Reflections on local liberalism

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
Emeritus professor and political analyst, David Welsh, cogitates on the role of liberals and liberalism during the struggle.

South African liberals have no need to react defensively to the recent attacks on them, even though they appear to be part of a concerted campaign. They are heirs to a great tradition that has eclipsed all its modern rivals.

It is a matter of empirical fact that all contemporary democratic states incorporate the core values of liberalism (to greater or lesser extents, depending on the quality of democracy in each case) and market-driven economies with vigorous private sectors. There is no exception to this proposition.

Moreover, a recent survey of economic freedom (reported in The Economist of 22 June 2002) shows that "beyond making people richer, economic freedoms also make them politically freer".

Today, liberalism is a broad church. For many modern liberals the distinction between liberalism and social democracy is blurred. It is quite wrong to suppose that liberalism is a 'laissez-faire' system and that the 'trickle down' effect is its only instrument of reform. In many states liberals have supported the interventionist state on a number of fronts, ranging from reform of working conditions, health, education and the curbing of monopolies. But it is now widely accepted that excessive intervention or regulation can lead to costly inefficiencies.

The flipside of the liberal belief in circumscribing state power is the insistence on a strong civil society (the private sphere of society). As much modern research shows, the strength of civil society is one of the critical variables in shaping a democratic system.

Closely related to this proposition is the insistence that the distinction between party and state be maintained. The failure to do so has been one of the main causes of democracy's struggle to survive in many parts of Africa. All too often liberation movements have blurred the distinction, and even integrated state institutions into their own (repressive) machinery. Zimbabwe is one of the most egregious examples.

The consequence of this is that opposition parties are not seen merely as opponents but as traitors and violators of the (non-existent) 'general will'. There are disturbing whiffs of similar thinking in South Africa. They need to be exposed: Jacobin "democracy" is no democracy at all.

Turning to South Africa, the first point to make is that liberals were, and are, a very mixed bag: anyone who opposed racial discrimination was deemed to be a 'liberal', even if his or her views on a variety of other issues were deeply illiberal. Another preliminary point is that it is totally ahistorical to visit the sins, shortcomings and errors of the liberals of 100 years ago on contemporary liberals. Barney Pityana's invoking of John X. Merriman's alleged failings is simply ludicrous.

No white liberal, as far as I know, has ever attempted to claim a major role for liberals in South Africa's transition. I, for instance, always believed that the conflict was essentially one between Afrikaner and African nationalisms. But this does not mean that the liberals (white and black) were without significance or that they confined themselves to hand-wringing from the sidelines. Many took seriously Steve Biko's advice to work in and on the white community (a counsel that Barney Pityana and his ideological kinsfolk seem to have conveniently forgotten).

Liberals played two important roles: they kept the debate on an alternative future alive, and they acted as watchdogs and as monitors of the human damage caused by apartheid.

Regarding the first role: they played no small part in preventing the white bloc from closing ranks in a defensive laager. White and black never confronted each other as monolithic blocs. Had that been the case civil war would have been inevitable, with horrendous bloodshed and a fairly comprehensive razing of the country.

Liberals need make no apology for having worked through the apartheid parliament. A difficult choice had to be made. Did you compromise your principles and serve in a 'whites only' parliament, or did you opt out and forego the possibility of presenting an alternative in the highest forum of the land, to say nothing of lambasting the apartheid government and asking awkward questions?

(As an aside, I might ask, if serving in apartheid institutions was such a bad thing, how come the ANC has gratefully accepted into its ranks a number of ex-MPs and homeland politicians, including one who is a cabinet minister, and now makes a pact with the NNP?)

I doubt whether many ex-Robben Island prisoners would not express gratitude to Helen Suzman for using her parliamentary position to gain access to prisons, thereby causing a marked improvement in conditions.

The watchdog function has been integral to the liberal cause for many decades. It started in 1929 with the South African Institute of Race Relations, which has continued this role ever since. The Liberal Party was instrumental in the 1950s and 1960s in highlighting the plight of victims of 'black spot' removals and repression in the Transkei. Peter Brown, the national chairman of the Party, devoted a lifetime to exposing injustice. He languished under a banning order for 10 years as a result.

Likewise the Black Sash, consisting mainly of liberal women (a few would reject this designation), played a major role in monitoring the pass laws and related bureaucratic coils that entrapped many hapless victims.

Monitoring, exposing and highlighting the iniquities of apartheid were not the same as manning the barricades or engaging in physical confrontations and mass action. I believe, nevertheless, that the activities of these organizations, together with liberals in the universities, churches and the press, contributed greatly to the indictment of apartheid, which, in turn, contributed to the loss of élan among key Nationalists that accelerated the erosion of apartheid.

I am not claiming that the liberal critique rubbed off on the Nationalists: I have no way of telling. But it seems to me highly probable that the persistence of the critique, combined with an obviously deteriorating security and economic situation, must have had an impact that encouraged them to look for a way out of the corner into which they had painted themselves.

One of the factors that impeded the development of a closer relationship between liberals and the ANC was the liberals' strong opposition to communism. This opposition never degenerated into McCarthyism or 'red-baiting'. They opposed the banning of the Communist Party and banning of the many individuals, communist and non-communist alike, who were restricted in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act.

