The complexities of liberalism in South Africa

Paul Trewhela responds to Sara Gon's article on the “The other ANC of OR Tambo”

Sara Gon makes many strong factual points in her article “The other ANC of OR Tambo” (Politicsweb, 30 November 2017) concerning the political history of Oliver Tambo, as deputy-president and then president of the African National Congress during its three decades of exile.

But I feel her approach is not balanced, and therefore ultimately not fully reliable.

There is no dispute that in considering the most senior leaders in exile of the ANC, and especially of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – Mzwandile Piliso, Joe Modise, Andrew Masondo, Chris Hani, Duma Nokwe, Alfred Nzo, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and others – OR Tambo was the most “liberal”, generally speaking, having more in common with the previous “broad church” approach of former ANC president and his fellow Christian, Albert Luthuli, than with that of most of his more ideologically Soviet-minded colleagues. Unlike nearly all of them (including Mbeki and Zuma), he was never a member of the South African Communist Party, and in this sense he did not inherit their ideological and theoretical parentage with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the ANC’s Cold War patron.

This is a fact which Sara Gon does not mention, but it is crucial for a rounded, in-depth political analysis of the role of Tambo in particular.

Specifically, what this means is that Tambo retained a spiritual connection of some kind with Jesus Christ’s more gentle teachings, by contrast with Karl Marx’s advocacy of “dictatorship of the proletariat” (letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 5 March 1852) and the hecatomb of killings carried out by Stalin’s dictatorship in the USSR, all of which were endorsed publicly by the Communist Party of South Africa as legal predecessor of the illegal SACP.

The fact is, Tambo’s non-Communist personal outlook gave him a breadth of sensibility which was exceptional among the majority of his exile colleagues, and it enabled him to play a generally more mediating role in internal ANC affairs by comparison with most of his fellow leaders. In this sense, it is an understatement that Tambo’s was not an easy role, and the huge tensions involved in holding together the ship of exile through stormy seas until the downfall of the Russian Soviet system in Europe and the ANC’s legal return to South Africa almost certainly contributed to his stroke in Sweden in 1989, leading to his death in South Africa from a further stroke on 24 April 1993.

His stroke in 1989 had “left him debilitated.” (New York Times, 24 April 1993)

My essay “The ANC prison camps: An audit of three years, 1990-1993”, published in London in the banned exile magazine Searchlight South Africa in April 1993 – which Sara Gon cites in her article – appeared in the same month as Tambo’s death, written some weeks before publication.

It was therefore hardly appropriate for my essay to have stated, at that time, as Sara Gon quotes me, that: Tambo has a powerful case to answer.”

In retrospect, I also think I was over-emphatic and factually wrong when I continued: “As president he [Tambo] was no remote, purely formal figure in the ANC… like a modern constitutional monarch. He was more in the manner of the president of the United States, head of the executive: and in this case, at the time of the mutiny, an unaccountable and largely unelected executive, unrestrained by checks and balances. As ANC president he was commander in chief of MK and one of the three senior office-holders in the ANC.”

In reality Tambo’s presidency had nothing like the powers of a US president. He was no Donald Trump, or Barack Obama. Unlike a US president, he could not appoint the members of his own executive and remove them at will, though it was true that at the time of the “mutiny” in MK in Angola in February/May 1984 the ANC was commanded by “an unaccountable and largely unelected executive, unrestrained by checks and balances.”

Tambo was not “commander in chief of MK” in a manner comparable with Donald Trump, or John F Kennedy, in relation to the US armed forces.

I acknowledge my mistake here.

All this is secondary, though, to what I see now as a much greater and far more fundamental issue.

Sara Gon is cited at the foot of her article as a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty.”

With great respect for the work over many decades of the Institute of Race Relations, I wish to focus here on that crucial issue of “political liberty” and the fate of the most important political organization which promoted and defended this concept in South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA). I wish to place this issue in the context of the extreme difficulties facing OR Tambo during his time as deputy president and then president of the ANC in exile.

The point I wish to make is that the subject of the Liberal Party has been disgracefully neglected, or evaded, by South Africa’s academics, journalists, researchers and political thinkers whose focus is on the history of the country’s political and intellectual culture from the late 1960s up to today, both within South Africa and in exile.

My focus here is on the decision in March 1968 by leaders of the still legal Liberal Party to disband the party, faced with threat of prosecution when President John Vorster’s Prohibition of Improper Interference Bill was due to become law the following May, banning all non-racial political organisations.

Albeit quiet and unobserved, this was nevertheless an epic event in South Africa’s moral, cultural, social and political history, with very major consequences, yet barely mentioned and never discussed in all its dimensions.

So far as I am aware, in all of South Africa’s over-brimming wealth of political literature there is still only ONE full-length history of the LPSA – the exceptionally valuable (but inadequate) study, Liberals against Apartheid: A History of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953-68 (Macmillan, London/St Martin’s Press, New York, 1997), researched and written to his honour and credit by one of the LPSA’s former leaders, Randolph Vigne, who died last year, aged 87.

I mention in passing, however, that Vigne’s deep personal relation to his subject itself requires further, more distanced study from other thinkers; that his position as leader of the non-Communist sabotage movement, the African Resistance Movement, makes the same point – emphasized still more by his role as founder and president of the Namibia Support Group in exile, with the group’s non-questioning relation to SWAPO’s abuses against its own members, culminating in Vigne’s major role in helping to draft the autobiography of SWAPO’s leader, Sam Nujoma, Where Others Wavered (Panaf Books, 2001. p.vii).

There are further gaping holes in our reach of understanding.

