Why was there no liberal underground?

Gus Gosling writes that criticism of the old Liberal Party while unkind is, just possibly, not unfair

In a recent article (see here) Paul Trewhela delivered a judgement on the Liberal Party which while certainly unkind is, just possibly, not unfair.

The formal dissolution of the Liberal Party was unavoidable by 1968: The Prevention of Political Interference Act made multi-racial political parties illegal; In response the Liberal Party took the high-minded decision to dissolve itself rather than submit to becoming a whites-only party.

Paul Trewhela however knows all this. He feels that members of the defunct Liberal Party should have continued their activities in some underground form, so letting black South Africans know that they had not been abandoned by Liberals. He argues that the failure of Liberals to engage in such underground activity enabled the SACP/ANC to monopolize the moral high ground, with consequences that continue to reverberate in South Africa some forty years later. 

I'll argue that there are severe problems with this viewpoint, in particular that the SACP/ANC alliance enjoyed enormous practical advantages over Liberals, especially in the aftermath of the July 1964 crackdown. In what follows I will use 'SACP' as a proxy for the SACP/ANC alliance. This is hopefully not misleading, since the role that Liberals might have aspired to play was similar to the one designated to the SACP: providing an intellectual framework for action.

The description of  SACP activities as 'underground' is superfluous, since there were, in South Africa at least, no legal, aboveground activities. The SACP (the reconstituted CPSA) was illegal from the start. As a result, SACP members took it as a given that they would, at all times, have to operate with care. Their membership always secret, operating in cells, members of the SACP had a huge starting advantage over members of a party that had always proudly operated in the open. When the state's boot came crashing down on the face of the opposition (Forever? the victims of that Orwellian boot must have wondered at the time) Liberal Party members were particularly vulnerable.

Something must be said about the astonishing animus the South African government displayed towards the Liberal Party, an electorally insignificant group espousing nonviolence. Again, a comparison to the SACP is instructive. The Nationalists and Communists loathed each other partly because they, despite the rhetoric of both sides, shared so many common features. That belief in absolute power, the lack of space for those holding contrary beliefs, even the  almost identical torture techniques (read Hugh Lewin's Bandiet [1] and compare what he and others endured to the Soviet 'Conveyor' method [2]).

But, at least the State's Rooi-Gevaar red-baiting tactics had some small basis in reality: there was indeed intent on the part of the SACP to overthrow the South African government (What's the lack of a 'revolutionary situation' between enemies, eh?).

Compare that to the Liberal Party. Before John Harris's desperate act, even prior to the Fourth of July raids, Liberal party members had been subject to harassment. After them, the acts of the sixteen members of the NCL-ARM (National Committee of Liberation -- African Resistance Movement: a small group of explicitly non-communist saboteurs) who were also Liberal party members were used to damn a party of some five thousand. Many disappeared into detention (90 day detention, that torturers charter, later to become 180 day detention, then....) almost all emerging uncharged. Still more were banned - Steve Hayes's brief page on banned members of the Liberal Party (see here) is excellent, as are his accounts of being banned (see here and here).

In effect the NCL-ARM was the (premature) act of underground resistance from the Liberal Party. The final, aberrant, tragic act of the NCL-ARM on 24  July 1964, an expanded increasingly paranoid state security apparatus, combined finally with Liberal openness ensured the near impossibility for any second act of underground resistance from Liberals. 

So why, despite all this, do I still think that Paul Trewhela has a point? The Liberal Party's real failure was that, outside Natal, it was perceived and received as a party of white privilege. (In Natal the Liberal Party had support among rural blacks facing eviction from 'blackspots'.)

If Vigne and the other wannabe Liberal revolutionaries had spent more time building up a black support base instead of bringing down pylons there might have been scope for later underground work. Illegal union organisation would have been one obvious area where Liberals could have played an important role. Strong unions in South Africa ended up being far more valuable in the fight against apartheid than all the alliance-led armed struggle violence (Which was from an operational, if not propaganda point of view, remarkably ineffective [3]).

Such work however would've required a strong urban black base, exactly what the Liberal Party had failed to build.  Answering the question of why the Natal branch of the Liberal Party was so more effective in securing black support should be reason enough to re-examine the history of the party (see here). 

The inheritor of the Liberal Party's proud tradition - albeit in an attenuated form - the DA at times seems to be repeating the mistakes that the Liberal Party made. The DA is perceived as a white party of privilege, and it too sometimes seems almost reluctant to expand beyond its current racial boundaries. This may be a matter of false perceptions, but even false perceptions matter and need to be changed.


[1] Hugh Lewin, Bandiet: Out of Jail, Random House, 2002.
[2] Darius M. Rejali, Torture and Democracy, Princeton University Press, 2007.
[3] Howard Barrell, Conscripts To Their Age: ANC Operational Strategy, 1976-1986, D.Phil. Thesis in Politics, Faculty of Social Studies, University of Oxford, Trinity Term, 1993.

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