This extended edition of SA Today is based on a speech delivered today by Helen Zille at a function to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Progressive Party.
Keeping the flame of liberty alight
It is daunting to be speaking to the people who have mentored me politically since the day I joined the Young Progressives forty years ago-and what's more to be talking about a subject you know so much more about than I do.
But it is also a great honour to be addressing so many of my predecessors today, as we celebrate 50 years since the birth of the political tradition that has kept, and continues to keep, the flame of liberty burning in our country.
Every one of the Mayflower voyagers here today was and remains integral to our cause, even when there were sharp differences over specific issues. May we have the wisdom to continue your work, and prepare the way for those who will succeed us.
But before we look to the future, let's look at where we came from and especially acknowledge those who are no longer with us. There are very many and I can only mention a few: Jan Steytler, Helen Suzman, Rene de Villiers, Nic Olivier, John Malcomess, Pat Poovalingam, Roger Hulley, Tian Van der Merwe, James Rennie, Zach de Beer, as well as Harry Oppenheimer who was never a Prog MP, but did more than many an MP to keep us going when few held out any hope for us. Their contribution to our cause and country is indelible and immeasurable. We will never forget them.
And let me also mention the pioneering journalists and editors who were professional enough to remain independent of party politics, but courageous enough to recognize that independence does not mean value-neutral. Let me mention them, as chronologically as I can: Laurie Gandar, Ray Louw, Donald Woods, Allister Sparks, the journalistic mentor to whom I personally owe so much, Ken Owen, Tony Heard, Gerald Shaw, John Patten, Stewart Carlyle and Bruce Cameron. You all maintained a voice for these values when they would otherwise surely have been smothered for lack of oxygen.
Peter Soal, who gave me my very first paid job in the Progressive Party, has asked me to go back to our roots in my speech today. You never say no to your first boss.
In doing so, I will reflect on the past 50 years of our political tradition and show how each generation of Progressives contributed in their time and context to taking the next step in building a non-racial, democratic South Africa - using the words as we understand them - a project that will never be over, and which has required as much work after 1994 as it did before.
As I see it, there are five elements that have been integral to our project for the last fifty years. They are our unchanging core values, our unwavering sense of purpose, our commitment to keep the idea of opposition alive (together with our belief that we could, one day, become a party of government) our love of constitutionalism and our commitment to non-racialism.
I would like to address each in turn, starting with our values.
We have always opposed tyranny, in all its guises. We have always promoted Martin Luther-King's famous aphorism that people should be judged on the content of their character not the colour of their skin. And we have always believed that it is the state's role to defend rights and freedoms, to extend opportunities for all, and to provide a safety net for those who cannot care for themselves.
The DA today summarises this philosophy as the open, opportunity society for all. It is, we believe, the antithesis of the closed, crony society for comrades only. As is so often the case, Afrikaans expresses it most trenchantly of all: the magstaat versus the regstaat.
Whilst the DA may have defined the alternatives as political slogans, we inherited the ideas that underlie them from the great thinkers of the past. They were clearly articulated on this very day 50 years ago when the visionary Jan Steytler, the first leader of the Progressives, set out the fledgling party's credo. He said:
"In future, colour and colour alone should not be the yardstick by which people are judged. We consider that all South Africans should be given the opportunity to make a contribution to the political and economic life of our country. We want to face the future, not with fear but with confidence that we can live together in harmony in a multi-racial country."
In the iron grip of apartheid, this was radical, subversive even, coming from a white South African. In fact, today we look back on Jan Steytler's words and realize that he was more than 50 years ahead of his time. And it was so appropriate that the torchbearer for liberty was an Afrikaner. The National Party mouthpiece, Die Transvaler, offered this response in its editorial:
"If words mean anything, they mean that this new party seeks to create a new unity of many races, Boer, Brit, Jew, Bantu, Indian and Coloured in one nation. This is the most open and fatal point of view ever adopted by a political party in our country."
South Africa has come a long way since then. Our Constitution guarantees the basic rights of every South African, it supports multi-party democracy, it provides for independent institutions to prevent power abuse, it prohibits racial discrimination and it enjoins the state progressively to realise socio-economic opportunities.
And yet, we still have a long way to go before we realise in practice the vision that Jan Steytler so eloquently expressed back in 1959. There are many powerful people in South Africa today who do not understand constitutionalism, who make no distinction between the party and the state, and who believe winning an election gives you the right to exercise untrammeled power. They want the big men wielding power in the magstaat rather than the independent institutions preventing power abuse in the regstaat. And, there are still far too many who, like the editorial writer of Die Transvaler, believe it is fatal for a political party to strive for nation building across racial boundaries.
