Zach de Beer, who has died aged 70, was one of the handful of South African politicians who kept a flame of liberal idealism alight through years of darkness. With Helen Suzman and a clutch of other progressive-minded South African politicians, he entered parliament in 1953 under the banner of the middle-of-the-road United Party (UP) – at 24, the youngest MP ever elected.
Born a Cape Town doctor’s son, he became a doctor himself after studying at Diocesan College and the University of Cape Town. By the time of his election, the National Party had been in office for five years and the apartheid legislative juggernaut was rolling. The House of Assembly became the arena for some of the most impressive debates the stately institution had ever seen.
The UP in its soul was deeply conservative; but in the 50s, for all its shortcomings, it ripped apart, often with brilliance, the abominable policy which Dr DF Malan was imposing on the country.
There was a certain simplicity about apartheid in those early days. It brought out the best in even mediocre opposition MPs. Later, as the ruling National Party proceeded along its 46-year term, the struggle took its toll of anti-apartheid commitment. The result was a pitiable collapse of integrity. Nonetheless, those early debates should be acknowledged.
By 1959, however, the rhetoric had been exhausted. The time had come to move on to bolder policies. As the old-timers dug in, 11 UP parliamentarians broke away to found the Progressive Party (PP), backed by the Anglo American Corporation’s Harry Oppenheimer. Zach de Beer was one of them. So was Colin Eglin, who was the PP’s leader from 1971 to 1979. Contesting their first general election in 1961, the PP MPs were wiped out, De Beer among them. Only Suzman retained her seat, to become the PP’s solitary MP for 13 years. In 1974, as the UP disintegrated, the PP returned to parliament. By then De Beer, who had shared a bench in the House of Assembly with Oppenheimer, had joined Anglo American (1968), becoming a manager and then managing director of Nchanga Consolidated Copper Mines in Zambia. Returning to Johannesburg, he became an executive director of Anglo (1974-88).
In 1977, De Beer returned to parliament. Friendly and amusing, he was wholly fluent in English and Afrikaans, and, through Anglo American, acquired an intimate knowledge of what life was like at the top. By then the PP was trying to round up as many liberal-minded South Africans as possible into a single party and experiencing its own internal fissions and fusions.
A handful of “reformists” broke from the UP, and in 1975 the PP teamed up with them, transforming into the Progressive Reform Party; in 1977 it became the Progressive Federal Party (in which De Beer served as an MP from 1977-80, becoming its leader in 1988-89); and in 1989 the name changed again to the Democratic Party, with De Beer, Wynand Malan (a former National Party MP) and Dennis Worrall (later South Africa’s ambassador to Britain) as joint leaders.
This troika fell away in 1990, and De Beer was elected the DP’s leader until the 1994 elections which swept the ANC into power. The DP fared badly as whites flocked into the NP laager for security, and De Beer stood aside for Tony Leon as party leader. Yet he had played a prominent part in the multi party negotiations for South Africa’s interim constitution, and from 1994-1996 the ANC appointed him as ambassador to the Netherlands.
If De Beer had lived to see the results of tomorrow’s general elections, it would have gratified him. The DP will either overtake the NP as the official opposition, or at least add considerably to the seven MPs who presently represent it in the 400-member National Assembly.
Divorced from his first wife, Maureen Strauss, he later married Mona Schwartz. He leaves a son and two daughters.
Colin Eglin writes:
With the death of Dr Zach de Beer South Africa has lost one of its most respected public figures, known by friend and foe alike as a gentleman politician. I was his election campaign manager in the 1953 election – the first of many joint ventures in politics – and in parliament he immediately made his mark as a fluent analytical speaker and a progressive thinker.
Zach’s skills as orator and organiser were of inestimable value in getting the fledgling Progressive Party off the ground. He played an important role on the Molteno commission, which formulated the Progressive Party’s constitutional policy. Though developed way back in the early 60s, the proposed framework contained many features now included in South Africa’s new constitution. As South Africa headed for its first democratic election in 1994, Zach again demonstrated in the early stages of Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) the important role that a distinctive, perceptive voice from a minority party can play. While Zach was a loyal party politician, he always put the broader interests of his country first. Indeed, for Zach South Africa was an exciting and challenging place in which to live, and he had great confidence in its future.
Zacharias Johannes (Zach) de Beer, doctor, businessman, politician, born October 11, 1928; died May 27, 1999.