Hayes family of South Africa

Peter Brown

On the page on Liberalism in South Africa I had links to newspaper obituaries of Peter Brown. Unfortunately the links produce a "Page not found" error. So I have posted some more material on Peter Brown here.

Peter Brown (1924-2004) was perhaps best known as the national chairman of the Liberal Party of South Africa.

Natal Witness obituary

Originally published in the Natal Witness 30 June 2004

Liberal spirit

IN South Africa it's become common to sneer at the word "liberal", and at those whose espouse liberal principles. Some take their dislike to racist lengths, and even speak of "liberalism" as undermining democratic rule.

The death of Peter Brown, co-founder in 1953 of the Liberal Party, prompts a re-examination of the meaning of the word and the concept. Dictionaries tell us that "liberal" in its political sense refers to social or political views that favour progress and reform, and that advocate individual freedom. When applied to temperament or behaviour it describes one who is giving, generous and tolerant of others. Those who are genuinely liberal in their political, social or personal lives, generally pursue a quiet, unassuming, even self-effacing path - a path on which there's no room and no time for self-aggrandisement.

Peter Brown was remarkable in many ways. Worth noting here is the fact that, unlike many who bore the brunt of apartheid's rigours, he was privileged - white, and from a comfortable background. Like so many like him, he could have sat back and enjoyed the good things life (and apartheid) brought him or, at least, have remained passively acquiescent in the status quo.

Instead, intelligent and perceptive and possessing an extraordinary empathy for those whose lives were affected by apartheid as his was not, he commenced working on their behalf, quietly, unremittingly, with no thought of personal reward and with little concern for the unpleasant consequences - consequences he suffered in over 10 years of detention, banning and house arrest. As time passed and the political situation changed, for the worse, and later for the better, Brown changed with it, ever flexible and creative as he adjusted his efforts to the needs of the day.

Like that other outstanding activist from a very different cultural background, Beyers Naude, Peter Brown's humanity and compassion impelled him to step outside the traditional mould, and to make a difference - a difference which must, surely, have contributed to South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy. He was an exemplar of the true meaning of "liberal", an idealist who was also a realist, a man of honour, of humour, of practical kindliness and a large heart.

At the time of writing, a copy of the original article was available on The Web Archive

Mail & Guardian obituary

Originally published in the Mail & Guardian

Adieu to a 'particular kind of liberal'

by Michael Gardiner

Peter Brown is likely to be remembered in South Africa as the national chairperson of the Liberal Party. He was one of its founders in 1953 and was its chairperson when it disbanded in 1968, owing to the prohibition of racially mixed political organisations.

Brown epitomised a particular kind of liberal in the era of increasingly repressive apartheid. He worked full-time in the interests of the Liberal Party and, in so doing, kept in regular contact with the leadership of the African National Congress as he laboured to represent the interests of African landowners, who were being forcibly moved off their land as part of Hendrik Verwoerd's mad plans for rural apartheid.

His steady guidance led the Liberal Party to join the ANC and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in the 1959 campaign to have the British people boycott South African produce. That was the beginning of a new kind of politics and led eventually to sports boycotts and disinvestments.

But Brown also worked to bring different interests and movements together. As Allen Cook, former deputy director of the International Defence and Aid Fund, said: “Peter was a wonderful, humane and humorous person — notable in his willingness to work with others towards the common objective of defeating apartheid.

His influence was felt particularly in Pietermaritzburg, where he was based. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there were continuous protests by African women over the inability of their families to earn enough to stave off starvation.

And time and time again, their “asinamali [we have no money]” protests would be broken up by police. In this turmoil, in which the ANC and the NIC intervened, the voice of the Liberal Party would be present, trying to explain why women were risking their lives in protest.

As a sportsman, Brown declined to represent South Africa in the game of polo. Banned for 10 years, he opened a branch of the family wholesale business so that he could keep in contact with people in the KwaZulu-Natal region through the storekeepers and traders who did business with him.

Perhaps Brown's greatest legacy lies in the work that he did in support of African landowners being forced off their freehold. Subsequent to a series of dispossessions, he worked with John Aitchison to form the Association for Rural Advancement to assist African farmers to reclaim, resettle and work their land.

As Massachusetts Chief Justice (and former president of the National Union of South African Students) Margaret H Marshall said in response to the news of his death: “Peter was a great human being with a great heart.”

Brown is survived by his wife Phoebe, three children and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at the Anglican Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg on July 9 at 2.30pm.

Peter Brown, born in 1924, died June 2004, aged 79

At the time of writing, a copy of this article was also available at The Web Archive


There is also a biography of Peter Brown, Opening men's eyes by Michael Cardo.

Opening Men's Eyes: Peter Brown and the Liberal Struggle for South AfricaOpening Men's Eyes: Peter Brown and the Liberal Struggle for South Africa by Michael Cardo

My review of this book is here: Biography of Peter Brown, South African liberal leader | Khanya

There is more about this book on Books LIVE.

Cardo's biography, however, puts more emphasis on what Peter Brown did after the Liberal Party was forced to disband in 1968.

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Created: 23 November 2009
Updated: 11 October 2013