Liberalism and the DA: Taking the long view

RW Johnson on the surprising rootedness and endurance of this South African tradition

When, in an earlier article, I wrote about the strength of the South African liberal tradition and its central importance to the DA, a respected friend wrote to me that he couldn’t agree. Many DA voters, he said – I suspect he meant white voters, but it applies to all voters – had been drenched in racism over a long period and it would be foolish to imagine that they harboured liberal principles.

One might object that anybody born from, say, 1985 on need not have been brainwashed with racist ideas, but there is, nonetheless, much to what he says. Indeed, not just DA voters but probably even most DA MPs have only a hazy idea of what liberalism is.

How many of them have ever read John Locke, Tom Paine, Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill, let alone such modern theorists as John Rawls and Robert Nozick? And, of course, one need only glance at many of the comments on social media or below online articles to see how the current crisis has revivified racist sentiments – a sad fact since it suggests that one of the major gains of the 1990s is being jettisoned.

Interestingly, Helen Zille has recently written of how during the soccer World Cup, Henry Kissinger dropped in at her mayoral office in Cape Town to quiz her about the DA. He was sure that an inclusive democracy, with liberal values and principles, was impossible in Africa simply because the continent’s partition had made no allowance for ethnicity and had accordingly condemned Africa to try to build democracies on the back of disparate groups which would always tend to dissolve into ethnic and racial politics.

So how could the DA campaign successfully on the basis of liberal principle? Ms Zille says that she replied by instancing “South Africa’s struggle history of nonracialism against apartheid... the relative autonomy of our economy in relation to the state...our constitution, the institutions of accountability, our independent judiciary and our free press...our history of religious tolerance”.

It is to be doubted that Kissinger, a supreme practitioner of realpolitik, was much convinced by this. South Africa’s economy, certainly to American eyes, is dominated by huge state behemoths like Eskom, Transnet, SAA and Denel (in the US the railways, airlines, defence industries, energy and most ports are privately run) while the South African state’s civil service consumes a far higher proportion of GDP than would be imaginable in America.

Moreover, several of these factors - the anti-apartheid struggle, the constitution and the Chapter Nine institutions – are very recent while Kissinger, in his own writings, stresses over and over again the importance of history. It is, he says, “the memory of states” and in its slow gestation lie all the secrets of our culture and civilization.

And that is rather the point. It took several hundred years to build a liberal democratic state - exclusively for whites. (One is tempted to say that this was a classically South African anomaly but it wasn’t. In fact all democracies began like that. Athenian democracy co-existed with a large, voteless slave population, only a small oligarchy could vote in 18th century Britain, women couldn’t vote almost anywhere, and so on.)

In fact the building of democracy here has been the usual slow story. The Huguenots, driven by their demand for freedom of religion, arrived in South Africa in the late seventeenth century and by 1706 one finds them prominent in the successful revolt against the corrupt and repressive governor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, led by Adam Tas, Henning Husing and Willem van Zijl.

This was an early victory against authoritarianism but the decisive developments came with British colonial rule after 1805. The end of East India Company rule brought about an effective free market economy – at least for whites.

Thereafter the armature of the hybrid liberal state was rapidly built: liberality within was always matched by illiberality without. In the 1820s Thomas Pringle, George Greig and John Fairbairn won an epic struggle for press freedom against the reactionary governor, Charles Lord Somerset. (Somerset was an awful man and the only reason he is still celebrated by some is purely to do with colonial cringe and South Africans being suckers for titles.)

The Charters of 1827 and 1834 brought about a fully professional and independent judiciary and the effective rule of law. By 1830 Catholic emancipation had taken place and South Africa had a full, competitive panoply of churches. The abolition of slavery soon followed, a generation earlier than in America. (In general, as George Frederickson showed in his book White Supremacy, 18th and 19th century South Africa was far more liberal than the American South.)

Next came representative and then responsible government. Moreover, as was to be expected in a rugged frontier society, there was always freedom of speech, of assembly and of movement – no one attempted to stop the trekkers from leaving, loudly damning the British and the missionaries as they did so. Even so, the Boer republics which the trekkers set up retained many features of the world they had left, such as freedom of religion, speech, the press and of movement.

For most whites, at least, these developments were seen as intrinsic to modernity – for at the same time the colonial state was introducing railways, municipal administration, a properly regulated tax system, a piped water and sewage system, a civil service, schools, hospitals, proper ports, a postal service and later telegraphs and telephones. Even, wonder of wonders, the coming of electricity. Surveying these gains in the light of today’s demands for “decolonization” one cannot but be wary that people may get what they ask for.

