24 September 2007

A new history of the Liberal Party?

In a recent article Paul Trewhela calls for a new history of the Liberal Party
There is a major unmet need for a further serious, comprehensive history of the former Liberal Party of South Africa, especially while the younger of its former members (and some of its seniors) are mostly still alive and available for interview. Its neglect is a failing of the historians working on South Africa, and leaves a serious breach in an important and needed tradition. The current major history is Liberals against apartheid: A history of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953-1968 (Macmillan, London/St Martins Press, New York, 1997), written by a former senior leader of the party, Randolph Vigne.

The question that immediately comes to mind is whether a new history could add enough to Vigne's work to find a market and make a useful contribution to South African history. The Liberal Party was always a small one; it never gathered a large membership, partly because its ideas were not popular, and partly because of repression by the National Party government. What is amazing, however, is that most of the political ideas that the Liberal Party stood for have been embodied in the present South African constitution. That in itself makes its history worth recording, though whether two histories are needed is a moot point.

One of the reasons a new history is needed, according to Trewhela, is the prejudice against the word liberal, which is just as prevalent in the new ANC-ruled South Africa as in the old National Party-ruled one.
It is all the more needed since in present-day South Africa the language of power now replicates the language of power of the apartheid regime, in the violence and uncouthness of its diatribe against the word “liberal”. One need only glance at the language and categories of thought available weekly on the State President’s personal website, ANC Today, to get a measure of this... All the issues of cruelty and obfuscation which gave concern to George Orwell in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language” of 1946, rise up in their sinister unclarity.

And there Trewhela has a point. Ignorance of the meanings of "liberal" and "liberalism" is rife. One only has to look at recent blog and general web postings to find examples. Take, for example, a blog post by Mpush a few months ago, entitled Liberal equivocations:
Liberal politics in South Africa, on top of their bankrupt political vision, have an uncanny habit of working themselves into tight a corner. First it was the DP (Democratic Party) ‘Fight Back’ campaign during the 1994 South African democratic election whose cynical tone rubbed most black South Africans the wrong way. Then in 1999, the DP merged with NNP (New National Party) to become DA (Democratic Alliance), and could only come up with a bland ‘South Africa Deserves Better’ slogan to fight elections with much success.

This embodies many of the current misconceptions, misperceptions and misinformation about South African political history. First of all, it is debateable whether the Democratic Party could accurately be described as "liberal". The "fight back" campaign (which was in 1999, not 1994) was a blatant attempt to woo the white right with "swart gevaar" tactics. The message was clearly that people who were "gatvol" after five years of democracy should "fight back" against it by voting for the Democratic Party, which, it implied, would restore the status quo ante. There is no way that this kind of behaviour could be described as political liberalism. And shortly after the election, the Democratic Party united with the rump of the National Party to form the Democratic Alliance, and was responsible for introducing the abomination of floor crossing into our political system, which is very far indeed from being liberal. The Liberal Party stood for "one man, one vote" when it was unfashionable and dangerous to do so. The crosstitutes stand for "one politician, one vote" and to hell with the electorate.

Similar misconceptions and wrong information are found in the following, posted on a "white right" blog: ZAR: How the CIA defeated Apartheid & placed the ANC
The NP probably got a higher percentage of the black vote than did the Pan Africanist Congress, a relic of Cold War history, which received scant support in the election. Also disappearing into oblivion was the Democratic Party (DP),which was nothing more than the reconstituted old Liberal Party that Allard Lowenstein had backed. Once banned by the primitive white racist South African government, and later reinvented as the Progressive Party with the help of Harry Oppenheimer, the DP was basically the personal vehicle of Helen Suzman, who spent as much effort fighting the ANC as she did apartheid.

Faced with such monumental ignorance, perhaps a new history of the Liberal Party is needed -- but would the people who write such rubbish bother to dispel their ignorance by reading it? If they haven't learned it from Vigne's book, it is unlikely that they would learn anything from a new history.

So let's turn to people who might be expected to be better informed, like Barney Pityana, the principal of the biggest university in the country, in his recent Steve Biko memorial lecture:
The white liberal establishment, including white opposition parties in the apartheid parliament, the media, and institutions like the SAIRR [South African Institute of Race Relations], as well as NUSAS could not be entrusted with the task of liberation. They too were part of the movement that imprisoned the mind of the black people and created false hopes about what they might accomplish while at the same time participating in and enjoying the fruits of an evil system.

