The SAIRR and the spectre of a liberal slideaway

Michael Cardo says some of the DA's liberal critics have whipped their anger over the EEAB into a storm of fury bordering on hysteria

The Employment Equity Amendment (EEA) Bill is a nasty piece of legislation.  It is bad for economic growth and job-creation, and it entrenches a racial coerciveness altogether incompatible with redress that promotes reconciliation.

To be sure, as the DA's leadership has acknowledged, the party erred gravely in supporting the Bill because it does not accord with the DA's own policy framework on employment equity. However, some of the DA's liberal critics have whipped their justified anger into a storm of fury bordering on hysteria.  

In a bid to attract black voters, the DA has - these critics say - made too many concessions to  ‘communalism' and ‘racial nationalism'. The party has strayed so far into the territory of interventionist race-based policies that its MPs, unable to rely on their liberal homing instincts, voted unthinkingly for the EEA Bill. And so, the critics conclude, the DA has turned its back on the colour-blind non-racialism that underpinned its predecessors' principled opposition to apartheid.

Yet this sudden outbreak of ideological panic obscures the difficult line between principle and pragmatism that all of the DA and its predecessor parties' leaders have had to straddle in articulating the party's non-racial vision in a racially divided society.

The liberals' critique relies on a one-sided interpretation of liberalism that focuses narrowly, and nostalgically, on the classical liberalism espoused by the Progressive Party in opposing apartheid, as well as a selective narrative of the ‘golden thread' of non-racialism in the South African liberal tradition.

Ultimately, their huffing and puffing serves to drown out the contested nature of liberal ideology in the past - in particular the meaning of non-racialism - and to oversimplify the complex nature of the liberal project now and in the future.

So who are these liberal critics? Outside of the party itself, most of them are linked to the South African Institute of Race Relations, a venerable institution with a long and often distinguished history of promoting a particular strand of South African liberalism.

John Kane-Berman (the Institute's long-time CEO), Frans Cronje (his successor), and Anthea Jeffery (its Head of Special Research) all wrote in the wake of the EEA Bill debacle, accusing the DA of betraying its non-racial liberal heritage[1].

The eminent liberal historians, Hermann Giliomee and RW Johnson, both of whom, according to the Institute's latest Annual Report, serve on the Institute's Council  (in fact, Giliomee is one of two Vice-Presidents), have also entered the fray.

After the DA voted for EEA Bill, Giliomee was quoted as saying that the party had drawn a line "through a long and proud history".[2] Helen Zille's apology for the systems error that led to the vote in Parliament - which she termed a "plane crash that should have been avoided" - left Bill Johnson utterly unconvinced. He has written an eloquent and searing indictment of the DA in two parts, arguing that "the DA used to have liberal instincts and now it doesn't".[3]

For all the seeming suddenness of this torrent of criticism, it had in fact been building up for a long time. For the last two years, at least, the Institute has been driving with increasing prolificacy the narrative that the DA has lost its liberal moorings by positioning itself in favour of broad-based black economic empowerment (BEE) and employment equity. The EEA Bill fiasco simply served to open the floodgates.

Frans Cronje has frequently made the argument that the DA and the ANC have become indistinguishable in terms of their policy priorities; that the two parties have reached consensus on a ‘policy cocktail' of employment equity, BEE and land reform to take the country forward (or backward) in the fight against poverty.[4]  

Of course, his argument is premised on a complete distortion of the DA's chief policy priority, which is to create opportunities for growth and jobs through sustained investment and quality education.  

Incidentally, Cronje recently attempted to counterbalance his criticism of the ANC by launching a fawning "IRR Know your ANC" campaign on Twitter, which he described as an "unashamed attempt to show the progress that the [ruling] party has made".[5] Before contemplating a second phase of that campaign, he might wish to consider whether it constitutes a ‘betrayal' of the Institute's non-partisan heritage.

