I was a student when I volunteered to help the Progressive Federal Party in the 1981 general election. The Bezuidenhout parliamentary seat in east Johannesburg was a difficult one for the PFP. In 1977, the National Party came within 50 votes of winning it.
It had working and middle class suburbs, and victory depended on getting out the vote from good support areas. Canvassing was door-to-door, which was possible before high walls and security systems became the norm.
I went out every night during the week, knocking on doors and speaking to voters. Dogs were sometimes a problem, and I was bitten twice. The reception could be hostile, but at least you knew where they stood.
It was better than being strung along by a voter who all along didn't intend to vote for us. Or people who lied about their support with a smile. The issue of allowing black people into "white" areas was often a tough sell. The PFP believed that the Group Areas Act should go, along with all other discriminatory legislation.
I had to reply to questions like: "Do you want a black person living next door?" It was easier to campaign on issues like the cost of living and wasteful government spending. But racial prejudice often meant an automatic vote for the National Party.
The PFP won Bezuidenhout in 1981 quite narrowly, aided by a comment by a Nat Minister that pensioners could live on R20 a month. But in the 1987 General Election, the PFP lost several seats, including that of Douglas Gibson in Bezuidenhout.
The Nats had posters in bold red saying: "Over my dead body will I vote ANC, so why vote PFP?" A photograph of Helen Suzman with Winnie Mandela was splashed in the pro-Nat press. The caption was Winnie's statement: "With our matchboxes and our necklaces we will liberate our country."
It was an effective smear campaign that I always recall when the ANC tries to portray the DA as heir to the apartheid government. As one wag said, the racists accused liberals of being communists, now the communists say liberals are racists.
In 1989 the PFP became part of the Democratic Party in order to widen white support for the abolition of apartheid. It scored a shock upset by winning a local by-election in the mostly Afrikaner Linden suburb in Johannesburg.
This seat was in Pik Botha's constituency, and showed NP reformers that the white electorate was ready for change. The fall of the Berlin Wall that same year was enormously important in President FW de Klerk's bold move to engage with the ANC.
It's ironic as the ANC supported the repressive East European communist governments that toppled as their people pushed for freedom. But ANC documents still regurgitate Marxist jargon as if the communist experiment had not failed spectacularly.
It was the PFP's core liberal principles that actually triumphed in South Africa's negotiated constitution. There were many role-players in South Africa's transition to a non-racial society. No one party should monopolize the credit, which is a sound basis for creating a better future.
Jack Bloom MPL is DA Leader in the Gauteng Legislature.
This article first appeared in The Citizen.
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