The British colonial liberal state was to be seen in Natal (where it was strictly for whites only) and in the Cape Colony (today’s Western, Eastern and Northern Cape), where the franchise was broader. But the effect of the Anglo-Boer War was to spread this system right across South Africa. Self government and independence rapidly followed but both Botha and Smuts maintained the liberal democratic state and although Barry Hertzog (prime minister from 1924 to 1939) was a reactionary in his attitude to blacks he did not attempt to dismantle it – indeed, it was his government that brought in votes for (white) women in 1930. Naturally, the liberal state was fully maintained by Smuts (prime minister 1939-1948).

There was some apprehension that the Afrikaner Nationalists would abandon this limited liberal state when they came to power in 1948 but it was soon evident that despite their repressive policies towards Africans, Coloureds and Indians, they did not want to change much within the system itself. They immediately abandoned their previous anti-Semitic policies and they were almost obsessively legalistic, free elections continued, the judges remained independent and freedom of speech, of the press and of religion all remained in place.

Although the Nats excoriated liberalism as a philosophy their main objection to it was nothing to do with the system itself. It was that liberals wanted to extend the whites-only liberal system to encompass the rest of society. It was not until the heightened racial struggles of the 1960s that the Nats interfered with press freedom or brought in detention without trial. Both these measures caused grave disquiet in the white electorate no matter how reactionary its views on race, for whites were by then entirely acculturated to the rule of law, habeas corpus and press freedom, at least for themselves.

It should be noted that throughout the anti-apartheid struggle the ANC mounted a critique of apartheid often in liberal terms. Job reservation was attacked because it interfered with individual freedoms, the pass laws because they prevented freedom of movement, the restrictions on the press and detention without trial because they violated the rule of law and the restricted franchise because it prevented popular sovereignty. This was, at least in part, hypocritical because a glance at Sechaba or The African Communist was sufficient to show that the movement did not believe in press freedom. It also practised detention without trial, torture and even summary execution in its camps.

In the townships the movement conducted kangaroo courts which had nothing to do with the rule of law and which practised mob lynchings (“necklacings”). Once the struggle with Inkatha began it was also happy to try to deny its opponents freedom of speech or of the press. There was, moreover, little doubt that had the ANC gained power before 1990 – not through negotiation but through its preferred route of “the seizure of state power” - its natural instinct would have been for the creation of a single party state which would have rendered elections meaningless.

Despite all this there was significance in the fact that the ANC always campaigned for freedom (“let my people go”). It was a “freedom struggle” with “freedom fighters” and to some extent the movement was entrapped by its own rhetoric. Meanwhile the Afrikaner Nationalists had come to the conclusion that the liberal state must be expanded once more to include the disenfranchised.

It was axiomatic that they wanted to preserve the liberal state for their own constituency so the direction had to be one of extending the liberal state to all. Thus it was not as surprising as is sometimes argued, that the ANC and Nationalists agreed on a liberal constitution: it was the obvious meeting ground for both of them. And it was clear that this was also what the bulk of the new, extended electorate wanted and expected.

The ANC attempted to disguise this development in a great deal of revolutionary rhetoric but of course there was no revolution. Africans, Coloureds and Indians did not want to overthrow the white world but be allowed to join it, to be incorporated and to enjoy all the same rights and legal protections that whites had. None of this was very surprising. After all, democracies elsewhere had grown to include larger and larger parts of the electorate who, often despite a great deal of radical rhetoric from their leaders, had always been quite happy to be thus incorporated.

Any discussion of the strength of the liberal tradition in South Africa has to begin with this history. In effect both sections of the white population were thoroughly acclimatised over two centuries to all the classic institutions and assumptions of a parliamentary liberal democracy, though only for themselves, and this was seamlessly combined with the racist exclusion of all others.

At the same time these excluded others were also acculturated to the system. They were like tennis fans watching the game and knowing all the players, rules and tactics, though they themselves were not allowed to join in and play, much as they wanted to. Once change came in 1994 they joined in massively, joyously. In other words, the liberal democratic system is part of all our inheritance. It is part of all of us. It’s in our blood.

But many of the newly enfranchised felt that their incorporation had brought them fewer benefits than they had hoped. This was the case for two reasons. First, they too easily assumed that their inclusion in the liberal state would automatically bring them some of the advantages that those within the system already enjoyed. There was quite insufficient recognition that those advantages were built on accumulated social and financial capital derived from hard striving over a long period. There was seldom a get-rich-quick way to emulate that.

