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South Africa at a crossroads: A liberal perspective on how to break the mould


Ghaleb Cachalia is an MP in the National Assembly and the DA spokesperson on Public Enterprises. He serves on the Ethics Committee in Parliament.

As the country stands at a political and economic crossroads, an understanding of the post-World War 2 history of liberalism, and of the kinds of alliances that are possible, is essential to understanding the trajectory of liberal opposition to the ANC.

Apart from those with a vested interest in the ANC – ideological, pecuniary or a twisted mixture of both – many South Africans accept that the post-1994 history, contribution and failure of the ANC has delivered a mixed dispensation that is en route to a failed state – close to bankruptcy, mired in systemic corruption and mismanagement and rooted in a racial polity that is as divisive as it is destructive.

But a significant majority paradoxically continues to vote for the ANC, despite the failure to deliver basic services, run efficient municipalities, roll out sound education and proper healthcare and build a unified nation that seeks to overcome the spatial and other iniquitous legacies of apartheid.

As Peter Brown, a founding member of the Liberal Party in 1953, said in a 1999 interview and was quoted by Michael Cardo in his article: “There may come a time when the ANC starts to disintegrate or to produce factions… and… perhaps as the economy improves and so on… there will be an opportunity to form a fully nonracial Liberal Party again. Something which will absorb the DP [now the DA] and elements from other political organisations.” A most prescient prophecy, as it turns out, as we witness a party riven by factions and unable to provide cogent leadership when the country is at a crossroads.

Still, a version of the status quo continues to haunt, spectre-like, as people continue to vote for the ruling party. How does one break this mould to allow a qualitatively different government to emerge?

Impact of World War 2

To answer this it is necessary to look at history to understand the contributions made to the delivery of freedom and the democratic dispensation of 1994 and how they can be harnessed to deliver something new. World War 2 provides a suitable point of departure, when South Africans of all colours united in a common desire to fight the global challenge to freedom that the Nazis and their fascist and totalitarian Axis allies presented.

They fought and served together on distant shores, built bonds and rejoiced collectively in the defeat of the German Third Reich and its global allies. They returned home, having rubbed shoulders with communists, socialists and other working people who were conscripted into the fight against the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. As Richard Steyn points out in his book, Seven Votes: How WWII Changed South Africa Forever (2020): “World War 2 upended South African politics, ruining attempts to forge white unity and galvanising opposition to segregation among African, Indian and coloured communities. It also sparked debates among nationalists, socialists, liberals and communists such as the country had never experienced.”

But, as historian CW de Kiewiet explained to a Canadian audience in the 1950s, “it is the bitter paradox of modern South African history that the war which united the country politically, divided it racially”.

The servicemen and women returned to a country that was experiencing an “unexpected reformist phase during which the influence of the manufacturing and commercial sectors and of the liberal intelligentsia temporarily eclipsed the former ruling alliance in which various combinations of conservative capital and white labour were dominant”. (Lipton, M, Capitalism and Apartheid, 1985).

This scenario provided fertile ground for the struggle of the Youth League of the Congress movement, developing unions and others to harness the source of mass support which the Congress had neglected to exploit. Out of this was born a racially assertive nationalism that placed its emphasis on indigenous leadership and national self-determination.

As Tom Lodge writes in Black politics in South Africa since 1945, “in 1948, to the surprise of the incumbent administration, the Nationalists were voted into power. But by then even the most conservative African politicians had little faith in the capacity of any white administration for conceding more than token reforms… The Africanist emphasis on confrontation accorded well with the political climate of the decade.”

As Lodge points out, by then already and in contrast to the early Youth League, the Communist Party had called for the application of the Atlantic Charter to all parts of the British Empire and went on to outline a bill of rights including the abolition of all political discrimination based on race and the extension to all adults of voting rights, freedom of residence and movement, equal rights in the spheres of property and occupation, equal pay for equal work, free and compulsory education, equal state assistance to African farmers and the universal extension of a variety of welfare services and social security measures.

This led to a willingness by AB Xuma, president-general of the ANC, “to form alliances with both the Communist Party (with which he was in considerable tactical agreement) and in 1947 (possibly with an eye on the international gallery) the Indian Congresses in their campaign of passive resistance against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Representation Act”.

In 1949, with the support of Youth League leaders, notably Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, who had been influenced and persuaded by senior members of the Indian Congress and the Communist Party, the ANC leadership changed hands and James Moroka was elected president. Sisulu was elected secretary-general and the communists were represented by Moses Kotane and JB Marks. By 1950 “the South African revolutionary left was to devote its energy to influencing the course of the nationalist movement”.

