The DA on the brink

The first of two articles by RW Johnson on the challenge to the liberal tradition in SA

The Democratic Alliance - the bearer of the liberal tradition in South Africa - stands poised on the brink of major change. Over the last seventeen years it has risen from near-obscurity to the unchallenged position of principal Opposition party and the only conceivable alternative government in the future. It is already the country's most successful multi-racial party, a fact which also reflects how hard it is in South Africa to build institutions of any kind which do not become lop-sidedly black or white, such is the continuing power of racial communalism.

Only a few churches have managed to build multi-racial congregations as large as the current DA electorate and as one scans South African society the only other successful multi-racial institutions to catch one's eye are the upper reaches of the education system - the model C and private schools and the former white universities. (All the old black universities have, hardly coincidentally, remained all black.) It is no accident that those upper-level schools and universities are key recruiting grounds for the DA.

The Progs: Breaking into the system

It is important to recall that although the liberal tradition in South Africa goes back at least to the 1780s, it is only over the last fifty years that it has broken decisively into the parliamentary arena. I can still remember the thrill I felt in August 1959 when I first heard that eleven MPs had walked out of the United Party to form a new, more liberal alternative. I was not quite 16 at the time but I instinctively recognised that this was what I had been waiting for. At last there would be a party within the system which repudiated racial discrimination and insisted on "merit, not colour".

This, so to speak, forced all manner of uncomfortable issues about race, inequality and justice onto the public agenda of "respectable society" in South Africa. It was immediately apparent that the eleven Progressive Party MPs would have a hard time getting re-elected for there was no doubt about the conservatism and racism of the bulk of white voters. 

It was also apparent that this had affected who had joined for there was a preponderance of MPs from relatively wealthy areas where more liberal views could be expected - not just because of the higher educational level of the average constituent but because, as the Progs' opponents sneered, wealthier whites were comfortably insulated against black, Coloured and Indian competition and could well afford their liberalism-at-a-distance.

Nonetheless, there were some brave men and women in that group. Jan Steytler (who became the Prog leader) sat for Queenstown, a conservative farming seat where he had no chance of re-election. For him to opt for the Progs not only meant certain electoral defeat but ostracism as an Afrikaner - for the Nationalists reviled liberals of any stripe as dangerous radicals and "kaffirboeties". But the most remarkable case was that of Harry Lawrence who had been a Cabinet minister under Smuts and a confidante of that great man.

This gave him high status within the UP. He sat for Salt River, an uncompromisingly tough railway seat where the (completely racist) white working class was predominant. Harry had been a lawyer but it was doubtful that he could earn his living again that way if he lost his seat. He was abroad at the time of the split and there were many other United Party MPs (Hamilton Russell was a notable example) who were thought to be far more likely recruits for the Progs than Harry. Helen Suzman, one of the eleven, sent Harry a telegram to tell him of the split. "Count me in" came his cheerful and immediate reply. "It was", said Helen, "the most courageous gesture that any of us made. He was by far the most senior of our group and his decision meant that he was facing almost certain financial ruin. Yet he never hesitated. He was absolutely wonderful. It meant an enormous amount to all the rest of us."

Harry, like not a few other Progs, felt a deep compassion for the sufferings of black people. On weekends there would be a long queue outside his Claremont house for he gave free legal advice to anyone who wanted it. Overwhelmingly, his clients were African workers who feared being "endorsed out" of the Western Cape because of influx control, though even their problems paled besides those of the immigrants from Nyasaland (Malawi), Mozambique and the two Rhodesias. This was known as "the problem of the foreign natives".

Very quickly the Progs found themselves on hard times. In the 1961 they were reduced to just one MP - Helen Suzman. In Durban Townley Williams and Ronald Butcher, MPs for the adjacent seats of Musgrave and Berea, both became Progs and narrowly lost their seats but by 1962 the Musgrave seat was vacant again and the Progs chose the young Ray Swart as their candidate for the by-election, We all worked away frantically, knowing that just a thousand extra votes would do it.

We were stunned at the count to find that despite our huge effort, the party had gone backwards and the UP had a bigger majority than before. We had naively assumed that the liberal cause would make steady though slow progress: it was so obvious that the non-racial qualified franchise - the Progs' key policy - would enable one to dismantle racial discrimination without risking political stability. Or so we felt. We had never imagined going backwards. It was an equal shock when Ray Swart had to march his key organiser out of the party's HQ after he'd been found fiddling postal votes. We watched in a dismay which was a key part of our political education.