Our unwavering sense of purpose
Fortunately, fatalism was never a strong trait of the Progressives. We have always believed that people can shape their own destiny. They are not victims of fate. We have survived setbacks that few other parties would have survived anywhere under similar circumstances.
When the Progressive Party was reduced from 12 members to one after the 1961 election, Helen Suzman stayed the course - for thirteen years - as the lone, sometimes caustic but always witty voice of reason in a hostile Parliament.
She was not only under fire in Parliament, where she was called all sorts of derogatory names, but outside as well, where she was increasingly labelled a sell-out by the liberation movements. I often thought that was the unkindest cut of all.
From the early 1970s, with the growth of black consciousness, it did sometimes seem as if we would be crushed between competing racial nationalisms. Even though we won 6 seats in the historic 1974 election, when the dynamic young leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert burst onto the national scene, the voice of reason was never more threatened than during the 1970s. In an interesting anecdote Ton Vosloo recalls an occasion in 1975 when he asked Schalk Pienaar, a leading political journalist of his time, to predict the future of the Progressive Party. Pienaar gave a one word answer: "None".
It was during this time that we began our strategy of growth through realignment, when Harry Schwarz gave us our first lesson in forging coalitions. The PP became the PRP and then the PFP and then the DP before we became the DA.
What brought people together was our faith that South Africa could defy the unfolding logic of our history and avoid a racial civil war.
But when the Conservative Party, capitalising on growing white fear, unseated us as the official opposition in 1987, many of us began to think Schalk Pienaar may have been right.
And it was here, once again, that we could rely on the intellect and vision of Colin Eglin. Stepping into a leadership vacuum, he seamlessly continued the work he had done for 25 years: preparing for the moment he always believed would come, when leaders were prepared to negotiate a democratic transition before they had lost or won a civil war.
When the Democratic Party won only 1.7% of the vote in the first democratic election, we kept going in the knowledge that it was as important to provide effective opposition to a centralized, powerful governing party after 1994 as it had been before. We understood that a small, resolute opposition was better than no opposition at all - a lesson we had learnt from Helen Suzman all those years before.
When the Democratic Alliance was formed, bringing together the NNP and the DP, many people said we had sold our soul. But we carried on in the belief that in order to become a challenger for power, we would have to reach out to people who had never supported us before, and convert them to our cause, rather than remaining a self-righteous, closed circle. We understood both the importance, and the risks of growth. Today, I think we would all say it was worth it.
It is this single-mindedness of purpose and flexibility of strategy in the face of adversity that has seen us through the last fifty years and will keep us going for the next half century.
Keeping opposition alive
That purpose - until recently when we re-launched the DA as a party of government - has centered on keeping the idea of opposition alive at times when to oppose the government of the day was denounced as unpatriotic before 1994 or as racist afterwards. We still believe that the surest route to tyranny is the absence of principled opposition.
The members of the progressive group that broke away from the United Party in 1959 were the first to understand this. They saw how the United Party was incapable of providing a clear alternative to the Nationalist government and holding it to account. And they knew that Parliament could be a powerful tool to expose the injustice and absurdities of the apartheid system. This proved to be a key factor in the growing domestic and international pressure which eventually brought about apartheid's demise.
It is instructive that, as Ray Swart notes in his history of the Progressive Party, during the first parliamentary session in the life of the party, its 12 MPs asked more questions than the United Party with 41 representatives in Parliament. This was repeated four decades later when the DP, with seven MPs compared to the National Party's 82, asked six times as many trenchant questions of government than the official opposition.
The DP in the new South Africa, like the Progressives in the old, realised that the National Party would not provide an effective opposition to the ANC. And it was clear that, despite the global popularity of Nelson Mandela, he too needed a fearless opposition. Tony Leon, schooled in the progressive tradition, understood this better than any other, and was bold enough to take on what must have been the most difficult job in the world at that time. The fact that he declined a cabinet seat in Nelson Mandela's Government of National Unity spoke volumes about his understanding that even the world's foremost statesman, and icon of the struggle for democracy, needed an opposition in order for constitutional democracy to succeed.
Our love of Constitutionalism
Besides a commitment to providing strong opposition that has remained to this day, we also have the Progressive Party to thank for our love of the Constitution and our dedication to the rule of law and due process.