Their vision of South Africa was based on exploitative values, and the integration they espoused would entrench inequalities. There was also a connivance between all these forces: the apartheid regime and their Bantustan collaborators, and the liberal establishment, all had one thing in common: they applied and derived comfort and sustenance from a system of racial oppression, then they dared to believe that self-respecting black people would wish to be co-opted to their grand design, and finally to have their response to the condition of oppression programmed. That had to be rejected.
Now it is true that in this Barney Pityana does not mention the Liberal Party. It is also true that in its beginnings in 1953 it was mostly white liberals who started the Liberal Party (whether they constituted an "establishment" remains a moot point) and that initially it was largely white people who spoke for blacks, for example Margaret Ballinger, who was a "Natives Representative" in the South African parliament and so was indeed a white person who spoke for blacks. She was, however, elected by black people to speak for them, until even that voice was silenced by the National Party regime when it abolished the "Native Representatives".

What changed the Liberal Party, however, was the introduction of simultaneous translation equipment at party congresses in the early 1960s. Black members, who had hitherto passively listened to eloquent debates in English, suddenly found their voice, made themselves heard, and had a real influence on party policy, and especially the policy of "one man, one vote". Some of the more conservative white members left and joined the newly-formed Progressive Party, which adopted a francise policy that was nonracial, but reserved the vote for the rich and educated, effectively moving the criterion from race to class.

Perhaps what is needed is not another party history, but a discussion on what constitutes liberalism. Paul Trewhela's proposal, however, has the effect of reinforcing what Barney Pityana is talking about, since he seems to be concerned only about the white members of the Liberal Party who formed the African Resistance Movement and turned to violence. That was a purely white-initiated movement, which was marginal to the Liberal Party as such.

What is missing from Vigne's history, and it would appear, from Trewhela's proposed history, is the role of black liberals. Why is it that in South African political discourse, the word "liberals" is almost invariably preceded by the epithet "white"? Barney Pityana does it, but so does Paul Trewhela -- if it is not stated explicitly, it is understood.

In Vigne's history black liberals play bit parts. They flit across the pages and disappear off them almost as quickly as they appear.

And yes, I agree with Barney Pityana and Steve Biko that there were (and are) white people who try to speak for black people and thereby suppress the voice of black people (as, of course, I am doing in this article!) I just question whether such white people are necessarily liberals. To characterise the Democratic Party in its "fight back" campaign in 1999 as "liberal" is stretching the word "liberal" way too far.

But we do need, somehow, to clarify the term "liberal" and the idea of liberalism, and to make a distinction between liberals (of any colour) and pseudo-liberals.


Last year, when Yahoo removed my web pages on the Liberal Party, I posted some of this information on my blog at Notes from underground: The Liberal Party of South Africa


Anonymous said...

When is blood not blood?

Mbeki's tedious drivel in his weekly diatribes suggests that the man is either lacking in education or a fool - or well on his way to becoming another Mugabe.

At one time he asked whether it was appropriate to have a town named after Colonel Graham – a man he described as “the most brutal and most vicious of the British commanders”.

“The question must arise: Why do we celebrate a butcher?..."

Yet when Mbeki addressed the French National Assembly some time ago, he committed the apalling gaffe of praising Robespierre in his speech to the Assembly. Many deputies must have cringed.

As for Mebki himself, there must be good reasons why he withdrew his application for blanket amnesty (during the TRC hearings) when he was told that he would have to supply details of specific acts for which he required amnesty (apparently he did not quite understand the rules).

I think Paul Trewhela (a former inmate of Comrade Tambo's Stalinist gulag) may know something about these reasons.

Steve Hayes said...


I think Paul Trewhela has at least hinted at that in his article. The questions is, will a new history of the Liberal Party answer those questions?

Magotty Man said...

Well, it always sucks to be before your time - you are quickly forgotten, and your struggles go unappreciated.

But I have a question for you: How does the "old white liberals" of the 50's and 60's compare to the little England liberals of the 1890's (ie Chesterton and co.)?

And yes, I'm back in the blogosphere...

Steve Hayes said...


At the risk of a lengthy quote from Chesterton, I believe that what he said certainly influenced some Christians to be liberals. His argument here, for example, is why I supported the Liberal Party policy of "one man, one vote".

"As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.

I take this instance of one of the enduring faiths because, having now to trace the roots of my personal speculation, this may be counted, I think, as the only positive bias. I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity. If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange...

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them.

In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves--the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed."


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