Johnson had written a number of pieces on Politicsweb prior to his most recent two, suggesting that the DA was steadily submitting to a liberal ‘slideaway' and warning the party not "to embrace threats to its liberal core-affirmative action, BEE and so on".[6]

After Giliomee addressed the DA's parliamentary caucus earlier this year, the Institute posted his speech on its website. In his speech, Giliomee warned the DA against "batting on your opponent's pitch" and implored the party to "offer a clear alternative to the ANC's race-based policies"[7].

So the recent accusations of ideological drift by the Institute's staff and its office-bearers are not without precedent.

Indeed, the Institute has a history of rounding on those it deems guilty of ‘liberal slideaway', a term coined by veteran Institute supporter, Jill Wentzel, and unpacked in her book on the subject which the Institute published.[8] For Wentzel, the slideaway manifested itself in a departure from core liberal principles, an accommodation with Marxism, and a quickness to condone the violence of the liberation movement.

In the mid-1990s, Wentzel identified signs of historical slideaway in a number of liberal organisations, including the Progressive Federal Party, the National Union of South African Students and the Black Sash. Just about the only organisation that had held the line, in her view, was the Institute itself.

Two issues stand out in Institute liberals' critique.

Firstly, the lens through which they view the liberal project has a very narrow angle of view.

If the Institute liberals had their way, the DA would base its policy platform on nothing else but free-market policies and a reduced role for the state.

If we lived in a racially homogenous society that had not been characterised by racial exclusion and dispossession, then this classical liberal agenda might suffice. But we don't. And it doesn't. 

That is why the DA supports redress measures in broadening opportunities, but not in manipulating outcomes.  This position is entirely consistent with, and in fact mandated by, the Constitution - notably Section 9(2) of the Bill of Rights, a clause which, Anthea Jeffery has rightly noted, was never intended to justify ‘demographic representivity' or "the fulfilment of unrealistic racial quotas".[9]

Besides, the party's support for redress measures that promote diversity in the workplace through a balanced qualitative approach to employment equity, rather than the rigid application of quotas, isn't new. In 2005, when Tony Leon was party leader, the DA's Federal Council approved a policy on "Equality and corrective action" that is perfectly in line with the principles that guide the DA's current approach to employment equity.[10]

Nor is the DA's support for employment equity illiberal. Indeed, internationally, various models of affirmative action are a key component of the liberal project.

Secondly, Institute liberals tend to sanitise the sometimes messy history of non-racialism in the South African liberal tradition.

The Liberal Party, for example, founded six years before the Progressives, was dubious about the Progs' professed non-racialism, given their whites-only membership. When the Progs were formed in 1959, Liberal Party Chairman Peter Brown wrote:  "We [the Liberals] are and always have been essentially a non-racial Party... The indications are that the Progressive Party will not be a non-racial Party but a white Party with some non-white members".[11]

The biggest disagreement between the Liberals and the Progs in their approach to non-racialism was over the franchise policy. The Progs supported a qualified franchise long after the Liberals adopted universal suffrage.

Defenders of the qualified franchise justified it as a tactical necessity, while its detractors regarded it as a derogation of liberal principle. It may have been a pragmatic concession to the racial fears and sensibilities of white voters, but it was a policy of racial preferencing all the same. Patrick Duncan, who edited the Liberal Party's mouthpiece, Contact (and who, granted, was no exemplar of ideological consistency) thought that it "proved that the slogan ‘Merit, not Colour' was a lie".[12]

Oscar Wollheim, an active member of the Institute of Race Relations in the 1950s, on the other hand, believed the Liberal's Party's emphasis on growing their black membership as a demonstration of non-racialism to be completely misplaced. Before he left the Liberals to join the Progs, he complained to Peter Brown that the Liberals had never made a serious attempt to convert Afrikaners "to our way of thinking", "but we keep on going miles out of our way to attain a mass black following".[13]

As far back as the 1950s, the politics of non-racialism were fiercely contested among liberals themselves. South African liberals don't have some fabled history of ideological absolutism or purity, or even homogeneity. The so-called ‘golden thread' of non-racialism (and the debate about how best to work towards a non-racial society) was, historically, a source of much internal wrangling between liberals.