It is not widely acknowledged that the Constitution that the DA defends today has its roots in the Molteno Commission set up by the Progressive Party in 1961, of which Colin Eglin was a member. It recommended a national convention, an entrenched Constitution, a bill of rights, a common voters' roll, a defined role for the provinces and an independent judiciary. As a journalist wrote recently, "If all that sounds familiar, so it should: it is precisely what was agreed at Codesa in the early nineties."
The negotiations at Codesa that culminated in our Constitution and Bill of Rights were not just a victory for every South African, they were also a vindication of our intellectual tradition. If the groundwork was laid by the Molteno Commission in the 1960s, it was the DP's negotiating team, led by the formidable Colin Eglin together with Ken Andrew and others who ensured that there were significant checks against power abuse when many of the other negotiators were concerned largely with how much power they could get, or whether their jobs and pensions would be secure.
But, if anyone thought that winning the intellectual contest and securing the Constitution in the early 1990s would translate into electoral success, they were sorely disappointed. With a mere 1.7% of the vote in the 1994 election some people wrote us off entirely, just as they had done when the Progs returned one Member of Parliament out of 12 at the 1961 general election.
Our commitment to non-racialism
It was the Progressives who had demonstrated the flaws of eie sake politics and prepared white South Africa for the advent of democracy by arguing that constitutionalism would provide greater protection than a civil war. When F.W. De Klerk unbanned the ANC in 1990, he was speaking to white South Africans who had already been prepared for a transition.
The Progressives also showed black South Africans - and the world - that white South Africa was not a homogenous group, that there were people who, despite being advantaged by apartheid, rejected it and were fighting for a democratic alternative.
Nobody communicated this message more effectively than Helen Suzman. She was the master of the symbolic gesture. She always went and saw for herself. She fought against detention without trial; pass laws; influx control; job reservation; racially separated amenities; Group Areas; and forced removals. She demanded trade union rights for black workers and fought for better wages and working conditions. She visited prisons and obtained better conditions for prisoners.
She did all these things, not for electoral gain or political advantage, but because they were the right thing to do. It is in this spirit that the DA today remains committed to building a truly non-racial society. And it is in this spirit that we continue to fight against preferential treatment for the favoured few with connections to the ruling elite.
The battle ahead
The next fifty years will be defined by a battle between two competing visions for South Africa. One has it roots in the progressive movement and holds that all should have access to opportunities to better their lives, and pursue their dreams, and that the state should protect their freedoms and their opportunities to do so. This is the open, opportunity society for all.
The other has its roots in the apartheid regime and has been enthusiastically adopted by elements in the ruling party in what is perhaps the greatest irony of our time. It is the closed, crony society for some with all the hallmarks of the apartheid state: preferential treatment for the politically connected, the subversion of independent institutions in the service of the "national interest" and the mobilisation of people along racial lines to legitimate its excesses. Many in the ruling party hold this view and ludicrously define it as progressive. But not all. Barbara Hogan's courageous speech in Parliament yesterday shows that there are those in the ANC who understand constitutionalism in the same way that we do. She is not the only one: just the most topical example.
The next ten years will be defined by the realignment of our politics around these two alternatives. Our current political formations are, in fact obsolete. The people have moved beyond them. Politicians now have to catch up. Even though it is so obviously required, and so logical, it will be a difficult process. We have the battle scars to show how much hand-to-hand combat political realignment involves. But our primary task in the next five years will be to enable all those who believe in the values of the regstaat, and in our constitutional democracy, to gravitate towards each other in a single party. And then to leave the rest, and sadly there are many who use racial nationalism to mobilize their forces, on the opposite bank of South Africa's political river. Then everyone will understand what the options really are, and what the consequences of their choices will be. Our job is to learn from the past as we focus on the future, not to attempt to recreate the past to entrench our positions.
Our role going forward will be as important as the role of the Progressives was during apartheid.
I want to end on a justified note of optimism. The truth is, our project is flourishing. Since 1994 millions of South Africans who had never before voted for constitutionalism, human rights and a free economy have given their support to the DA. Our press remains, although not what it once was, free and ready to defend itself against state interference. Civil society is alive and well.
We have certainly come a long way since 1961 when Helen Suzman was the lone liberal voice in Parliament. We owe our success to every member of the progressive movement who kept the flame of liberty burning when days were dark and friends were few. It is your bravery, tenacity and commitment to the cause that we celebrate today. And rest assured, we plan to continue what you started 50 years ago.
This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, November 13 2009
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