1948 and the liberal challenge to apartheid

Within the realm of the white political milieu, the post-war 1948 election marked the exclusion of the economically dominant English from political power. In his victory speech, Prime Minister DF Malan declared: “Today South Africa belongs to us once more. For the first time since Union, South Africa is our own, and may God grant that it will always remain our own.”

The United Party (UP) was in opposition, but as Lipton writes, “the UP’s ineffectual opposition, geared to white electoral politics, with its in-built advantage for conservatives, alienated it from blacks and dismayed its liberal supporters, who sought more effective extra-parliamentary opposition, using their press and churches and other institutions and establishing new organisations such as the Black Sash and the Torch Commando”.

But as Richard Steyn points out: “Supported by the new leader of the opposition, Advocate JGN Straus, the ‘Torch’, the Labour Party and the United Party temporarily joined forces to form a United Democratic Front (UDF) to contest the 1953 general election. Unfortunately for apartheid’s opponents, a combination of the Malan regime’s fury, the application of anti-communist measures, the fear of job losses in the public service and armed forces, as well as dissention within the ranks of the UP over the involvement of coloured ex-servicemen, prevented the UDF from making any impact on the 1953 election, and enthusiasm for the ‘Torch’ petered out. Yet the Torch Commando had brought home to the Nationalists the fact that the thousands who fought fascism in WW2 had not lost their determination to stand up for freedom and civil liberties in post-war South Africa.”

As David Everatt argues in The Origins of Non-Racialism: White opposition to apartheid in the 1950s (2009): “In the years between 1950 and 1953 the differences between liberal and radical whites took organisational shape. White opposition to the National Party (NP) rose to a level that would never be seen again, with tens of thousands of whites joining nighttime marches organised by the Torch Commando. Bearing torches and symbolic coffins and using anti-fascist/anti-Nazi slogans, they opposed the removal of coloured (and some Indian) voters from the electoral roll. A scattering of whites also joined the Defiance Campaign, a passive resistance campaign organised by the Congress Alliance to highlight the increasingly repressive apartheid laws.” 

In 1953, after the election following the 1948 ballot, Alan Paton and Margaret Ballinger formed the multiracial Liberal Party of South Africa, but made little impact on the white electorate. It was launched on 9 May 1953. Led by Ballinger, with Donald Molteno, Leo Marquard and Paton in senior positions, the party seemed to mark the culmination of the liberal activism of the 1940s and early 1950s, harking back to the Cape liberal tradition.

As Everatt says: “By 1956 the Liberal Party had a new leadership and articulated a vision of change based on mass nonviolent pressure in which it would play a part alongside the congresses. This replaced the earlier notion that by offering a living example of racial cooperation and ‘by argument, much organisation, and ceaseless constitutional action’, the party would emerge as the only rational vehicle for evolutionary change. While changes in the party were influenced to a degree by Congress’ criticism, they resulted largely from an internal critique and overhaul of liberalism initiated by party progressives and intellectuals in 1953.”

In June 1955, about 3,000 delegates attended the Congress of the People (CoP) in Kliptown, Johannesburg, and endorsed the Freedom Charter, a statement of principle distilled from demands submitted by people across South Africa during a 16-month campaign sponsored by the Congress Alliance. Nothing in the history of the liberatory movement in South Africa quite caught the popular imagination as this did, not even the Defiance Campaign. Even remote rural areas were aware of the significance of what was going on. 

Against this background and following the 1958 election, the Progressives broke away from the United Party, but in the 1961 election only one of their 12 MPs, Helen Suzman, was re-elected to Parliament.

This breakaway and long, lone and principled battle in Parliament by Suzman, representing a succession of liberal and centre-left opposition parties during her 36-year tenure in the whites-only, National Party-controlled House of Assembly at the height of apartheid, laid the foundation of successive parties – the Progressive Party, the Progressive Reform Party, the Progressive Federal Party, the Democratic Party and the Democratic Alliance, representing a contribution that is neatly and disingenuously whitewashed by the ANC.

The Democratic Party (DP), successor to the Progressive Party, was established in April 1989 as a liberal, centrist party. It was formed as an amalgamation of four liberal political groupings, the most important of which was the recently disbanded Progressive Federal Party (PFP), led by Zach de Beer. The coalition also included the Independent Party (IP), led by Denis Worrall; the National Democratic Movement (NDM), led by Wynand Malan; and a group of reform-minded Afrikaners dubbed the “fourth force”. The DP then became the primary left-of-centre parliamentary opposition to the NP. It won 20% of white support in the 1989 general election, giving it 33 parliamentary seats.

