In the continent of its birth liberalism proved most attractive to the propertied classes who had embraced the anti-feudal ethos of high social status attained through individual achievement rather than through birth. As propertied persons the early liberals were, however, very distrustful of the working poor and the property-less, whom they saw as venal and easy to corrupt. The franchise and attendant political rights were therefore to be enjoyed by the propertied classes and extended to the other classes on the basis of merit, demonstrated by a certain lifestyle.
At its birth in the 19th Century Cape Colony, South African liberalism emerged into the midst of an expansionist European settler colonial society in which class, race, ethnic origin, religion and even home language directly impacted on a person’s status. Liberalism was a political current among the White settlers and fraught with ambiguities and contradictions.
These are captured in the persons of Thomas Pringle and William Porter. Pringle, the abolitionist and pioneer of a free press, identified with the Africans’ resistance to colonial subjugation. His poem, ‘Makanna’s Gathering’ is an unequivocal endorsement of the defensive wars of resistance waged by the Africans against Boer and Brit.
The other renowned liberal, Porter, was a clever imperial political strategist. As Attorney General of the Cape Colony he was largely responsible for the 1853 Cape constitution that was deliberately designed to counter the weight of the Afrikaner vote by encouraging a compact among the propertied classes of all races. Porter famously remarked: ‘I would rather meet the Hottentot at the hustings, voting for his representative, than meet the Hottentot in the wilds with his gun on his shoulder’.
South African liberalism’s split personality can be traced to the decades preceding the opening up of the mines in 1867. The humanism integral to liberalism persuaded men like Pringle to raise their voices against racism, slavery and colonialism. But the liberals were also integral to the colonial settler society and saw their future within it. Like his European contemporaries, Porter and his supporters distrusted the poor. In the Cape Colony the working poor were coloureds and Africans. The Cape franchise thus had both a class and racial dimension.
For African and coloured voters the Cape franchise was the token of their citizenship, the promise of an expanding floor of rights as equal subjects of the British Empire with the whites. For the strategists of empire it was a political instrument to impose and secure British hegemony in South Africa by containing the Afrikaners, on one hand, while co-opting the black propertied classes as junior partners, on the other. The Colonial Office in London regarded the Cape franchise as a device to build a multi-racial bloc amongst the propertied classes as the bulwark of empire in Southern Africa. Concrete material and political interests undergirded Cape liberalism.
In exchange for the surrender of Boer sovereignty at Vereeniging the British surrendered the political rights of their erstwhile African and coloured allies in the Cape. The Cape franchise was sold down the river at Vereeniging, a betrayal confirmed by the 1905 Native Affairs Commission at which the colonial system that evolved into apartheid was first elaborated. The 1905 Commission charted a new path for South Africa in which only whites would be citizens and all blacks would be reduced to subject peoples. The tattered shreds of the Cape franchise were swept away in 1955 when the NP finally disenfranchised the coloureds.
For most of the 20th century the overwhelming majority of whites refused to accept and embrace the verdict of history: that it was impossible to unscramble the historic omelette that South Africa has become. Twentieth century white South African politics was dominated by ever more dangerous attempts to deny and reverse the reality that black and white lived together in a common society, in which powerful centripetal forces were knitting them ever closer together.
Running like a blue thread through the history of South African liberalism is a readiness to defer to white prejudices that has been consistently repaid in the coin of unambiguous rejection. Left to their own devices after the removal of the Natives Representatives, for the next 25 years the white electorate denied every liberal, save Helen Suzman, a seat in Parliament.
The recommendations of the Fagan Commission of 1946 represent the farthest that post-war South African liberalism was prepared to go in embracing a common society. One of Fagan’s findings was that African workers were destined to displace whites in virtually every sector of the economy.
Smuts downplayed the significance of the Commission’s findings for fear of confirming the NP’s ‘swart gevaar’ electoral rhetoric in 1948. It remains a matter of speculation what direction South African politics might have taken had Smuts had the political courage to run on the Fagan Commission’s recommendations in 1948. Fear of the conservatism of white voters persuaded him to be cautious.
The vision of the liberals of the 1950s was essentially integrationist. They sought a state designed, defined and dominated by the white minority, into which ‘deserving’ blacks would be integrated on the basis of merit. As Percy Qoboza once explained, there was degrading racial presumption implicit in the notion of a qualified franchise that assumed that any white tramp was competent to have the franchise, while the African editor of an important daily newspaper was required to demonstrate his competence.
South Africa’s liberals tried for decades to merge elementary democratic principles with a political order that would give the white minority veto power over the will of the majority. During the early fifties they thought a qualified franchise, applicable only to blacks, would achieve this. Liberals accepted that white and black lived in a common society, but it would be on terms determined by the whites.
