The ANC's nightmare

RW Johnson's letter to Paul Trewhela on liberalism then and now

Dear Paul,

What you write is true but also insufficient. The South African liberal tradition goes back a long way - at least until the days of Andries Stockenstrom and Dr. John Philip. One can see the liberal impulse in the battle for a free press fought by Adam Tas and Fairbairn and later in the determination of the Colenso family to stand up for the Zulus unjustly provoked to war by the British. One can see it continue in much of the pro-Boer agitation during the Anglo-Boer War and thereafter in the Cape liberal tradition and the doctrine of "equal rights for all civilized men".

Despite the furious anti-liberal reaction of Afrikaner nationalism, Jan Hofmeyr, and later Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party kept the liberal flame alive. The Liberal Party certainly mattered too. When I first met members of the Liberal Party in the 1950s I realised that they had understood perfectly well that what they stood for was not practical politics in a whites-only electorate, but they preferred to stand by their principles and bear witness to them in a thoroughly Protestant way.

What was quite unmistakeable was their relationship to the missionary tradition: they would take their stand before God, as it were, and bear witness. Rather like the early Christians, they entirely expected to be furiously unpopular.  And just as the Christians found themselves between the brutal discipline of Rome and the ignorant polytheism of the barbarians, so the Liberals had to struggle to carry their message to Africans at the same time that they were being ground underfoot by the Nats.

Certainly, South African Liberals have been victim-figures. In the 1950s and 1960s, I recall, not only were they routinely denounced by the Nats as traitors in our midst, in league with Communists and so on, but if you read (as I did in that period) papers like The Natal Mercury or the Natal Daily News, one was always reading really bitter and angry denunciations of Liberals like Paton - in editorials, in the letters column and in OpEd pieces.

What was so striking was the gratuitous nature of these attacks: the Liberals had done nothing to deserve them other than to exist. There was a particular rage against Paton because he was the country's most famous writer and it really irked the Nats and the United Party types who denounced him that he had that large international currency.

Looking back the thing that strikes me is that not only did Paton never reply to any of these attacks but nor did the Natal papers ever invite him to contribute a column of his own, a remarkable omission given that he was the most famous writer in that milieu. I am often reminded of those days today when I see similarly grotesque denunciations of "White Liberals" by black intellectuals like William Makgoba.

Their rage is quite patent but it is also barely in focus. That is, they don't seem to have any appreciation of liberalism as a political theory with a long tradition outside South Africa and among people of many races. For them there is one thing, Whiteliberalism, and as you read what they write you realise their real anger is against the white part and that somehow they are heaping onto white liberals their quite straightforwardly racial resentments against whites in general.

There is nothing of intellectual substance in any of the many anti-liberal tirades I have read by such figures. Usually one can see all the Fanonist traits working away - a damaged self-esteem, an inferiority complex, a self-hatred and other aspects of the colonial intellectual which, however colourful, sometimes almost defy analysis.

That is, there is really no more that liberals should take seriously and worry about in these attacks than in the old attacks by the Nats and the UP. So, just as Paton simply ignored that torrent of abuse and allowed it to be water off a duck's back, so today's liberals have to behave in much the same way in the face of angry, if barely rational, denunciations of them by black intellectuals.

Naturally, this means that many liberals, who lived in a state of internal exile under apartheid, find themselves living in similar conditions again today. They just have to treat the hostility expressed towards themselves as so much muzak, noise which will gradually go away, as the Nat and UP mouthings did, as the culture changes in a more rational and serious direction.

As a young man I found myself torn between the Progressive Party on the one hand - I understood how important it was to have a liberal voice in Parliament and also to convince more whites of the need for non-racialism - and the Congress of Democrats on the other, for I felt the appeal of Marxism and also, I daresay, the melodrama of being part of a banned and underground movement.

Like many white radicals in South Africa, I had all the liberal fundamental beliefs - in free speech, freedom of religion, movement, assembly and the press etc - but then superimposed on top of that all manner of socialist beliefs. So I was never a Liberal Party person, and felt pulled by the two parties on either side of it. Yet even then I found that the people I really liked were in the Liberal Party.

