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This, then, was the world that Conor was to step into when he arrived in Cape Town in 1986. His only preparation for what lay ahead derived from his disagreements within the AAM over the academic boycott of South Africa which the ANC had called for. Conor’s disagreement with the moral absolutism of the AAM over the academic boycott and related questions had brought him into conflict with Kader Asmal, a South African émigré lawyer based at Trinity College, Dublin, who was the founder and head of the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement. Asmal was a somewhat self-important man who took it as almost a personal affront that Conor felt free to disregard the AAM “line” whenever he disagreed with it. Conor, with typical self-confidence, felt that his anti-racist credentials were well known, that his record in the Congo and Ghana was internationally respected and that he was therefore immune to the charges of reactionary and racist attitudes which the angry Asmal flung at him. Similarly, when Asmal claimed he had helped find IRA volunteers to help the ANC, Conor denounced any links with the IRA. But, of course, although these disagreements were often fierce they were essentially academic and contained within the usual law-abiding limits of public debate.

Word of Conor’s invitation to the University of Cape Town quickly reached the ears of Asmal, who was, of course, incensed that Conor was going to practise what he preached and would thus disregard the academic boycott. Telephone messages flowed in rapid succession to the ANC high command and the AAM in London and to the Student Representative Council at UCT where, according to contemporary witnesses, the UDF activists were instructed to “make it hot for O’Brien” and to “kill him”. The result was that news of Conor’s impending visit spread across the campus, as did a wave of student protests demanding cancellation of his visit. Conor was aware of this effervescence but decided that it was a matter of principle for him to go ahead and insist on free speech. Conor’s adopted son, Patrick, himself of African descent, decided to accompany his father.

Conor was greeted in Cape Town by a lunch party in his honour given by the university’s Vice Chancellor, Dr Stuart Saunders, in the fine setting of the UCT medical school. But by this time student protest against Conor’s visit had become fairly noisy so when Conor got down to business with his first public lecture before an audience of some 200 in the main lecture hall in the Leslie Building (the Social Science block) the doors were locked shut once the hall was full — a most unusual precaution, for such lectures were open affairs. No sooner had Conor begun speaking than an angry crowd of around 200 mainly black demonstrators began hammering on the doors, eventually breaking them down, and invaded the room, disrupting the lecture. Conor was unable to proceed and instead faced a series of angry comments and questions about his defiance of the boycott.
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