Among these, there is still no biographical study of Henry Selby Msimang (1886-1982), a major leader of the ANC who attended its founding conference in 1912, became joint leader of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union and decades later joined the Liberal Party of South Africa, becoming a member of its National Committee – one of the most crucial figures for exploring the complexities in black political history of the 20th century.

Similarly, there is no biography of Jordan Kush Ngubane (1917-85), co-author of the ANC Youth League manifesto in 1944, editor of the journal Inkundla ya Bantu (1944-51) and author of books such as An African Explains Apartheid (Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1963), in which in a chapter headed “Communists versus Liberals” Ngubane noted prophetically that while the Liberal Party “exerted a very powerful gravitational pull on moral grounds, where its principles were unassailable”, the party nevertheless was not “without its weaknesses.”

The most outstanding of these weaknesses, Ngubane concluded - with laser-sharp precision - was that “temperamentally it is not a revolutionary organization; in a revolutionary situation it could very well find itself impotent.” (pp.198-99)

It is this “impotence” of liberal politics as an organized political party in South Africa which needs to be considered and analysed if an adequate assessment is to be made of the conflicting currents within black politics in the decades prior to the first democratic general election in 1994, and since. This applies with equal force in assessing the political life of OR Tambo in exile.

Five years after publication of these searching words from Ngubane, the LPSA dissolved itself, permanently, with Msimang (in his eighties) as one of the members of the National Committee who took this decision.

My view is that with this decision, and what followed, the Liberal Party abandoned the field of battle.

In a hard, tough, sharply polarized society like South Africa, it was fatal for a political party dedicated to liberal principles to walk away, or just go home. Massive negative consequences could only follow.

There is little in common here between the LPSA and the founders of modern liberal political practice such as John Hampden in England or the authors of the Declaration of Independence in the United States, who challenged illiberal political authority face to face.

This shines through in the second volume of the autobiography of Alan Paton (1903-88), the most widely read and internationally most highly respected leader of the Liberal Party, who with Msimang and others took the decision to dissolve the party. Paton writes that after the LPSA came to an end "I never saw the security police again. ... It was for me a time of the kind of intellectual freedom which one may not enjoy while one is a member of a party." (Journey Continued, OUP, 1988. p.287)

Paton’s biographer, Peter F. Alexander, endorses this, observing that the end of the LPSA was “a blow to him”, but that “there was also a measure of quiet relief in his reaction to the dissolution of the Party…”. (Alan Paton: A Biography, OUP, Cape Town, 1995. p.350)

One can only note that this was not the approach of leaders of the Communist Party in 1950, or of the ANC and of the Pan Africanist Congress in 1960, when they were banned.

According to Michael Cardo, author of the biography of Peter Brown – the LPSA’s “principal financial support, caregiver, motivator, role model and champion”, and its former chairman - its dissolution in 1968 means bluntly that “non-racial liberalism in South Africa ceased to have a political home.” (Opening Men’s Eyes: Peter Brown and the Liberal Struggle for South Africa, Jonathan Ball, 2010. pp.182, 190)

The Liberal Party never resurrected itself again as an illegal, underground organization, or even as a loose grouping of associates who might challenge the unjust regime in principled, non-violent ways that could have led to their arrest.

The dissolution of the LPSA in 1968 as liberalism’s “political home” should be compared with the sit-down protest which took place in Moscow only a few months later, when the physicist Pavel Litvinov, philologist Larissa Bogoraz, the poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya, poet Vadim Delaunay, art critic Victor Fainberg and history student Vladimir Dremlyuga raised banners written in Czech and Russian in Red Square in support of Czechoslovak independence, after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring, and detained its architect, Alexander Dubcek. Arrested by the KGB, Litvinov was sentenced to five years’ exile in Siberia, Bogoraz sent to Siberia for four years and Gorbanevskaya detained in a psychiatric hospital.

Their political demonstration in Red Square can be associated with the political conduct after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia of Václav Havel, later president of the Czech Republic, who co-founded the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted in 1979, resulting in “multiple stays in prison, and constant government surveillance and questioning by the secret police.” 

If members of the dissolved Liberal Party of South Africa had conducted themselves after May 1968 in the non-violent spirit of Litvinov in Russia and Havel in Czechoslovakia, their arrest and imprisonment would have won extensive international as well as national media attention, and massive political support both within and outside South Africa, not least from black South Africans.

A courageous, active, liberal ethic would have preserved the identity and self-respect of the Liberal Party and enabled it to stand up against the dominant Soviet ethic within the ANC in exile, providing support and encouragement for the pro-democracy current within MK which opposed corruption, lack of accountability and the brutal conduct of Mbokodo, “the grindstone”.

Former LPSA leaders need only have followed the non-violent example of Martin Luther King Jnr in the United States, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963.

Alas, it never happened. 

In this light, it is absurd to say, as Randolph Vigne did in his history of the Liberal Party, that “The victory of liberalism in South Africa in the 1990s was over both such [apartheid and Soviet] forces of evil.” (op.cit., p.226)

Or to claim an “Ironic Victory”, as in the title of the volume of essays edited by RW Johnson and David Welsh, Ironic Victory: Liberalism in Post-Liberation South Africa (OUP, Oxford, 1998).

Liberalism did not earn victories in the struggle against apartheid, and the consequences of its failure to try harder are transparent in the dominance of the regime of State Capture today.

Given South Africa’s heritage of a liberal current which succumbed so quietly, and so passively, it is unjust to criticize Tambo’s conduct in the ANC in exile without qualification. His job would not have been so hard, if liberalism had fought with greater courage and commitment in South Africa.

It would be good for there to be debate and discussion of this issue.