Secondly, however, economic growth faltered, largely due to the destructive policies and practices of the new government. This was crucial. While economic growth continued merrily enough between 1994 and 2007 there was growing opportunity and many new men and women took full advantage of it and a considerable process of embourgeoisement took place. After 2008, however, growth faltered and stagnated, unemployment soared and racial politics became increasingly bitter. In 2013 the Economic Freedom Fighters were born and, amidst the stagnation and corruption, they prospered.

Again, it is important to note that this had happened before. In nineteenth century Britain the great franchise enlargements of 1832, 1867 and 1884 were followed by headlong economic growth in the heyday of the British Empire. Thus the newly enfranchised masses not only gave rise to no radical movements but, indeed, the one existing radical movement, the Chartists, died out.

Compare that to the vast franchise extensions in Europe which followed the first world war in 1918-1919 – for only then were the working classes and (sometimes) women finally included in the liberal state. For a decade things went tolerably well but when the Depression followed this wave of democratization was but ashes in the mouth and fascist movements prospered almost everywhere. In that sense the characterization of the EFF as a fascist movement is a fairly accurate historical analogy.

But the situation is contested. In France, Britain and America liberal democracies all survived the Depression and in South Africa the liberal state is still intact. Clearly, it would not survive if the EFF and the Zuma-Magashule wing of the ANC came to power. What the comparison makes plain is the extraordinary foolishness of the DA in attacking Ramaphosa as a continuation of Zuma. For Ramaphosa stands for the continuation of the liberal state and Zuma did not. This was the same sort of mistake as that made by the Communists in the 1930s who said that in order to fight the fascists they first needed to destroy the social democrats. This merely paved the way for the worst of all possible worlds.

The effect of the great enlargement of liberal democracy of 1994 upon whites was paradoxical. Most had retained various racial prejudices but were now told that these were illegitimate, that now all the previously excluded were their fellow citizens and that this change was irreversible. The whites accepted this with relative ease – they would, after all, continue to enjoy all their old freedoms, enjoy the rule of law with an independent judiciary and sharing these things with others was not too onerous.

None of them seemed in any way nostalgic for apartheid and most enjoyed the sense of a common citizenship, especially since it meant international acceptance and an end to sanctions and boycotts. As white voters surveyed the new situation in which, for the first time, they would have to compete head-on with other races they generally felt that this was acceptable enough provided they and their families got a fair crack of the whip – which meant that jobs and contracts would be awarded on the basis of merit and hard work.

That is, even the most racially prejudiced whites had in effect become liberals: they just wanted to compete on equal terms in a democratic society, enjoying all the freedoms and the rule of law. At the same time, in the unconscious way typical of many South Africans, they accepted all these things without ever calling themselves liberals or realising that that term was now an accurate self-description.

Not surprisingly many who would never have dreamt of voting for the Progressives or the DP in the past, now found that they had no ideological reason not to do so. The DP (and then DA) was strongly committed to non-racialism and most whites, old Nats included, were willing to pay at least lip-service to that, though some positively enjoyed being born-again non-racists.

When, however, they discovered that they would not get jobs or contracts no matter what their merits or hard work and when all jobs and contracts became scarcer, they frequently became embittered and many of the old racial prejudices returned. Something rather similar applied to all the other racial groups: economic stagnation means heightened competition for scarce resources and this increases racial and ethnic tensions. That is roughly where we are now.

Nonetheless, this still leaves the liberal tradition in a strong position. Its institutions and assumptions are widely accepted among all groups, as are its freedoms, the rule of law and a market economy. Given this underlying situation there were no fixed limits on the growth of a liberal political coalition which is why the DP/DA has been able to advance from 1.7% to 22% since 1994, and why it has been easily South Africa’s most successful non-racial party.

However, as we know, over the past decade the party has wandered far from its liberal roots and has played the games of identity politics and racial favouritism which have de-stabilized its coalition. Its leadership has become wholly detached from its electorate and intra-party factionalism has increased.

The DA’s problems, in other words, are of its own making. Like the ANC it has squandered an extremely favourable situation but while corruption and incompetence explain the ANC’s failure the DA’s difficulties derive from the fact that even its leadership has had an insufficient (indeed almost unconscious) grasp of its own liberal principles. One can only hope that the present shock will lead to some serious re-thinking. This is the key to the contest for the DA leadership. Any candidate who wants to retain the politics of racial preference is pointing back to the past. Only if the party elects someone with the nerve to turn their back on all that has it really got a future.

RW Johnson