Liberalism Has Always Been A Powerful Force In South Africa

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Liberalism in South Africa is under the spotlight again. This is not surprising. After decades of being close to expiring in the intensive care ward for endangered South African political ideologies, the meaning of liberalism has retaken centre stage.

The Know Your DA campaign has also, within this context, reignited the fierce debate about what role liberalism played – or did not play – in the fight against apartheid. It is important because we cannot understand the present unless we consider the past. Liberalism in South Africa has always been a more powerful force than the political movement that with which it is most commonly associated: the Democratic Alliance (DA) and her predecessor parties.

Historically, notions of liberalism and liberal democracy transcended party politics. Liberals, in this sense, were, and are, to be found in nearly all political parties. The African National Congress (ANC) has a liberal democratic tradition, perhaps the nation’s oldest. The liberal democratic character of the Constitution was watered by the visionary non-racialism and egalitarianism of the ANC’s founders.

The Buthelezi Commission, the Dakar process and the work of the Constitutional Assembly were presaged by the human-right cadences of the Kliptown Freedom Charter.The connecting tissue between liberalism and the struggle history is strong and tightly knitted. And liberalism then, like now, was not a monolithic entity.

It is less known, for instance, that Jordan Ngubane, editor of Inkundla ya Bantu, after helping position Inkosi Albert Luthuli to become president of the ANC, eventually left the ANC to join the Liberal Party.
Ngubane did so because he became frustrated with the growing radical Africanist and Communist influences on the ANC.
Nor do many know that Selby Msimang, one of the 1912 founders of the ANC, jointly participated with Peter Brown in the inauguration of the Liberal Party of South Africa.
Few are aware the founder of the Communist Youth League, one of our greatest scientists and author of Time Longer than Rope, Eddie Roux, joined the Liberal Party in the 1950s.
When the ugly edifice of apartheid was going up in the 1950s, liberals like Peter Brown and Alan Paton were meeting with the likes of Edgar Brookes in non-racial gatherings.
In the same period, after being elected for the first time in 1953, Helen Suzman used her position to break the apartheid mould in an undemocratic whites-only Parliament.
The ‘Project’

Given the relative large size and success of the DA today, it is easy to forget how hard fought for this project was. A growing party of ‘muscular liberalism’ under Leon; the formation of the DA in 2000 (and subsequent setback with the floor-crossing debacle); the game-changing election of Helen Zille as Mayor of Cape Town in 2006 and party leader in 2007, all presented a different kind of challenge: one no longer for liberalism’s survival, but for its soul. Instead of debating its viability, the public debate had now shifted, once again, to liberalism’s raison d’être.

Liberals everywhere for a long time – and the DA were once no exception – enjoyed being able to wear their pristine principles with pride; secure in the knowledge that they were unlikely ever to have to implement them.  Liberalism often appeared to be a highly theoretical exercise; a well-meaning preserve of an enlightened and privileged class. This has now changed for many liberal parties from Ghana to Great Britain. In South Africa, the DA is now in power in many municipalities, in Cape Town and in the Western Cape. 
Helen Zille led the DA over the electoral ‘river Jordan’ in 2006 when she was elected as the Mayor of Cape Town. The DA formed a coalition of 7 parties that spanned the political divide, including parties with a religious hue. The theoretical approach of how liberals would handle power in a situation in which no party won an overall majority was translated into reality. It was especially important because, I suspect, the first step to removing the ANC from national power will be in the form of a DA-led coalition government.

Confounding the sceptics, the coalition lasted the entire five year term. Zille achieved this because she upheld clear liberal democratic principles. One, the DA in a coalition must be the dominant party in order to have a realistic chance of delivering its programme. Two, the DA would only enter coalitions based upon shared values, not a marriage of political convenience. Nor would the party enter into a coalition with any party that is antithetical to the values contained in the liberal democratic constitution.

The DA subsequently won the Western Cape in 2009 and Cape Town in 2011 with overall majorities. Zille’s high-wire and principled approach had paid off. She understood better than most that voters respond favourably to predictability – the mainstay of liberal democracy.

The rapid growth of the DA has sharpened the contours of the debate about the liberal identity and character of the party. It is easy for a movement to be ideologically pure and coherent when it is small. Managing internal competition, factionalism, and diverging strategies are the by-products of the growth dividend. As political parties grow, the pursuit of power tends to overtake the pursuit of ideals.

It is important to understand the DA’s growing appeal within the context of the global ascendency of liberalism. It is of the essence because liberalism has always been internationalist in complexion and spirit. Globalisation and economic integration precipitated the collapse of the old ideological lines of ‘left’ and ‘right’. The old way of doing politics no longer works. Voters are discarding old allegiances and choosing parties of government that work.

