An audit of liberalism – From Brown to Leon

Patrick Laurence combines an audit of liberalism with a tribute to Peter Brown, one of its finest exponents.

The death of former Liberal Party (LP) stalwart Peter Brown on 27 June 2004 was at once an occasion for mourning and a time for celebration and, beyond that, an opportunity for an audit on liberalism as a force in South African history and its status in South Africa today.

Brown was a man who was deeply loved by his friends and widely admired by many South Africans for his dedicated commitment to liberal principles and steadfast opposition to the tyranny of apartheid. His death at the age of 79 was a sad moment for his family, friends and the wider liberal fraternity. But it was simultaneously an invitation to pause, reflect and commemorate his life as, to quote from an obituary published in the Natal Witness, a man of honour.

Peter Brown was a founder member of the LP and its national chairman from 1958 until he was banned by the National Party (NP) government for five years in 1964. The ban was renewed for another five years in 1969, though by then the LP had dissolved itself rather than submit to the Prohibition of Political Interference Act that outlawed the existence of multiracial political parties.

Brown, who was detained for 98 days in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, was the antithesis of the effete drawing room liberal caricatured by the political enemies of liberalism on the left and right. He was decidedly not the kind of liberal who leaves the room when the fight begins.1 Though firmly committed to non-violence, he refused to submit to the NP government and its bullyboys in the security police. He even invoked fear in them by his persistent solidarity with black landowners in Natal who were targeted for forced removal and by his success in recruiting black people into the ranks of the LP.

Brown was never boastful or hectoring, even when propagating the cause of the LP. His manner was that of a quietly spoken man whose calm manner induced attentiveness. According to one of his former colleagues in the LP, Brown thoroughly approved of a statement by the 19th century Russian thinker Alexander Herzen: “The point is to open people’s eyes, not to tear them out”.2 Brown was not a doctrinaire ideologue. He was prepared to co-operate with communists in the fight against apartheid. Another Herzen aphorism — “Communism is tsarist democracy turned upside down”3 — probably accounted for his prudence when doing so, however.

After the dissolution of the LP in 1968 Brown continued in his unobtrusive way to serve the cause of liberalism, and, with it, that of non-racialism in manifold ways: as the head of the editorial board of Reality, a journal of liberal and (comrades of the left please note) radical thought, as the founder and supporter of the Association for Rural Advancement and as the chairperson of a committee that sought to help the families of political prisoners.

The LP was a corporate actor on South Africa’s political stage for a mere 15 years. It was founded in 1953 in the wake of the 1953 general election that saw the NP returned to power with an increased majority and increased determination to press ahead with its soon to be internationally notorious policy of apartheid. It dissolved itself in 1968 rather than betray its commitment to non-racialism by complying with the misnamed Prohibition of Political Interference Act. Even in the relatively short history of modern South Africa, the LP was hardly more than a transient presence in the political arena.

Yet, to quote historians Christopher Saunders and Nicholas Southey, it contributed to the array of ideological forces that led to the formation of post-apartheid South Africa with the forging and acceptance of the interim constitution of 1993 and the founding constitution of the new South Africa in 1996.4 It kept alive the vision and hope of a common South Africa by openly functioning as a non-racial party at a time when the Congress Alliance consisted of segregated political units for the different races, of which the African National Congress (ANC) — which was an exclusively black organisation until the Morogoro consultative conference of 1969 — was the main contingent.5

While the LP failed in its quest to win a seat in the whites-only parliament, it succeeded in attracting black members, particularly after it shifted the main focus of its attention to the black community and its adoption in 1960 of a policy of universal suffrage instead of the qualified franchise with which it began life. The majority of delegates at its 1961 conference were black indigenes.6 One of its major successes, and a sign of its potential power as a mobilising force in the black community, was its role in helping Victor Poto’s Democratic Party to defeat the NP-backed Kaiser Matanzima in Transkei’s 1963 self-government election.

The LP was never large. Its paid up membership at its height was between 5 000 and 8 000.7 It nevertheless attracted a disproportionately large amount of hostile attention from the apartheid government of prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd and from his minister of justice and successor, B J Vorster.

One reason for that was the formation of the African Resistance Movement (ARM) after Sharpeville and the participation in its campaign of sabotage of a few members of the LP without the knowledge or approval of the party leadership. Leaving aside the philosophical question of whether the role of LP members in ARM was in contravention of their liberal principles, it was, as one of the liberals in ARM later admitted, grievously harmful to the LP.8

Another reason for government hostility was cited by Alan Paton, the LP leader, in his address at the last meeting of the LP. The NP feared the LP because, small though it was, it stood for powerful ideas, Paton declared. “One of these ideas is that man is not born to go down on his belly before the state… Another is that if men and women of different races wish to… pursue a common purpose, it is their right as human beings to do so”.9

Even before the LP disbanded, it faced a potential rival canvasser of liberal support when the Progressive Party (PP) was founded in 1959 after 11 liberally-inclined parliamentarians broke-away from the timidly-conservative United Party. The rivalry was muted, however. With its advocacy of a qualified franchise, the main target of the PP was the white electorate while the LP, with its policy shift to universal suffrage and extra-parliamentary activity was more focused on the black community.

With the passage of the Prohibition of Political Interference Act in 1968, the PP decided to comply with the law, though that meant it had to shed its black members. It decision was criticised by some political activists as an expedient move. Against that, however, it could be presented as a tactical manoeuvre that it had undertaken to enable it to convert the white community to liberalism and thereby obtain the power to rescind all racially offensive laws.

Moreover, in hardly more than a decade, leaders of the black consciousness movement counselled white liberals to do just that. The role of white liberals was not to preach the gospel of liberalism to the black community, a new generation of black leaders averred in the early 1970s. It was, they declared, to cultivate “white consciousness”, purge the collective white psyche of racism and thereby prepare whites for a non-racial future. As Steve Biko put it: “White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society — white racism”.10

There were earlier precedents for tactical flexibility, emanating from no less a person than ANC leader Nelson Mandela. In 1958, addressing the question of whether the Congress Alliance should boycott the election to parliament of four white representatives for the coloured community after coloured voters were removed from the common roll, he said: “The parliamentary forum must be exploited to put forth the case for a democratic and progressive South Africa”. 11 Two years later, during his testimony in the Treason Trial of 1956 to 1961, Mandela told the court that he would be prepared to accept 60 (separate roll) seats in parliament for black South Africans as an interim five-year measure. It would be “a significant step towards the attainment of universal adult suffrage”, he said.12

It was in that context that the PP fielded candidates in the 1961 general election for the uniracial white parliament. Former university lecturer Helen Suzman was its sole successful candidate. She served as the PP’s only representative for 13 years until she was joined by six of her PP colleagues after the 1974 general election. While in parliament she, on her own at first, and later in conjunction with her colleagues, propagated liberal values. During the 1980s she and her confreres championed the objective of universal suffrage for all South Africans, regardless of race. Suzman was tireless in her campaign for the abolition of the pass laws and her opposition to the forced removal of black people in the interests of grand or territorial apartheid.

Under the leadership of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) — as the PP was known after absorbing dissidents from the moribund United Party — became a stanch advocate for the holding of a new national convention to decide the future of South Africa. The precept of a second national convention — the first drafted the constitution for the Union of South Africa that came into existence in 1910 — rested on two presumptions. The first was the release of Mandela (who was sentenced to imprisonment for life in 1964); the second was the repeal of the 1960 decree outlawing the African National Congress and its offshoot and adversary, the Pan Africanist Congress. Suzman both anticipated and supported these presuppositions.

The birth of post-apartheid South Africa in 1994 was the product of a multiplicity of forces. Constant pressure by the PP, in its original form and in its subsequent PFP and Democratic Party (DP) mutations, was one of the concatenation of forces. While there was — and still is — debate over precisely what weight should be attached to that pressure, there was no doubt that it contributed to the NP government’s abandonment of its pernicious doctrine of apartheid and its conversion to the idea of a common society. An indubitable manifestation of that was the way in which the NP steadily pillaged liberal ideas from the PP and its successor parties and made them its own.

Today, after 10 years of non-racial democracy, liberalism with a small “l” remains a force in South Africa, though self-styled radicals frequently use the words “liberal” and more particularly “neo-liberal” in a pejorative sense to castigate political opponents. The values that underpin liberalism, including the rights to equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom of movement, association and assembly, are enshrined in the bill of rights in chapter three of the constitution on which the post-apartheid state is founded.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), which, like the PFP and the DP, is a political mutant of the PFP, is often portrayed as a party of the right opposed to South Africa’s transformation into a fully non-racial society by its opponents in the African National Congress and its allies and ancillaries. One neophyte in the ANC camp is, ironically, the now minuscule NP or New National Party as it has renamed itself. There is nothing in DA policies that justifies labelling it a rightwing party. On the contrary: some of its policy positions — provision to the poor of free quotas of essential services at municipal level, including water and electricity, support for a basic income grant to the indigent and opportunity vouchers for students from deprived families — are more closely akin to those of Europe’s social democratic parties.

Associated with attacks on the DA for its “neo-liberalism” is a tendency to mistake the robust debating style of DA leader Tony Leon as evidence of a revanchist or reactionary agenda. That is to confuse shadow with substance. The DA’s commitments to liberalism should be appraised by its policies, not the oratorical mode of its leader. Liberals, particularly those in the frontline, are often the targets of jeering by the ANC majority. They have to be psychologically tough, as Leon is and as new DA spokesperson Helen Zille shows every sign of becoming.

Judging by his recent speeches, Leon adjudges that the ANC is a potential threat to democratic liberalism. He contends that the threat emanates from its belief that it is the sole legitimate representative of the African people (used in the exclusive sense to refer to indigenous black people) and that its mission is to assert and entrench African political hegemony.13 It is not, however, illiberal to monitor the activities and ideological inclinations of ruling parties. It is the duty of liberals to do so. As the oft-quoted aphorism puts it, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

1. William Safire: Safire's New Political Dictionary. Page 407.
2. Natal Witness, 2 July 2004.
3. Alan and Veronica Palmer: A Dictionary of Historical Quotations. Page 124.
4. Christopher Saunders and Nicholas Southey: A Dictionary of South African History. Page 105.
5. The underground SA Communist Party, formed in the same year as the Liberal Party, was non-racial but, as a secret organisation, it was not a visible manifestation of non-racialism.
6. Douglas Irvine: The Liberal Party, 1953-1968 in Democratic Liberalism in South Africa. Page 119.
7. Irvine. Page 119. Randolph Vigne: Liberals Against Apartheid. Page 162
8. Vigne. Page 202.
9. Quoted by Irvine. Page 133.
10. Steve Biko: I Write What I Like. Page 23.
11. Nelson Mandela: No Easy Walk to Freedom. Page 66.
12. Nelson Mandela: The Struggle Is My Life. Page 87.
13. Speech by Leon to the Johannesburg Press Club, 10 June 2004.