was indeed murdered — and by the washing of feet by one Minister of Law and Order.

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