This was just a fair reflection of what was to come. From 1961 to 1974 Helen Suzman remained the sole Prog MP. Steytler soldiered on as leader during the long trek through the desert that were the 1960s, retiring in 1970. In those years the political sociology of the Progs became clear. By far the biggest bank of voters was in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg where the party had particularly strong Jewish support. There were lesser voting banks in the more comfortable suburbs of Cape Town, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, this latter fact reflecting the reality that the overwhelming majority of Progs were English-speakers.

In Natal, at least, it was also clear that Catholics were more likely to support the Progs because of the influence of Archbishop Denis Hurley, the outstanding liberal churchman of his day. Even in white working class areas, one found, people with French-sounding names (ie. immigrants from Catholic Mauritius) would vote Prog "because the Archbishop says we should". The most prominent Prog in Durban was Leo Boyd who, when mayor of Durban had notoriously campaigned under the slogan that the solution to "the Indian problem" was "Boats, not Votes" (ie. send the Indians back to India rather than allow them the vote).

It was no secret that Archbishop Hurley had sat Leo down and told him that this was not acceptable behaviour for the city's most prominent Catholic layman and that, on pain of mortal sin, he must support the Progs.  Leo would quietly complain that he would have liked the bar for the qualified franchise set at a higher level but would then admit that, wherever you put it, it was just an arbitrary line. He never wavered in his Prog loyalties though it cost him dear in the opprobrium it brought from those who had rather liked the sound of "Boats, not Votes". So Leo too suffered for the cause.

There was also a thin smattering of Prog support almost everywhere but this was thinnest of all in rural areas: the Progs were above all an urban and suburban party. There was a thin but noticeable fringe of Indian and Coloured supporters and a tiny fringe of Africans too, but before they had amounted to very much the Nats cracked down and forbade multi-racial parties (causing the Liberal Party to dissolve). The correlation of the liberal tradition with the upper reaches of the educational system remained a constant: within all race groups the Progs did best among the better educated. The party hovered permanently on the brink of parliamentary extinction and lived essentially a ghetto existence.

The power of tradition

The liberal-conservative theorist, Michael Oakeshott, argued that historical change of any kind always followed pre-existing contours in a society; that tradition always intimated the nature of change. All action, he argued, was based upon presuppositions of some kind and so even attempts to change the world necessarily relied upon a scale of values which themselves presupposed a prior context of experience. In that sense, change could never exist outside of tradition.

Thus even when, for example, a society broke with its pre-existing history, such as Russia in 1917, it was hardly accidental that political authority under Lenin and Stalin closely approximated the style of the Czars, that civil liberties were even more strictly controlled than under the Czars, that Soviet anti-semitism was almost as strong as Czarist anti-semitism, and so on. Even the most radical change was actually encapsulated within an existing tradition.

One may not go quite as far as Oakeshott but it is certainly very hard for any party to exist outside of political tradition. South Africa, being a diverse country, has multiple major political traditions:

English Jingo nationalist - Rhodes, Milner etc. Now largely extinct.

Afrikaner nationalism

The Congress tradition of African nationalism

African chiefly power (seen in most Bantustans, in Inkatha, and still strong in today's rural SA)

The socialist-Communist tradition

The Unity Movement tradition (representing the first black intellectuals - Coloured schoolteachers. Trotskyite, anti-white, boycotts, stayaways, protests etc. Some-times mixed with PAC)

The Africanist tradition - the PAC, BC and also found within ANC

The liberal tradition

The Gandhian tradition of non-violent protest

Tribal nationalist traditions - ten of these found expression in the Bantustans

Sometimes parties can combine these traditions (e.g. Congress and chiefly power in Luthuli's (and Mandela's) ANC, Congress and recurrent African traits within the ANC); today's ANC draws on both the Congress and Communist traditions; sometimes splinter parties clearly still belong within the tradition of the parent body (e.g. the recurrent Afrikaner nationalist breakaways, or COPE, still within the Congress tradition); and sometimes one can even find politicians or parties which move from one tradition to another (e.g. Patricia De Lille, with a Unity Movement background, moved to the PAC and then formed the liberal Independent Democrats). However, when parties are formed outside of any pre-existing tradition (e.g. Holomisa's UDM) they do not prosper, and nor do parties that change traditions: the post-1994 Nats and the ID both tried to become liberal parties - and plummeted

Normally, a party and its activists draw enormous strength from their belonging to a tradition. They celebrate the party's past struggles, the great heroic dates in its evolution, the sacrifices made by the forerunners and so on. The ANC, SACP, the Nats and the Africanists all do this, constantly evoking their martyrs, their struggles and victories. Yet, oddly, this has never been true of liberals and it was certainly not the case with the Progs.

