Critics who blame liberals never had any real answers of their own
Some of the contributors to the comments below these columns blame liberals for some of the disasters that the African National Congress (ANC) and its communist and trade union allies have inflicted upon South Africa. Liberals, the argument goes, have no business complaining because they have got the disastrous majority rule they always wanted. We should rather have heeded all the warnings against universal suffrage.
There are essentially two rejoinders to this critique. The first is that whites willing to make compromises towards black political demands left it far too late, strengthening the position of revolutionaries. A national convention to draw up a new constitution materialised (in the form of Codesa) only decades after liberals began arguing the need for it. Moreover, even if blacks had been willing to accept a qualified franchise, very few whites were prepared to go that far, as the minimal support for the Liberal and Progressive parties showed when they were still committed to such a franchise.
Secondly, those now attacking liberals from the Right were always living in cloud cuckoo land. Some still are. Apart from their moral objections to apartheid, liberals were the first people to demonstrate its economic and practical absurdity. Some early liberals flirted with territorial separation of the races, but they soon recognised that industrialisation and urbanisation ruled this out.
Prime Minister JC Smuts told a meeting of the Institute of Race Relations in 1942 that black urbanisation could not be stopped, but it was not until 1986 that President PW Botha's government repealed the pass laws, which had been designed to minimise and even reverse the flow of black people from country to town. Botha conceded that the pass laws had become unenforceable only after successive governments had managed to carry out pass arrests which averaged 721 a day for 65 years. If that aspect of apartheid could not be implemented, little else could. Apartheid indeed was not about racial ideology. It was always, first and foremost, about numbers.
Once the pass laws had been jettisoned, the Botha government took the next logical step of abandoning the Verwoerdian fantasy of "self-determination" in the form of ethnic homelands – into which, in pursuance of the fantasy, two million or more blacks had been forcibly removed. Once ethnic self-determination had been abandoned, the only alternative was the common society that liberals had always said was inevitable. Federalism, and better entrenchment of minority rights, would have improved the constitution eventually adopted in 1996, but that does not alter the dominating reality that the irreversibly integrated South African economy could never be confined within a straitjacket of political apartheid.