Interview with Bill Johnson, director of The Helen Suzman Foundation

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
"I voted Labour more often than anything else but latterly I tended to vote Liberal."

Summary:

Aren't you better known as RW Johnson?

Yes. When I started writing I liked the austerity of just using initials - and then you have to go on the way you started. Actually, the greater and more annoying confusion has been with Paul Johnson.

Why annoying?

Well, he's very right wing - he hates trade unions and believes such nonsense as, for example, that anti-Semitism was invented by the Left. He and I have crossed swords in print over things like that.

Where did you fit in politically when you were in England?

Well, of course, all three of the major parties there would be liberal democratic in South

African terms, just as both American Democrats and Republicans would be liberals here. So the translation isn't easy.

I voted Labour more often than anything else -indeed, I was an adviser to the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, for a while - but latterly I tended to vote Liberal. At municipal level I sometimes voted Green, though mainly because I wanted to give my complacent Labour councillor a kick.

In order to take up your present job with the Helen Suzman Foundation you had to resign your Fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford. Was that a difficult decision?

Actually not so difficult. I love Magdalen and I was very happy that they voted me an Emeritus Fellowship when I left, but I am a South African and it is good to be back. I also relate very strongly, both politically and personally, to the work of the Foundation.

How do you mean?

When I was in student politics here I spent a lot of time campaigning for liberal causes - against the Separate Universities Act, against detention without trial, against restraints on freedom of speech, association and the like-. I feel entirely comfortable about working to promote liberal democracy - the Foundation's overall aim -here today.

Did your role in student politics get you into trouble?

The Security Police let me know of their displeasure, you might say. But what really got me into trouble was helping to protect the home of a well known Communist lawyer from attack.

This meant consorting with Communists like Ronnie Kasrils, Barry Higgs and Melville Fletcher. In the end the police came round to detain me just 10 days after I had left for Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.

I was lucky: they detained Barry Higgs and tortured him badly. After that I knew I couldn't come back. Friends coming out of detention told me that during interrogations it was always claimed that I had gone to the Soviet Union for "terrorist training", which was nonsense. Meanwhile, the Security Police found ways of making life difficult for me even in England for some years. I was jolly lucky compared to many, of course: Barry, who later edited Sechaba for the ANC from East Berlin, died of a heart attack in his 40s. Being tortured may have had something to do with that. That could easily have been me.

None of this fits very easily with the Inkatha sympathies you have sometimes been claimed to have.

Such claims simply demonstrate a sort of parochialism: if you're not one thing, you have to be the other-which is nonsense. I've spent a lot of time in KwaZulu-Natal and tried hard to maintain a balanced view of the IFP-ANC struggle. But that means giving the 1FP a sort of 50% share and in the eyes of the other side nothing less than 100% their way is acceptable. In fact I support neither side.

Are you a member of any political party?

No. The Foundation, by the way, started life linked to the DP but is not now linked to any party. We feel that the cause of liberal democracy is wider than any single party and that there are now at least partial liberals in many of the other parties. We want to reach out to them too.

Who is funding the Helen Suzman Foundation?

We are getting our core funding from a generous grant from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation but naturally we hope to attract funding from other sources too over time. There is a lot to do and it will cost money.

The Foundation is avowedly liberal, but what about this distinction made between "slide away" and "non-slide away" liberals?

If you don't stand up for liberal values, you're not a liberal but something else. And you have to stand up against all comers. We have a liberal democratic Constitution but a government made up of three parties, none of whom are liberal democrats. We are not going to consolidate democracy in this country without a struggle.

That struggle will depend quite a bit on what happens in our region: just imagine how the creation of a one party state in, say, Zimbabwe or Namibia would encourage similar developments here. Partly with that in mind, the Foundation will work to build contacts with pro-democracy and human rights groups throughout the region.

But does liberalism really have roots in Africa?

Good heavens, yes. In this country it's our longest and most distinguished tradition, if you think of it. Just consider the fine of liberal descent - it includes Dr Philip, Andries Stockenstroom, Adam Tas, the Colenso family, Hofmeyer, ZK Matthews, Albert Luthuli, Alan Paton, Van Zyl Slabbert, Denis Hurley - you could go on and on - not to mention Helen herself. But the vitality of liberalism has also been quite dramatically evident in the movement towards multi-party democracy in many African states in recent years.

What is the Foundation's biggest objective?

Preserving liberty and trying to make sure South Africa doesn't waste the first generation after liberation in the way that so many other African countries did.

So what will it do?

All sorts of things: training programmes, opinion surveys, policy research, economic projects, though always with the central thrust of trying to promote liberal democratic values and ideas. But it's also part of our job to take up important issues when we see them and have

Number I -December 1995 the guts to stand up and be counted if we see abuses or threats to liberal institutions.

And there's no doubt that our major liberal institutions such as the universities and the press are under great pressure right now. We're very proud of carrying the Helen Suzman name and I don't think we can do that if we lack the courage to speak out.

You clearly don't side with the "slide away" liberals. But the more tough minded liberals have been called right-wing, even what Ken Owen calls our "Tories".

Well, I'm certainly in favour of being tough minded but no one has ever called me a Tory!

What I think Owen means is the danger of liberalism becoming simply the market philosophy of the propertied classes. There is, moreover, a great deal that is illiberal in the present situation, things one is bound to oppose, and one can thus seem merely negative.

These are real pitfalls. It's important not to lose the generosity of spirit, the compassion and the concern for the under privileged, which have actually been hallmarks of liberalism here. And one has to be constructive. We must all want this country to succeed, must want the best for all its people. It's not just a matter of loving the country and being a patriot. It's just that there's no point in being here otherwise. I wouldn't stay here if I didn't feel that, and I'm not only staying, I came back.