It was, indeed, a party that did not fully dare to speak its name, for it was recognisably a non-racial, free enterprise party concerned to uphold civil rights and the rule of law - that is to say, a classically liberal party. But this in a country where the word "liberal" was anathema and where the belief that the party had big business support was by no means always advantageous. For a start, the Nats had successfully anathematized "Hoggenheimer" and "the mining capitalist press", but it was also the case that it was difficult to get supporters to help the party financially because they all assumed that "Harry Oppenheimer will surely pay".

And businessmen brought their own problems. The Durban North Progs, of whom I was one, campaigned energetically for Gordon Bond, the clean-cut and handsome CEO of the Voysey Bond estate agency. Soon after the election Bond absconded to Australia with all the agency's funds. Another chapter in one's political education.

Most of all the Progs were shy about openly espousing the liberal tradition because a Liberal Party already existed with a policy of universal suffrage. Not just the Nats but almost all white voters thought this was crazy and dangerous stuff, so the Progs had very carefully to demarcate themselves off from the Liberals. This was quite a damper on any use of the word "liberal". There was, too, a nervousness about seeming radical. We had, after all, all been to schools where liberals like Dr John Philip or the Colensos had been treated in the prescribed history books as irresponsible extremists.

In general, the Progs saw their task as carving off slivers of support from the coalface of a white society which was politically, socially and racially conservative. It was extremely hard work and boasting about the liberal tradition wouldn't make it any easier. So while the Progs were clearly a liberal capitalist party, nobody in the party was very keen to say so.

Things got murkier as it became clear that the Progs' path to growth lay through the absorption of fragments breaking off from the larger parties. This led to the Progs' osmosis into the Progressive Reform Party, then the Progressive Federal Party, then the Democratic Party and then the Democratic Alliance. At no stage did any of these reincarnations openly celebrate the liberal tradition and nor does the DA today. It is not even clear that all the DA's MPs, MPAs and councillors know much about the liberal tradition. They are not silent about it because they are hiding something; in many cases they simply don't know.

The real gypsy in the evolution of the Progs into the DA was federalism. In general principle almost everyone agreed that South Africa was not only a federal country as it was but that the provinces needed a greater degree of autonomy. The problem was, of course, that South Africa had never been governed that way.

Ever since Smuts had arrived at the National Convention in 1909 with a draft constitution in his hand and backed by the financial power of the Randlords the country had known centralized rule, almost always from the Transvaal which was both financially and demographically dominant. Smuts and Botha were both Transvaalers. When the National Party came to power in 1948 it was twice led from the Cape (under Malan and PW Botha) but all its other prime ministers and presidents were Transvaalers.

Moreover, the Transvaal had a combination with which neither Natal nor the Cape could compete: two large cities (today, with the addition of Ekurhuleni, three) side by side, Jo'burg and Pretoria, one the financial capital, the other the seat of executive government. The result was a Transvaal (now Gauteng)-based centralism which was pervasive throughout the political culture. It affected all parties and all institutions. It certainly affected the Progs.

Irrespective of who the leader was, and irrespective of the party's federal principles, the heart of the matter lay in Jo'burg-Pretoria: that's where the most voters and seats were, that's where the money was and that was where one had proximity to the big decisions of business and government. When the Progs were a small party without much hope they could afford to be fully federal. The more they grew and became the main Opposition, the more they inevitably adapted to this centralist model.

The arrival of democracy caught the DP desperately off balance. Suddenly the only game in town was the negotiation between the NP and the ANC. De Klerk asked the DP leader, Zach de Beer, to form a single negotiating group with him. De Beer told him that he had consulted his caucus who wouldn't agree. This was a lie. He never mentioned the subject to his caucus. This may have been a mistake for it merely confirmed the DP's tangential and irrelevant position. The payment for this duly arrived in the shape of a mere 1.7% of the vote in the 1994 elections. As South Africa liberalized, the liberal party had been almost wiped out.

The second article in this two part series can be found here

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter