Record of a remarkable political career

2008-10-02 08:05

Political autobiography is not to everyone's taste. But this book, written in a style as urbane as the face that beams from a generous selection of photographs, is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in recent South African history.

Eglin's longevity and seniority as a parliamentarian turn his memoirs into a history of the Progressive movement. The report of its Molteno Commission in 1962 was the very first attempt at a constitutional plan for a non-racial, democratic country. It recommended a national convention, an entrenched Constitution, a bill of rights, universal adult franchise, a defined role for the provinces and an independent judiciary. If all that sounds familiar, so it should: it is precisely what was agreed at Codesa in the early nineties.

The beliefs of Eglin and his colleagues were derided from right and left for many years, but the consistency and ultimate triumph of their political philosophy invests them with particular relevance. Eglin voted against the law that banned the ANC in 1960; and over 30 years later played a crucial role in the negotiations that established democratic institutions. This was a considerable achievement given his position on the very margins of national political power.

His story includes a tantalisingly brief account of army service in World War 2 and interesting reflections on his international travels, particularly in Africa, during which he attempted to keep open channels of communication for an increasingly isolated nation.

Eglin is a model of the ideal public servant, faithful to his ideals in spite of frustrating years in the wilderness. He exercised a liberal conscience in a harsh political landscape that was, and remains, fundamentally hostile. That makes this a book of both historical and contemporary importance, the record of a truly remarkable career.

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