Liberals must move on, the United Democratic Front is long dead
Loosely defined liberals opposed apartheid in favour of an anti-nationalist inclusive framework based on rights and freedoms for all. There are some myths about liberals in general and South African liberals in particular that continue to persist, the most prevalent being that all liberals are of the Democratic Alliance's historical tradition or that all liberals are white. So often do people speak of 'white liberalism' that it has become a collocation.
The reality couldn't be further from the truth. There are, in fact, liberals (of all races and outside the DA) who not only feel contempt towards the DA but exist in a state of paralysis over the moral demise of the African National Congress (ANC). The existential crisis stems from the fact that it can no longer be said with confidence that the ANC is the people’s party; governing with concern for the poor and constitutional freedoms. Today they criticise the ANC from the sidelines, but seem unable to lend their critique the weight of credibility by shifting allegiance.
Sentiment is not the exclusive folly of the poor and uneducated as is often intimated. Indeed it’s a fair wager that sentiment is more easily held by those who can afford it, those for whom nostalgia is more precious than service delivery. There is nothing ignoble about loyalty, but rather it be to values. The trouble is that while good men with good intentions sit about wringing their hands, immersed in immobilising nostalgia and self-reflection, mercenary opportunists are ransacking the country throughout all levels of government virtually unabated, with ever increasing vigour and steadfastness of purpose. The more explicit examples of the looting being Jacob Zuma's palatial home at tax payers' expense and Hlaudi Motsoeneng's management of the SABC as his own personal fiefdom.
There still remains a hurdle, in Gauteng and other parts of the country, of imagining a democratic government that does not come from the tradition of the UDF and ANC. The geopolitics of liberalism in South Africa, are a separate but interesting conversation. It would be irresponsible to deal in absolute generalisations, but as centres of power in South Africa there is a palpable ideological schism between the Western Cape school of liberalism and the Gauteng school. A schism that is emblematic of the divide that separates the liberals of the Democratic Alliance (DA) of today with the liberals associated with the United Democratic Front (UDF) of old.
It is not that the beliefs differ fundamentally in the main but their approach to the liberation movement does. As the winds of change blew across South Africa and even as the liberation movement won, the Democratic Party (DP), subsequently the DA, stood obstinately head to wind, not shifting gear from its position as vanguard of liberalism to ally of the populists. This belligerence did not sit well with many including those who admired the liberal tradition associated with the Progressive Party (progs). Why could it not reach some partnership with the ANC as suggested by the likes of Allister Sparks in 1990? This recalcitrance has earned the die-hards labels such as ‘stuck-in-the-mud’ liberals or more harshly the ‘Taliban of liberalism’, both terms used by Max du Preez.
One can almost sympathize with the ‘Sparksian’ view which ultimately was forward looking- the country was entering uncharted territory but democratic territory, and surely to avoid obscurity the DP should align itself with this project and not in opposition to it? As any political pundit looking into the future his guess was as good as anyone’s, but he has been proved myopic. And ultimately Tony Leon’s intuition, in there being room for a liberal party in opposition to the ANC was right. The liberation movement would not remain an infallible paragon of righteousness; the people would not govern, the political elites would; and ultimately its modest leaders were not impenetrable by self-seeking capital, instead proved a porous sieve welcoming of slippery patrons such as the Guptas.
On a general level there seems to have been historically, and up to the present, a meeting of the minds among liberals regarding socio-political freedoms. Even though the South African people are largely conservative and religious there was a consensus that the new South Africa should be an inclusive one; including freedom of the press, speech and non-discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion. It was acceptable and perhaps even necessary for a constitution to be idealistic and stretch beyond the prevailing mores of society.
Even economically, the gap between the DA and many who consider themselves loosely liberal (not fundamentalists) is not that wide. On the economic front reactions to measures such as an Expropriation Bill have been met by liberals outside the DA with either silence or reprobation but certainly not vociferous support. It is easy to get the feeling that for many liberals outside of the DA their economic positions are simply an extension of their political positions, limited only to the political economy and the ‘workerist’ influence of the Front.
This brand of economics is not the economics of Venezuelan socialism nor is it the free market economics of Hong Kong. It tends to shy away from radical notions of nationalisation and expropriation. It does not argue for property rights by exploiting liberalisms rich tradition but rather takes a legalistic stance based on constitutionalism, while also committing to affirmative action and state welfare. This stance is far more alike to the DA’s than that of the tripartite alliance and increasingly distant from the ANC as the Expropriation Bill shows.
Seeing no real divide in real terms in respect of existing DA policy and idealised ANC policy it should not then be a great leap forward for liberals to escape the sceptre of the ANC. To the extent that it is difficult, the difficulty is driven by suspicion, mistrust and an unfortunate perceived moral superiority by some of the UDF liberals. Quite recently an older gentleman I have respect for and who probably votes for the DA, though I suspect begrudgingly, said to me that ‘we are the real descendants of the progs’. I am not sure who the ‘we’ referred to; at the least it included the institution he is a part of, but likely a wider circle of liberals who don’t quite feel at home in the DA.
Admittedly the DA is no longer the party of Helen Suzman who while disagreeing with Nelson Mandela could also just as easily share mutual respect and genuinely engage in an embrace with him. This idea of mutually critical and independent bodies who are united for a cause sees its origins in the 1950’s Congress and the 1980’s UDF movement. This spirit seemingly was palpable among many who viewed themselves as anti-apartheid activists. But the UDF made way for the ANC and ceased to exist, whereas the DA entrenched itself as an opposition force, the divide deepening in the years of Mbeki’s African nationalism and cadre deployment. Many progs may well have viewed themselves as comrades of the struggle. The DA has certainly moved further out of the ‘fold’ as it came to maturity in post-apartheid South Africa. But it's not as cold a place as some think.
Liberals typically have parties which serve as gateway drugs to the DA. The UDM appeals to some liberals for its centrist economic policies and even the IFP, some believing they stand for liberal federalism as opposed to provincial/ethnic nationalism. But it is difficult to conceive of any of the smaller opposition parties mustering enough momentum in the near future for a win even at the provincial level.
Boldness is needed from liberals of the UDF tradition, not because they are great enough in number to shift electoral results by their singular votes alone, but because many of them occupy spaces of influence as leaders of civil organisations or simply in the public imagination. They have a potentially important role in ensuring the idea of ANC inevitably is overcome, for the sake our new dispensation not in spite of it.