The Liberal Party found it increasingly difficult to manage this tension in its politics. Ghana’s independence in 1957 had set in motion the rapid decolonization of the African continent. Patrick Duncan used his journal, ‘Contact’, to cover these unfolding African events. By 1962 the Liberal Party was ready to embrace a universal franchise and was remaking itself as a predominantly black party, supportive of majority rule. Patrick Duncan, the most radical among them, ended his life as a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).
The Liberal Party opted to disband when the NP statutorily banned non-racial political parties. The Progressive Party (Progs), explaining that this was the only way to retain a foothold in Parliament, bowed to the racist ban and expelled its black members. For well-nigh 20 after this the Progs managed to hold on to exactly one seat in Parliament.
For diametrically opposite reasons, both white and black South Africans distrusted liberals and found liberalism unattractive. The gestation of South Africa’s liberal democratic Constitution was ironically a dialogue between parties from the opposing poles of the political spectrum – the ANC on the left, the NP on the right. Representing constituencies that were suspicious of liberalism, in the process of finding each other in negotiations they arrived at the common ground of the institutions of liberalism.
Racial oppression and apartheid in South Africa were the institutional framework brought about by the development of capitalism in a colonial environment. It required mass action, in which the individual was often subordinated to the collective, to bring it down. Liberals played a very marginal role in these developments.
Because they have historically preferred reformist instead of revolutionary methods, liberals have invariably locked themselves into white South African politics, making them hostages of the racially privileged whites. The poor performance of the Progs after 1963 indicates that it was only the wealthiest whites, fearing no competition from blacks, who were ready to relax the regime of racial oppression.
For two decades after 1910 black leaders clung to the illusion that political moderation on their part would persuade a critical mass of white voters to elect a reformist government that would incrementally abolish racism. But Liberals made no headway among a white population that recognized and cherished its status of privilege at the expense of the blacks. Liberals consistently opted to yield to the prejudices of the whites, leading to a parting of the ways in the post-war years.
‘The Africans’ Claims’, adopted by the ANC conference in 1943, defines the divergent paths hewn by those who had formerly been allies. Democracy in South Africa would inevitably result in the political dominance of the African majority. As this was an outcome whites found unacceptable, the liberals preferred to compromise democratic principles and capitulate to racial bigotry. In opposition to the integrationist project of the liberals, the liberation movement put forward a national democratic revolution. The liberation movement’s vision is captured in the preamble of the Freedom Charter, as ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it!’ But this would only be realized by a democratic transformation that would amount to a political revolution.
A South African nation, defined not by race, color, creed or ethnic origins, was considered an extremely radical idea during the mid-1950s. By the 1970s it had become so commonplace that only the most dogmatic racists and ethnicists rejected it. Yet at that moment the party that had become the flagship of liberalism, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), was still not comfortable with a universal franchise. When it finally did embrace this basic democratic notion, the PFP hedged its bets with a policy of federalism, explicitly designed to thwart what it delicately called ‘majoritarianism’.
After the revival of a mass movement in the wake of the Soweto uprising, those liberals who had overcome their fears of African majority rule found ways of cooperating with the movements of the oppressed. Despite their own misgivings they discovered that the ANC had acquired a growing hegemony over the struggle for change and in order to be relevant they had to relate to it. Liberals, who remained fearful of democracy, sought and found temporary allies amongst homeland leaders, toyed with various constitutional models or tried to stimulate dialogue among the antagonists.
As the system of apartheid unravelled during the 1980s, liberals could be found spread among a number of political trends. On the right, the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Foundation and a few smaller bodies that had recently discovered the evils of apartheid on the right. On the left, the Five Freedoms Forum, the End Conscription Campaign plus smaller bodies affiliated to the United Democratic Front. In the centre was the Institute for a Democratic South Africa (IDASA). There was also a new phenomenon, which Thabo Mbeki dubbed ‘the New Voortrekker’. The 1988 elections indicated shifts in the tectonic plates of white political opinion. A few liberals were elected on the PFP ticket. But in CODESA I and II the liberals were a sideshow.
Liberalism remained an isolated minority trend among whites. The NP’s impressive showing in the 1994 elections demonstrated that the majority of whites still supported the party of apartheid, perhaps in the hope that it would thwart the ambitions of a democratic government.
The political practice of our liberals tends to be ambivalent, betraying a lingering skepticism about the political capacity of the poor and non-propertied. South African liberals express this in insulting references to our general elections as ‘racial referenda.’
Under Helen Zille’s leadership, liberalism’s flagship, the Democratic Alliance, has finally come to terms with the post 1994 political settlement and dropped its ‘fight back’ posture. It is trying to appeal to black voters by appropriating the language, style, the icons, images and totems of the liberation struggle.
Perhaps one’s final verdict could be the words of Oscar Wilde: ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!’
- This essay first appeared in the new issue of Amandla! Magazine which goes on sale today. It is kindly republished here with the permission of the editors.