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Denis Worrall's 'The Independent Factor': A review

Dave Steward writes on the remarkable career of the academic, journalist, diplomat and politician

The 'Independent Factor' by Dr Denis Worrall

22 March 2019

Denis Worrall’s recent autobiography, “The Independent Factor” takes readers on a trip to another time and another world – the world of South African politics before 1994.  Few people can be better qualified to conduct us on this safari to the past than Worrall.  He was an academic who studied not only in South Africa – but also at Cornell in the USA and the university of Ibadan in Nigeria.  After returning to South Africa in 1965 he taught at the Universities of Natal (Durban), Rhodes, UNISA and Witwatersrand. 

Worrall also ventured into journalism. He wrote columns for the Afrikaans newspapers Beeld and Rapport and founded and edited New Nation – a highbrow political journal that lasted for eight years until 1974.

Worrall knew many of the leading figures of the age - including Hendrik Verwoerd, Harry Oppenheimer,  Anton Rupert, John Vorster, and  PW Botha.  These contacts – and the knowledge that he had gained as a prominent political scientist – facilitated his transition from academia and journalism to politics.

In 1974 Prime Minister John Vorster appointed him to the Senate where he quickly developed the reputation for being an outspoken reformer -  to the extent that he was reported in the press as supporting “full citizenship for all citizens.”  This, no doubt, led the NP leadership to pressure him into fighting a difficult by-election in Durban North.  He lost – but fought a good campaign.   In the 1977 general election he stood as a candidate for the National Party in the Cape Town Gardens constituency.  In a surprise victory,  he won the seat – with a handsome majority – against his PFP opponent, Harold van Hoogstraaten.

The same year, Worrall was appointed to the Schlebusch Commission which had been tasked with devising a new political system that would include Coloured and Indian South Africans.  The Commission proposed that the Senate should be abolished and replaced with a President’s Council that would include White, Coloured, Indian and Chinese experts.

In 1978, Worrall was appointed to the cabinet level position of Chairman of the President’s Council’s constitutional committee – tasked with considering constitutional options for the resolution of South Africa’s core political problems.  At this point in the narrative Worrall observes that “there are many scholarly analyses of the President’s Council and whether or not it contributed to a better South Africa, so I’m not going to add to them here.”  This is a great pity.  The Council went on to make the recommendations that led to the adoption of the Tricameral Constitution in 1983 – and later considered possibilities for the accommodation of black political rights.   It would have been fascinating to learn a little more about the Council’s deliberations.

The trail-blazing manner in which Worrall handled his key position in the President’s Council must have aroused concerns, and made enemies in the NP leadership (probably including Chris Heunis, the powerful Minister of Constitutional Development).  In June 1982 he was asked to take over as South Africa’s Ambassador in Canberra - in accordance with the NP’s time-honoured practice of dispensing with problematic politicians by sending them to distant embassies. 

Pik Botha sweetened the offer by promising Worrall the ambassadorship in London as soon as it became open.  In addition, he would be sent to our United Nations Mission in New York for an immersion in South Africa’s international diplomatic tribulations.  I was then South Africa’s ambassador to the UN and had the pleasure of getting to know Denis during his visit.

After serving in Canberra for two years – with as much distinction as our parlous relations with Australia permitted – Pik Botha made good on his promise and Worrall was transferred to the ambassadorship in London.

He arrived at a fraught moment in South Africa’s relationship with the United Kingdom.  Crisis after crisis burst over South Africa House.   They included the ’Coventry Four’ imbroglio, caused by the failure of the South African government to keep its word to return to the UK four officials who had been charged with breaching the UK’s arms embargo against South Africa.  The next crisis was caused by the Rubicon speech – that had been massively pre-sold by Pik Botha – only to have the wild expectations that he had raised shattered by PW Botha’s disastrous speech on 15 August 1985.

This calamity was followed by the mauling that PW Botha gave to the hapless British Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe.  Later, in 1986, the SADF cynically torpedoed the visit to South Africa by Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group (EPG) by launching cross border attacks on Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana on the very day that the EPG was scheduled to meet with the President’s Council’s constitutional committee.  Margaret Thatcher was furious and perplexed: she had desperately wanted Botha to make concessions to assist her in her lonely struggle to ward off further sanctions.  However, the irascible Botha dismissed all such initiatives as unacceptable interference.

Through all this Worrall succeeded in maintaining an open line of communication with Prime Minister Thatcher – and in winning both her – and her advisor, Charles Powell’s – respect and admiration.   

By 1987 Worrall had had enough. One of the last straws was the government’s refusal to support the KwaZulu-Natal Indaba – which he believed offered an imaginative, moderate and workable way out of South Africa’s racial impasse.

At the end of January 1987 he resigned as ambassador and returned to South Africa to stand in the 1987 general election as an independent in the Helderberg constituency in the Western Cape. His opponent was his old nemesis Chris Heunis, who had won the seat in the 1987 election with a majority of almost 3 000.  Worrall’s vigorous and imaginative campaign was one of the media highlights of the election.  In the end, to Heunis’s shock and astonishment, he came within 39 votes of victory.

Although Worrall lost the election, his campaign had made him an opposition super star.  He went on to found the Independent Party which began to make serious inroads into the Progressive Federal Party’s (PFP) traditional support base.  In 1989, after months of haggling, Worrall’s Independent Party, Wynand Malan’s National Democratic Movement, and the PFP led by Zach de Beer, joined forces to establish the Democratic Party.   In the general election of September 1989 – only a few months after its establishment – the new party won 33 seats and 21% of the vote of the white electorate.  Worrall was elected with a handsome majority in the Durban seat of Berea.

However, the 1989 election was the last poll in which white voters would determine the course of South African politics.  The announcements that FW de Klerk made on 2 February 1990 would change South Africa forever and would shatter the paradigm within which politicians like Worrall had played their once significant roles.   At the beginning of 1994, as the old era drew to a close, Worrall announced that he would not be standing for re-election and would instead pursue a career in the private sector.

And so Worrall’s remarkable peregrinations through South Africa’s academic, journalistic, diplomatic and political landscape drew to a close.  His career was, perhaps, too full and interesting for a book of only 236 pages.  However, what “The Independent Factor” lacks in length and footnotes, it more than makes up in readability.  Unlike many more weighty biographies that clutter our bookshelves it is much more likely to be read, enjoyed and remembered.

The book is appropriately titled:  in everything that he did, Worrall charted and followed his own independent  course – whether breaking ranks with his academic colleagues by joining the National Party;  or by streaking ahead of the NP in advocating political rights for all South Africans; or, as an ambassador, in wrestling with the obduracy of his own government – and finally, as a politician, in leading the way to uniting the fragmented opposition in the Democratic Party. 

In all this he was often a trail blazer – but, one suspects seldom a comfortable partner or an easy team player.  His greatest contribution was probably his role in helping to establish the Democratic Party.  In its first election in 1989 it received the support of 21% of the white electorate: in the forthcoming election its successor is expected to receive a similar level of support from all the voters of South Africa.

"Denis Worrall’s The Independent Factor —- My Personal Journey through Politics and Diplomacy“ is available at all good book stalls and also on Amazon as a Kindle eBook and Paperback".

Dave Steward is Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation.