Established in 1993 to honour the life and work of Helen Suzman, the HSF exists to promote the ideas and values that she espoused in her public life. As a politician, activist and decades-long opponent of injustice, she said: ‘I am proud to acknowledge that I am liberal . . . who adheres to old-fashioned liberal values such as the rule of law, universal franchise, free elections, a free press, free association, guaranteed civil rights and an independent judiciary.’

The liberal tradition is an old, popular but contested one. What it means to be ‘liberal’ is disputed. Liberals disagree not only on details, but also as regards some of its most basic principles.

For example, some think that it is a theory of restrained power that is concerned with securing individuals from state oppression. Others think that it is about free markets. Others still think that it is about human progress, with some focusing on individuals and their unique capacities, and others on the mutual interdependence of all people. Yet a further derivation emerges when some liberals exclusively emphasise notions of diversity and tolerance.

At the HSF, we resist efforts to categorise liberalism in these narrow ways. Attempts to transform liberalism into a simplistic, and easily caricatured, ideology must be resisted. Alan Paton once crisply alluded to this: 'By liberalism I don't mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.'

Liberalism embraces many ideas, principles and values. It is often associated with concepts such as liberty, rationality, individuality, progress, sociability and general interest. True, other non-liberal schools employ such concepts. But, what distinguishes them from liberalism, and what unifies the concepts and strands of thought discussed above, is liberalism’s emphasis on the relationship between politics and autonomy. At its core, liberals promote the idea that the source of all politics—power, institutions and laws—lies in the free and willing choices of individual women and men. 

This is all quite abstract. So, let us be a little more concrete. What conception of liberalism does the HSF advocate? 

  • We believe that state power should be limited, accountable and subject to a variety of checks and balances. This is why we promote the rule of law. This is why we strive to uphold civil and political rights. And this is why, when necessary, we litigate against the state to ensure that institutions that exist to support constitutional democracy are secure from political and private interference and abuse.
  • We support the necessity and the role of private property and markets in any modern community. This is in part because we value the freedom of association and believe that private property and its free exchange is necessary for self-constitution, and exists as an important form of self-expression. In their absence, we cannot ever be fully human.
  • This does not mean that we oppose any form of regulation of either private property or the market. To the contrary, a basic liberal principle is that freedom can only ever exist within constraint—within a framework of particular rules.
  • It also does not mean that we oppose state involvement in the provision of welfare, such as health services, education and social security. In fact, our emphasis on the importance of a ‘generosity of spirit’, and our belief that there exists no human being, but only human beings—that is, a plurality of women and men who live together as friends, partners, families and neighbours—means that we promote the idea that the community, sometimes in the form of the state, has a duty to care and provide for its members in this way.
  • To emphasise the welfare of individuals does not mean that we ignore the interests and rights of groups, or the importance and value of plurality, diversity and tolerance. Indeed, the fact that we value free association, choice and the importance of trying to comprehend ‘otherness’, means we consider all of these important. Provided groups respect the individual freedom out of which they emerge, they must not only be tolerated, they must be respected and promoted.
  • Whilst we emphasise individual and collective autonomy, we think that the latter is grounded in the exercise of the former—political, social, cultural and religious groups have their genesis in the autonomy of their members. Consistent with this, we believe that all structures, systems and power arise from the choices that individuals—either alone or in concert—freely and willingly make. This fact must be respected whenever and wherever laws are made, policy is decided and disputes are adjudicated.
  • Lastly, we think that people, though often very differently situated, have the capacity to come together to deliberate and decide what they truly should do. Whilst gender, race, ethnicity and class bear on the types of judgments that we make, all people have the capacity to transcend—through talking, listening, imagination and empathy—their own perspectives. This uniquely human capacity allows each person to identify with others and to act on decisions that are in fact valid and just. To deny this, is to deny what it means to be fully human, and, in fact to deny democracy itself.

The ideas, principles and values that constitute the core of liberalism are explicitly recognised and endorsed by the Constitution—in its Preamble, the foundation clauses and Bill of Rights. The liberal vision of Helen Suzman, therefore, is embodied in the text of the Constitution. Her vision is a legal reality.

The HSF exists to help ensure that these ideas and values reach beyond the law, in a way that they are realised in practice. The law must benefit all. It is this liberal vision that we strive to defend and promote in our research and in our policy work. Importantly, especially at this time in our still young, fragile democracy, it is this vision that motivates our litigation against individuals and factions who abuse, for personal gain, political power. 

So, we shall continue, in all of the work that we do, to ask questions of those who exercise power. We shall do this no matter how subversive or invasive their tactics, no matter how embarrassing their answers.

Matthew Kruger
Legal Researcher