Long before the word was invented, Gladstonian liberals championed globalisation through support for free trade. While many politicians of the old ‘left’ and ‘right’ are pessimistic, liberals have been renewed by a sense of confidence and self-belief because they know the future belongs to the open-minded and pragmatic. The policy answers are not clear in a world of low predictability.
The late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, drawing on the philosopher Karl Popper’s reflections on what he called the ‘open society and its enemies’, articulated concepts of the ‘open mind’, ‘open enquiry’ and ‘open society’ best in the dying days of apartheid. He collaborated with George Soros, who himself escaped the tyranny of Hungary’s communist nomenklatura as a refugee, in establishing Open Society Foundations worldwide.
Today, liberals’ foundational belief that ‘wise policy is a setting of priorities – differentiating between that which is merely important and that which is truly essential’ befits the austere times in which we live. Never has liberalism’s balance between individual freedom and the power of the state to champion social responsibility and opportunity through taxation, welfare and public services been so widely understood as it in today’s complex world.
However, South African liberals live in a broken society that is riddled with multiple contradictions.  Liberal’s magisterial claims have not translated easily into this complex policy environment.

Liberalism’s intellectual and moral quagmire

During apartheid, racial separation was South Africa’s defining characteristic. Black South Africans were deliberately disadvantaged and denied economic opportunities in a ruthless form of asset stripping and restrictions: labour laws that prevented their advancement, land appropriation, business regulations banning ownership, Bantu education, and laws that kept black South Africans from living in the metropolitan areas.
Within this context, liberalism’s vision of non-racialism presents an intellectual and moral quagmire. If South Africa is on a journey to a non-racial society, must we, en route, make strategic interventions to counter the effects of apartheid’s asset stripping and restrictions?

One question we faced, for example, was should we use apartheid’s racial taxonomy to determine the categories of persons disadvantaged by discrimination to qualify for broad based black economic empowerment (BBBEE)? Is this not, as some liberals aver, simply not perpetuating the saliency of race? Does it leave the principles of non-racialism and equality under the law intact? I announced in Parliament this week that we would use simply use disadvantage as the criteria.
Not only do we believe in restorative justice, we also believe in distributive justice, in the form best put by the philosopher John Rawls, that the acid test of the credibility of any social policies is whether it benefits the least advantaged the most.
Liberals face another familiar liberal conundrum that our liberal counterparts in other societies, like President Barack Obama in America, will recognise: the shape and function of the state. As problems like income inequality and corporatism get bigger, do governments have to become more centralised to deal with them? Or rather – as I would argue – should a government centralise the goals, like in providing healthcare, while decentralising the means?
The economy is the most contested arena among liberals. While all liberals are generally in support of the free-market, they differ about the extent of the role of the state in the economy. Some liberals within and outside the DA are attracted to economic libertarianism, particularly of the British Tory variety. Other liberals could be described as Clintonite, advocating a “third way”: a form of benevolent pragmatism – a philosophy that asks of each policy: ‘is it good, does it work?’ After all, in a lighter aside, Plato, Bentham and Mill never had to run anything or respond to opinion polls or focus groups. Their ideologically pure belief systems could afford to be uncontaminated by the need for pragmatism.
I believe that our economic liberalism must not be constrained by ideological strait-jackets, but be further guided by a fundamental test: was the policy prescription a prudent undertaking even if it achieved its objective? Recall the ‘opportunity costs’: the lost potential to achieve other things with limited resources. This requires evidence-based policy-making and counter-factual modelling, as well as a willingness to accept that a policy outcome might run counter to a predetermined position.

There is no doubt, in my mind, that liberalism is now entrenched in our body politics as one of the two major competing political philosophies in South Africa today. I would argue that ours is the more intellectually coherent, forward looking and pragmatic of the two. As Mamphela Ramphele recently declared, Agang does not differ with the DA in policy terms, but only insofar, she says, as we capture the hearts of some and not others, an argument that will be tested in the course of time.

Let me conclude by wishing Agang well with their launch today. A close colleague of mine, I have always admired Mamphela as I admire her today. I will always admire her because she is courageous, steadfast, incorruptible, clever and a visceral democrat with a heart of gold. Over the next year we must be wise enough to not let the inevitable skirmishes of an electoral contest detract us from our overriding mission, which is to rid our land of corrupt and incompetent government.

Who knows what lies ahead, but there is no question in my mind that to be effective on that score requires the fine art of getting together in a like-minded formation of democrats, the only initiative that will capture and hearts and minds of the voters.


Be a part of CHANGE. It’s time to unite!

In 2019, we have an opportunity to bring the change that South Africa so desperately needs, but to do it, we need your help.

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