Closer to the present, when Tony Leon was looking to join forces with the Nats, his predecessor, Zach de Beer, wrote to him in September 1998, and warned: "As I think you know, this prospect [a coalition with the Nats] horrifies me....If the DP takes part in anything that looks like a white (or white/Coloured/Indian) ganging-up against blacks, this will tend strongly to undo all that we have aimed at over these many years".[14] In other words, De Beer was effectively saying (in the same way that the Institute liberals now argue about the DA's initial support for the EEA Bill) that a coalition with the Nats would be the death knell of the DP's historic commitment to non-racial liberalism.

Of course, policy positioning and coalition-building (in the case of the DP and Nats, subsequently a merger) have very different impacts on the politics of non-racialism, but both have been used by liberals in the past to advance claims that the party's ideological glue has come unstuck.

Yet the truth is that the DA and its predecessors have been immensely fortunate to be led by thinkers with a deep understanding of the intellectual history of liberalism, and a keen strategic grasp of how best to take the liberal project forward. 

None of them had, or has, the luxury - as the Institute liberals do - of operating in an ivory tower.

Helen Suzman, as the Progressives' sole representative in Parliament for many years, and Jan Steytler, Colin Eglin, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Zach de Beer, Tony Leon and Helen Zille as party leaders, have all had to make extremely tough choices in complex circumstances to create institutional growth and sustainability while keeping sight of principle.

This often involves a difficult balancing act between pragmatism and principle, but the DA's serious mistake in voting for the EEA Bill shouldn't be used as an excuse to claim that the scales have tipped, irredeemably, in favour of the former.

The next phase of the liberal project must see the DA grow its support among black voters. In part that requires an honest recognition of the injustices of the past, a commitment to diversity not just in word but in deed, and an active pursuit of the kind of substantive equality envisioned by the Constitution that will "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person".

None of this has to entail pandering to ‘communalism', cosying up to racial nationalism, or sliding away from liberal principles.

Cardo is currently a policy advisor in the Western Cape Government. Before that, he worked at the Institute of Race Relations and as the DA's Head of Research in Parliament.


[1]See, for example: John Kane-Berman, "DA has betrayed its heritage as it resurrects racial policies", Business Day, 11 November 2013; Frans Cronje, "Verraad teen arm, swart vir stemme", Rapport, 10 November 2013; Anthea Jeffery, "DA betraying its non-racial heritage", Business Day, 4 November 2013; Anthea Jeffery and Frans Cronje, Sunday Argus, 3 November 2013, republished on Politicsweb as "Five implications of the DA's support for race law".

[2] "Dit gons oor DA se ja vir dié wet", Rapport, 2 November 2013.

[3] RW Johnson, "The DA in Crisis (I)" and "The DA in Crisis (2)", Politicsweb, 11 November and 12 November 2013.

[4] Cronje's article in Business Day, 8 November 2011, is a good example of his argument:

[5] R. Davis, "Spin City: DA vs. ANC", Daily Maverick, 8 October 2013.

[6] RW Johnson, "The Democratic Alliance: Liberal or Nothing", Politicsweb, 3 December 2012: See also "The DA on the brink", Politicsweb, 12 October 2011  and "The DA: In victory, defeat?", 13 October 2011

[7] Hermann Giliomee, "Eight lessons from history for SA's opposition", Politicsweb, 21 May 2013:

[8] J. Wentzel, The Liberal Slideaway, South African Institute of Race Relations, 1995.

[9] A. Jeffery, "The Constitution and the Equality Clause", Address to the F.W. De Klerk Foundation, 2 February 2013. Accessed at:

[10] Accessed here

[11] M. Cardo, Opening Men's Eyes: Peter Brown and the Liberal Struggle for South Africa (Jonathan Ball, 2010), pp. 133-134.

[12] Ibid, p. 160.

[13][13] Ibid, p. 128.

[14] T. Leon, On the contrary: Leading the opposition in a democratic South Africa (Jonathan Ball, 2008), p. 301.

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