They seemed more intelligent, more sophisticated and also more open than others and there was often a gentleness about them. Such qualities were often lacking in COD which had more than its share of egomaniacs and authoritarians, people who seemed to rejoice in the saying that you can't make an omelette without breaking the eggs - and it was clear that they saw themselves as being in authority and doing the breaking.

Moreover, they embraced a little too enthusiastically the notion that the end justified the means and were willing to suppress the truth or even tell untruths if this helped the cause. Liberals were far more likely to see the truth itself as sacred and to tell it even when it was somewhat inconvenient for their own cause.

This also meant they were more likely to disagree with one another, whereas COD would aim at a complete uniformity and discipline. COD would, of course, pride itself on this and say this was the only way to make revolutionaries, whereas the Liberals were too gentle, too full of scruples and too poorly organized to achieve anything.

Later on, as I found many of my own ideas buffeted by life, history and experience I found that I had to abandon many of my socialist beliefs but I realised that the liberal bedrock underneath that was still intact - that I had never stopped believing in any of those freedoms.

I have noticed many other South African radicals undergo much the same transition: something happens - often the attempt to suppress inconvenient truths or the maltreatment of individuals or the deliberate blindness to some problem because it is not politically correct to notice it - and something snaps in them and there they are, indignantly standing up for some old liberal principle, bearing witness in a way that would please their missionary predecessors.

In some cases, of course, they then become ideological liberals and feel it important to embrace free marketry as well. I have never felt that that followed. There are cases of magnificent state corporations, such as the French railways or the TVA, where it's difficult to believe the market could do better - indeed, the whole point of the TVA was that market forces had entirely failed to provide for the people of the Tennessee valley.

So I am quite happy to be pragmatic about markets and go with what works. In Africa, however, that does mean a strong prejudice against state-owned industries of any kind, for the experience throughout the continent is that they are ruined by corruption, nepotism and gross public theft.

Interestingly, many Afrikaners in post-1994 South Africa have also discovered they are essentially liberals: they don't want to go back to apartheid but they do just want a fair crack of the whip for everyone, non-racialism and the rule of law. What really offends them and so often causes them to emigrate is the ANC's racism.

This longer historical perspective also means that I am less worried than you about the Liberal Party of 1953-68. I agree, of course, that it was a great pity that they wound the party up: a gross historical mistake. But in the longer history of South African liberalism which now goes back 200 years - far, far longer than Communism, Afrikaner Nationalism or African Nationalism - this was merely a hiccup.

So these two things - the regard for our history in which the liberal impulse continually recurs, is unpopular, persecuted, goes under ground, but then always reappears, together with the way that so many South Africans have discovered, often somewhat to their surprise, that they are liberals at heart - give me a degree of confidence that the liberal impulse will go on and, indeed, that it may yet be the future of South Africa.

The cardinal importance of Tony Leon lay in his "fight back" campaign in the 1999 election, which saw the DP overtake the NNP, FF and IFP to become the principal Opposition. To make the liberal party - for that is what the DA is - the main Opposition party in a universal suffrage South Africa was an immense achievement on which the party has continued to build.

As the ANC rots from within - racked by corruption, torn by factionalism and weighed down more all the time by its huge burden of failure - there is a certain inevitability about the way liberal ideas are gaining and will gain ground.

One should not be deceived by this: it is not the same thing as the DA gaining more votes. One should go back to the time when the Progressive Party was formed in 1959. Harry Oppenheimer argued for this on the grounds that while the Progs might not win or gain seats, it was a vital thing for the entire political system to have a liberal force pumping out the message that racial discrimination was unacceptable and that merit, not race must be the key.

In time, he felt, such ideas would enter the bloodstream of society and would exercise an influence far beyond the Progs' actual numbers. This proved entirely true and it was noticeable that even the Nats soon began to avoid crude expressions of racism and tried to justify their policies on non-racist grounds, while Prog ideas soon captured hearts and minds in English-speaking universities and press rooms - and began to penetrate the Afrikaans world too. Thirty years after the Progs' formation South Africa enacted a liberal Constitution.

We are in a similar period now. The DA's vote inches up regularly but finds the African vote hard to penetrate. Yet liberal ideas have gained enormous ground in the media - there is now a whole class of black editors and journalists who stand up for liberal ideas and values. Moreover, the rise of e-TV has had an enormous effect: it has put the SABC in the shade as the least-trusted news station.

This was a simple contest between a news station that reported things pretty much straight and one which slanted the news according to which ANC faction was in power. The result was that eNews, starting from nothing in 1998 and without the benefit of any license fee income, went from zero to being the most popular English language news service and the most watched channel on DSTV. 

Such an achievement may be without precedent - one can't imagine the BBC or ORTF news channel ceding place to a commercial upstart. It was also a demonstration that a liberal market approach works. Whatever the ANC may think, even black South Africans want their news straight, not an ANC-slanted version. It is increasingly commonplace to meet black people who tell one that "of course the DA has all the best ideas but....". What the but means is that communal solidarities are both strong and policed. But it also tells one that liberal ideas are percolating more and more widely.

This is, by the way, why Jeremy Cronin and Blade Nzimande are both increasingly attacking liberalism. They can feel the ground shifting beneath their feet and they are horrified that people like Justice Malala, Mondli Makhanya and Barney Mthombothi clearly echo the liberal canon. Little of what Cronin and Nzimande say has any value. Blade seems to imagine that a few bludgeoning slogans about "neo-liberalism" will do the trick, but then he has never been a subtle or thoughtful man. Cronin has invented a strange new creature called "anti-majoritarian liberalism".

It is difficult to know if he really believes in this. After all, it is impossible to find any liberal today who does not accept universal suffrage, free elections, a multi-party system and the rule of law. So Cronin claims instead to discern the hidden meaning of "look what happens when they take over".

Let us be frank about this. Probably some people do mean that but since neither they nor their representatives ever say this or ever suggest that universal suffrage should be amended in any way, this is, at most, an unexpressed and inconsequential feeling. In a racially divided society like South Africa that is a very mild thing.

It is hardly blameworthy for voters to compare life under the old and new regimes and whites are hardly the only ones to notice that in many respects - public health, law and order, job-creation and education for example - the new regime is clearly inferior.

What Cronin and a few others in the ANC have clearly done is to think hard about how Zimbabwe reached a situation in which the MDC would clearly win any free election against the ruling liberation movement. This is, after all, the ANC's nightmare and it is why ANC governments have for a decade now colluded in preventing a free election in Zimbabwe, even though that means supporting murder, torture and corruption.

This is, indeed, a far clearer example of an anti-majoritarian politics than anything Cronin may imagine about the DA and the ANC is clearly and quite shamelessly on the anti-majoritarian side. What Cronin and others have realised is that the key moment in Zimbabwe occurred with the confluence in the late 1990s of the trade union movement on the hand and all manner of liberal-minded and constitutionalist NGOs (supported by liberal whites) on the other. Once these streams flowed together they created an electorally majoritarian force.

This is clearly why Cronin sounds so panicky about Cosatu's recent convening of an anti-corruption (ie. anti-ANC elite) conference including liberal NGOs like Black Sash. He fears that in this lies, at one remove, a South African MDC. Sadly, such a development is still some way off but the question which needs to be asked of Cronin and Nzimande is will they commit themselves unconditionally to a pro-majoritarian policy? If a South African MDC emerges and wins a majority will they accept that and become a loyal Opposition?

For this may well be our future. Jingo British nationalism and Afrikaner nationalism have already been sent to the museum. African nationalism is now in a complex phase of self-destruction and will clearly follow. The only possible successor party will be some variant of liberalism. When that wave breaks, of course, the SACP will become as tiny and irrelevant as the Communist Parties of almost any country in Europe.

This is not a happy thought for men like Cronin and Nzimande who have invested their careers in the Communist Party - and benefited enormously and materially from it. They have everything to fear from the continuing rise of liberalism but they are, for the same reason, the least good guides to it.

RW Johnson

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