Does the Liberal Party's 1962 handbook really support the DA's current position on race?

The party leadership's efforts to establish backward legitimacy for their support for B-BBEE and EE examined

Over the past week the Democratic Alliance's decision to vote for the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in the National Assembly has come under considerable criticism. The South African Institute of Race Relations, the Solidarity Movement, and former Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon have all spoken out against the Official Opposition's support for the Bill.

One of the difficulties facing the current DA leadership is how to publicly reconcile its current support for race-based legislation with the party's historic commitment to non-racialism. As Tony Leon pointed out in his Business Day column this week his opposition to the original Employment Equity Bill in 1998 had been backed by Helen Suzman, the doyenne of the liberal position to apartheid. He also cited the former Progressive Federal Party leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert's 2006 call for South Africa to move away from its "stubborn obsession" with race.

In order to establish some kind of backwards legitimacy for their votes in favour of, firstly, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Amendment Bill and now the Employment Equity Amendment Bill the DA has now twice cited the 1962 handbook of the Liberal Party in its defence.

In an article in June this year explaining her party's decision to vote for B-BBEE Amendment Bill, then before parliament, DA leader Helen Zille wrote:

"Some people will argue that liberals cannot, under any circumstances, support a Bill that includes a race-based definition... But not all liberals agree with this view. For example, many of us believe that the state has a responsibility to broaden inclusion for historically disadvantaged individuals, because this will not happen by itself. In the early 1960s, the South African Liberal Party's policy handbook noted that ‘the state must...not shrink from such measures of intervention as may be necessary to ensure the creation of a non-racial economy with fair distribution and opportunity for all.' I agree with this position."

In an article this weekend explaining the DA's position on employment equity the party's Parliamentary Leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko also cited this document in support of the party's position. She wrote:

"The DA supports employment equity that redresses the legacy of apartheid and expands job opportunities for all. But this cannot be done at the cost of economic growth and job creation. Ultimately, a growing economy with increasing employment is the surest and most sustainable way to redress the legacy of apartheid. This has always been the DA's position. It can be found as far back as the early 1960s when the South African Liberal Party noted in its policy handbook that: ‘...the state must not shrink from such measures of intervention as may be necessary to ensure the creation of non-racial economy with fair distribution and opportunity for all'."

Given the weight the DA is currently placing on this quote it is worth going back and examining it in its full context. The introduction to the handbook, which was written by Alan Paton, states:

"The Liberal Party believes that major political changes in the country must be accompanied by major economic changes, so as to lead to greater prosperity the country as a whole, a more just distribution of income and equality of opportunity for all the people of South Africa. The Party considers that these changes can be brought about without state regimentation of the economy, and will employ indirect methods such as taxation wherever possible in preference to direct state control. The state must nevertheless not shrink from such measures of intervention as may be necessary to ensure the creation of a non-racial economy with fair distribution and opportunity for all."

This is then the origin of the quote cited by Zille and Mazibuko. However, the handbook goes on to say that "four main methods" of creating a non-racial economy would be used. These were: "1. The abolition of the economic colour bar, coupled with the provision of proper training facilities for all, leading to the full employment of the abilities of all; 2. The raising of wage levels throughout the economy, both urban and rural; 3. The intensive expansion of industry by means of capital investment; 4. Redistribution of land and progressive development of agriculture, including agriculture in the reserves."

In its section on the abolition of the colour bar the handbook argues that:

"In the long run, the colour bar benefits neither black nor white workers. It stifles ability and kills incentive. It has created a vicious circle of poverty wages causing malnutrition and lower productivity, which in turn prevents the payment of adequate wages. This vicious circle can be broken only by removing the artificial barriers which have been placed in the way of the non-white worker. The abolition of these restrictions will provide incentives and a keenness to perform better work which will raise productivity substantially."

It then goes on to say: "The Liberal Party's policy therefore is to abolish the economic colour bar by repealing existing restrictive legislation and by making discrimination on grounds of colour illegal. Opportunities for advancement must depend on merit alone. At the same time, excessive differences between skilled and unskilled wage levels must be eliminated." (My italics)

In other words when it spoke of "measures of intervention" the Liberal Party was thinking of a law completely outlawing racial discrimination. The belief that "opportunities for advancement must depend on merit alone" is, further, obviously quite incompatible with the current DA's leadership's support for B-BBEE and employment equity. The other three measures proposed by the Liberal Party also did not envisage a reliance in any way on racially-based interventions.

The Liberal Party clearly regarded racial discrimination as an evil that needed to be completely uprooted if South Africa was to prosper as a country, rather than a "good" that should redirected in favour of those deemed most deserving by whoever was in power. As the handbook noted:

"Among the least tangible, but nevertheless gravest, effects of the present racialist system in South Africa is its destruction of the spirit of service and the idea of duty to the community as a whole. The Liberal Party believes that the establishing of a nonracial democracy will release many frustrated energies, and that the State will be able to call upon the people to work as they have never worked before, to create a society which will encourage, not prohibit, the fullest development of every human skill and talent."