I personally knew a number of dedicated communists, including Jack Simons and Bram Fischer. I have no doubt that they were animated by humane concerns, and joined the Communist Party at a time when it was the only party that admitted members of all races. But I could never understand how people who were obviously genuine in their opposition to racial discrimination and authoritarian government in South Africa could support, virtually uncritically, monstrous systems like those in the USSR and its satellites. Even Joe Slovo's Has Socialism Failed? was lamentably unsuccessful as an attempted salvage operation.

One has to acknowledge the bravery and selflessness of individual communists, but also to recognize that much of their influence in the ANC derived from the Soviet bloc's support of the liberation movement. For many years they were virtually the sole providers. The SACP's doctrines also found receptive ears in the ANC. Even a non-communist like Nelson Mandela could describe in 1976 the writings of Marx and Engels as "a blueprint of the most advanced social order in world history, that [has] led to an unprecedented reconstitution of society and to the removal of all kinds of oppression for a third of mankind".

Other issues of disagreement between liberals and the ANC are the armed struggle and economic sanctions. In both cases liberal opposition rested on plausible, even cogent, grounds.

I could understand the frustrations that led to the abandonment of non-violence and the recourse to violence. Indeed, what was surprising was that the change took so long to occur. But I was never convinced that the armed struggle was a viable strategy: perhaps it had some symbolic value as 'armed propaganda', but toppling the state or forcing it to the negotiating table was, in my view, not going to happen as a consequence.

My fear, on the other hand, was that violence would cause that state to unleash its own counter-violence with unprecedented ferocity. One had a foretaste of what could happen in 1976 and again in 1985-6. Neither side would have 'won' the civil war that was the logical consequence. A 'new' South Africa might have been born, but only out of ashes and surrounded by mountains of corpses.

Regarding sanctions: I simply did not believe that they would work, in the sense of forcing the government to negotiate. I readily concede that the (actually quite limited) sanctions that were imposed slightly raised the cost of enforcing apartheid.

All along my belief had been that the decisive factors in toppling apartheid would be, firstly, sheer numbers, and, secondly, that the most hopeful source of leverage for blacks was their labour power, combined with their consumer power.

On the first point it is relevant to recall just how wrong were the demographic projections by the apartheid planners in the 1950s and 1960s, and the absurd belief that somehow by 1978 the flow of Africans from the rural to the urban areas would reverse itself. On the second it is pertinent to recollect that, as the pool of white 'high-level manpower' (to use the official term of the time) became exhausted, more and more blacks had to be recruited, thereby tightening their grip on the economy and augmenting their power to bargain for political rights.

I also assumed, on the basis of comparative evidence, that a transition would be easier in a growing economy. Sanctions, if applied intensively, would strike at the roots of the main sources of leverage, heighten an already serious problem of unemployment, and send the economy into a nosedive. The first beneficiaries of such an eventuality would be the ultra-right, whose numbers were growing dangerously in the 1980s, fuelled largely by a drop in white incomes, estimated to have been one per cent per annum in real terms. (It is worth remarking that with hindsight the real 'miracle' of the transition was how an ultra-right counter-revolution was avoided, but that is another story.)

The arguments presented above may be wrong, and certainly they will be challenged with the perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight. My views were formed in the 1980s when real democratization seemed a long way off. At least, though, they were conclusions arrived at after careful thought; and the last thing on my mind - and the minds of other liberals whose bona fides have been questioned in the debate - was some hidden desire to prop up apartheid, which has been imputed to liberals by some of their cruder critics.
Pityana and his ilk appear to believe that (white) liberals have some sinister, covert agenda for resisting change and maintaining the privileges of apartheid even in the post-apartheid state. Let me disabuse him: it is an insult to the many liberals I knew who spent lifetimes saying that the perpetuation of an unequal society would result in disaster. Their argument remains true: unless we become a more equal society, conflict will intensify.

I do not chant mantras, and a mantra is exactly what 'transformation' has become. As far as the ANC is concerned, its vision of 'transformation' is the only ideologically correct one. Question it, criticize it, or suggest that counter-productive strategies are being pursued, and you are denounced as a traitor, or, even worse, a racist.

The label 'racist' is flung around with an abandon that is alarming because it bodes ill for the future of critical thought. It is all too reminiscent of those who cry 'anti-Semitism' when Israel's policies towards the Palestinians are criticized.

I accept that the ANC is likely to be in power for a long time. Single-party dominance need not subvert democracy, as the case of Botswana shows, but it can be dangerous. Ruling parties can become arrogant, intolerant and corrupt. When voter preferences tend to follow racial lines, the temptation to play the race card increases. In South Africa the danger is that as the memory of apartheid fades (even if its legacy lasts a long time) white liberals become a convenient alternative whipping boy that can be blamed for thwarting transformation or other policy failures.

I have deliberately not mentioned the DA in my article: more than most they can look after themselves. But I am bound to observe that in all the welter of criticism hurled at them, I see only broad-gauged smears and no debate on the substantive issues. Informed criticism, even if sharp, could help to impede the dangerous syndrome of pathologies to which single-party dominance is prone. The ANC should welcome criticism for the sake of promoting a more democratic political culture. It might even listen to DA proposals and build a broad-based consensus on fundamental policy options.