Retired politician Colin Eglin dies at 88

2013-11-30 11:09

Retired politician Colin Eglin has died in Cape Town at the age of 88. Eglin was in hospital with a cardiac problem and was later moved to a frail care centre, where he had been for the past week.

For more than three decades, Eglin was at the forefront of the struggle for liberal democratic values in South Africa.

He was a founder member of the erstwhile Progressive Party in 1959, leader of the party from 1971 to 1975, leader of its successors for two terms, leader of the official opposition in the House of Assembly for two terms, and in 1989 was elected chairman of the Democratic Party’s Parliamentary caucus.

Eglin was largely responsible for the Progressive Federal Party, which became the official opposition in the 1977 general election.

Eglin was born in Sea Point on April 14 1925, the son of Elsie May and Carl August Eglin.

The family home was a religious one, with the Pinelands Methodist Church being founded there.

His father died in 1934 and at his mother’s request he went to live with her sister and brother-in-law, who were farming outside Hobhouse in eastern Orange Free State.

He was the only English-speaking pupil at the Hobhouse Primary School and his experience helped him understand the deeply-divided Afrikaner politics, as well as making him fluent in Afrikaans.

Eglin left the Orange Free State in Standard Six and was then sent to the De Villiers Graaff High School in Villiersdorp, Cape Town, where he matriculated in 1939, aged 14.

He enrolled at the University of Cape Town for a BSc degree in quantity surveying but on turning 18 in 1943 he joined the army and did active service in the Middle East and Italy until 1945.

He returned to South Africa at the start of 1946, graduating at the end of that year with a BSc in quantity surveying.

He rose to be a partner in a quantity surveying firm with branches in Cape Town, Joburg and Windhoek.

But, from a young age, Eglin’s head was turned towards politics.

His political career started with his election as a Pinelands town councillor in 1950, from 1954 to 1958 he was member of the provincial council for Pinelands, from 1958 to 1961 MP for the seat, and from 1974 MP for Sea Point.

He was Cape provincial chairman of the Progressive Party from 1960 to 1966, chairman of the party’s national executive from 1966 to 1971, party leader from 1971 to 1975 (having succeeded Jan Steyter), leader of the Progressive Reform Party from 1975 to 1977, leader of the Progressive Federal Party from 1977 to 1979 (when Frederik van Zyl Slabbert succeeded him) and 1986 to 1988 (when Zach de Beer became leader).

In 1989, he was elected chairman of the Democratic Party’s parliamentary caucus.

Eglin travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, the US and China.

During visits to 15 African countries, he met many heads of state.

For many years, while she was the Progressive Party’s sole MP, he acted as Helen Suzman’s link man with extraparliamentary activities.

As leader, he was determined to make the PP more effective and more relevant to the South African political situation.

He identified and to a large extent mobilised the modern verligte (enlightened) Afrikaner and, as part of this process, started Deurbraak, an Afrikaans journal of verligte opinion.

He also held a symposium of 50 Afrikaner academics in 1971, from which a nonparty-political movement, Verligte Aksie, was formed.

Eglin was also instrumental in establishing an organisation called Synthesis, a nonparty-political study and discussion group whose six founder members included Van Zyl Slabbert, Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Professor Nic Olivier.

Under his leadership, the Progressive Party’s parliamentary breakthrough occurred in the 1974 general election, with five MPs joining Suzman, and a sixth in a by-election a few months later.

In November 1977, the PFP (successor to the PP and PRP) became the official opposition, and Eglin leader of the opposition.

The party retained this status until the 1987 general election when the Conservative Party replaced it as the official opposition in the House of Assembly.

Following dissatisfaction with his leadership in certain party circles after he had been accused by then minister of foreign affairs Pik Botha of betraying his confidence by seeking direct contact with Don McHenry, leader of the Western contact group in the SWA/Namibia settlement negotiations, Eglin stepped down in favour of Van Zyl Slabbert.

When the latter resigned in 1986, he was r-eappointed PFP leader until 1988 when his close confidant and political soul mate over many years, Zach de Beer, assumed the leadership.

Eglin’s parliamentary interest, apart from constitutional matters, was largely foreign affairs, and he acted as the PFP and the DP spokesperson in this area.

In 1949, he married Joyce Mabel Cortes, and the couple had three daughters. His sister Lorna became a missionary in Kenya in 1953.

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