Reflections on SA's liberals in politics

Graham McIntosh on the 50 year anniversary celebration of the Progressive Party

On Friday 13 November 2009 I was privileged to be part of a quaint, slightly artificial but hugely enjoyable nostalgic gathering in the old House of Assembly chamber followed by a luncheon. The event was to remember the formation of the Progressive Party and its share in its successors in the PRP, PFP, DP and DA.

As I looked and listened at what were essentially self-congratulatory speeches by old white liberals my mind wandered. They were all old men but their non-sexism showed when they purred at the mention of their living champion in Helen Zille, who was present dutifully wearing her Bafana-Bafana shirt for Friday and sitting in the same front bench where PW Botha, John Vorster and Hendrik Verwoerd had sat, as well as at the name of their beloved colleague and champion, the late and revered Helen Suzman.

Not unsymbolically, their wives - none of this "partner" stuff for our generation - sat opposite them in the government benches. They were recognised for their support for, and hard work with, their husbands, as they together campaigned for liberal and non-racial values in the hard and unforgiving climate of all-white politics.

Some probably felt it would be a "DA in drag" event so it would be bad for their careers in the ANC and stayed away - so much for their liberal values. Tony Leon was away in Buenos Aires doing good work for South Africa. Van Zyl Slabbert was one of those who couldn't come because of ill-health. David Dalling, who had resigned from the ANC in disgust, was there.

The short speeches given from the opposition benches in that beautiful, intimate and historic debating chamber were entertaining and given with the skill and aplomb that one would expect from experienced, articulate, elderly ex-politicians. Only Clive van Ryneveld (former MP for East London ) mentioned the moral dilemma faced when some of the MPs departing from the old United Party, refused to resign their seats after undertaking to do so when they were nominated. Colin Eglin, who is a living symbol of shrewd, practical, principled tenacity in politics and Ray Swart, who entered Parliament at the astonishingly young age of 25, also spoke.

Harry Schwarz, at 85, gave a speech in his usual feisty style and reminded us all that he wasn't a "Prog" but a Reformist and that law and order has been undermined in the new South Africa . One couldn't but remember that both he and Helen Zille's family, with their German Jewish roots, had felt the vile, searing breath of the fascist Nazi dragon so it was not surprising that their liberal convictions were deeply rooted in their political DNA. They were committed to the truth of Pastor Niemöller's famous words about not speaking out and also to that principle that for good men to do nothing is sufficient for evil to triumph.

The 1980's with the states of emergency and the emergence of the UDF was a difficult time for the white liberals of the PFP. Not for nothing was Pik Botha's media advertisement in 1987 - "If over your dead body you would vote for the ANC, why vote for the PFP?" - so successful in frightening white voters away from the PFP. Three years later the white liberals' principles were vindicated when F W de Klerk allowed Nelson Mandela to walk free. But many had paid a price in losing their parliamentary seats.

I had only respect for the moral courage of those who in 1959 left the United Party, despite the huge bonds of friendship, Second World War struggle loyalties and the risk that they would be wiped out at the next general election. The next election saw only Helen Suzman retain her seat. Politicians are, like most people, risk averse and virtuosos in survival so moral courage is uncommon. It was Dr Jake Jacobs, former MP for Hillbrow, who said that longevity in Parliamentary politics is a direct function of an MP's ability to avoid controversy.

In any of the circumstances of life the personal emotional agony of demonstrating moral courage and making a costly decision to do what one knows is right, is intense. Andrew Feinstein powerfully and almost perfectly describes in his "After the Party", what a politician, who has scruples and principles, goes through in practising moral courage. Andrew's crises of conscience were in deciding to oppose Mbeki on AIDS and to "leak" information from the ANC Parliamentary caucus and in his struggles over his work on SCOPA.

I also couldn't help but think of the astonishing courage and leadership of the ANC leaders and members who established COPE. They resigned, not from an opposition party like the United Party, but from an overwhelmingly powerful ruling party with all the patronage of power but also with a history of violence against its opponents.

They were alarmed at the abandonment of key constitutional principles at the ANC's style of governance so they served their divorce papers. They were formed only five months before a general election, galvanised the whole election and did much better than the old Progs did when the results came in.

Possibly more interesting was a little phalanx of aged journalists, who came in solidarity with the politicians. They looked grave and somewhat out of place but clearly enjoyed sitting on the benches where the National Party cabinet used to sit. I wondered about claims of independence by journalists and also criticism of advocacy journalism. They weren't hacks but their sympathies clearly then lay with the white liberals and I, like them, made a financial contribution that proved to be a very bad investment decision, to fund the Weekly Mail, after the Rand Daily Mail was closed down.

Allister Sparks, the last Editor of the Rand Daily Mail was there as were Tony Heard who, like myself, came from evangelical liberal Christian roots, Gerald Shaw with his Catholic liberal background, Ken Owen with his blue-collar family background and others. They, like the politicians, still had active minds and skilful pens. They all fell into the category of liberals who held to their own convictions which included being tolerant of other views and defending the right of people to hold those views.

Most of them have found the new South Africa a disillusioning experience. Their liberalism has choked on so much of what is happening. Some, akin to religious fundamentalists, seem to keep their heads firmly in the sand on issues like the 250,000 murders since 1995, crime, punishment and the death penalty, corruption, the jurisprudential mess around second generation rights in our Consitution, and the emigration of white liberals who can't stand the heat in the kitchen of a South Africa under an ANC government.

I remembered that many of these liberal journalists and many of the former MP's present had all or some of their children living permanently overseas and very many of their former voters as well. All political liberals need to ponder Mandela's statement that "Africa is not for sissies" and engage the issues.

For example, few liberals seem to have grasped the obvious implication that the "shoot to kill" debate and the plans to amend Section 49 of the Police Act, is really about the results of doing away with the deterrent of a death penalty. It is not for the police or vigilantes to implement what is effectively a death penalty. That is the job of the courts. At least Tony Leon understood that.

Helen Zille spoke at the luncheon and as effectively as one would expect from a polished former journalist on the Rand Daily Mail and an experienced politician. A good deal of her speech dealt with the mergers and re-alignments that the Progs were part of since 1959 (see here). It was also clear that she still had re-alignments on her mind and at this time, no doubt with other opposition parties including the new and critically important Congress of the People (COPE). Maybe there was a subliminal message in the gold (COPE's colours!) of the Bafana Bafana soccer shirt that she dutifully was wearing on Friday!

I felt proud to have been part of that team of liberals. Parliament was indeed a seat of struggle but I believe that we, as liberals, never lost sight of the fact that while non-violent regularly elected parliamentary government is the finest flower of human civilisation, it is, in the face of a fallen human nature driven by greed and self-interest, a fragile flower to be fiercely defended.

Happily that is being done, by the DA, by COPE, by that now hoary, unflinching liberal champion of the best of academic research in John Kane-Berman at the South African Institute of Race Relations, by the Helen Suzman Foundation, by IDASA, by columnists in the media and indeed through Politicsweb, which publishes and so encourages thoughtful and serious debate. Despite our problems, liberty is alive and well in South Africa.

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