The DP advocated the abolition of apartheid and the creation of a nonracial social democratic state through the protection of human rights, a government based on proportional party representation and universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, collective bargaining in industrial relations and economic growth through individual entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the NP adopted some of the DP’s notions about reforming the apartheid state in 1989 and 1990, thus depriving the DP of some of its political base. A few DP leaders advocated an alliance with the ANC; others favoured joining the NP; and the embattled centre – led by the party’s leader, De Beer – sought to develop a distinctive, liberal, centrist image that would serve to mediate between the ANC and the NP.

At the same time the DP sought, without much success, to expand its support among all racial groups. These inroads were achieved when the DP reached a merger agreement with the NNP and the much smaller Federal Alliance (FA) in 2000. Together they formed the Democratic Alliance (DA). The merger was ultimately aborted, with both the NNP and FA leaving the DA. Many former NNP members remained, however, and the new name was kept. The DP was disbanded after the 2003 floor-crossing period, establishing the DA at all levels of government.

Its history and legacy reaches back into the liberal tradition of South Africa. As Michael Cardo points out: “The Progressive Party only reopened its membership to blacks, in defiance of the Prohibition of Political Interference Act, in 1984. While the Liberals advocated universal suffrage from 1960, the Progressives continued to support a qualified franchise until 1978. Where the Progressives rigidly adhered to ‘constitutional’ means of protest, the Liberals advocated boycotts and sit-ins. And, as the Progressives focused on civil rights, the Liberals campaigned for socio-economic rights, proposing various forms of regulation and redistribution to deracialise the economy. Compared with the Liberal Party, the Progressives’ brand of liberalism in the 1960s was hidebound.

“While the Liberals actively worked for the common society through extra-parliamentary campaigns against sham ‘self-rule’ in the Transkei and ‘black spot’ removals in Natal, for example, the Progressives focused on the Sisyphean task of converting the white electorate to nonracialism through the ballot box. This is not to undermine the Progressives. They achieved something the Liberals did not: they bequeathed an enduring and sustainable institutional legacy for liberalism, through a political party which still exists today.

“In his memoirs, Tony Leon observes that the history of the Progressive Party is not that of a ‘pristine political priesthood’, but of a political party that had to make ‘pragmatic ideological compromises in order to stay competitive and relevant’.”

Cardo goes on: “The biggest challenge for liberals in our plural and unequal society is to find ways of accommodating diversity and addressing poverty while gaining the momentum of political support. This task requires liberals to meet majority aspirations and quell minority fears, which seem at odds with one another, but which needs to be done if the liberal project is to succeed.”

The trajectories of the parties and movements in opposition to apartheid often followed parallel paths – with some differences – for the following 30 years, differentiated by nuanced political and philosophical departures and race-based access to the legislature. There were moments of cooperation and points of divergence – conveniently ignored by the ANC – whose own history is littered with skeletons and contradictions.  

The collective opposition to the status quo, however – including by the Progressive Party, PAC, Unity Movement, IFP, Indian Congresses, Communist Party and the UDF (of the 1980s) – was never substantially in question until 1994 when a new dispensation was being forged and the various parties began to contest for a share of the votes that would provide them with the wherewithal to govern and stamp their weltanschauung on society.

1994 – Achievements and failures

The ANC’s election victory in 1994 and successive hegemony for more than a quarter of a century has delivered a mixed bag of achievements. As the Institute of Race Relations’ Frans Cronjé pointed out in 2016, the ANC’s years in government have coincided with considerable improvements in the living conditions of South Africans. Between 1994 and 2015 the number of families in a formal house increased from 5.8 million to 12.3 million.

Cronjé goes on to detail how, on average, almost 1,000 families a day moved into a formal house since the ANC came to power. For every new shack erected after 1994, almost 10 formal houses were built. The number of households with access to electricity increased from 5.2 million to 14.1 million. Households with clean water rose from 7.2 million to 14 million.

He points out that the ANC was initially on track to stage a remarkable economic recovery from the wreckage it inherited from the last white government. Under ANC leadership, the prime lending rate fell from a peak of 21.8% in 1998 to 8.8% in 2012. The budget deficit, which averaged more than 5% of gross domestic product (GDP) between 1992 and 1994, was reduced to an average of below 2% between 1998 and 2008.

“For two years budget surpluses were recorded. Perhaps the party’s most remarkable achievement was reducing total government debt from 48.3% of GDP in 1994 to a low of 26% in 2008, which freed up the money to fund South Africa’s social development programmes.

“GDP growth recovered from negative levels between 1989 and 1993 to average more than 3% for much of the past 20 years, and more than 5% between 2004 and 2007.”

Cronjé said that “much was achieved to improve a range of socioeconomic benchmarks beyond simple living conditions or ‘service delivery’ measures. For example, the number of people with jobs almost doubled, from 7.9 million in 1994 to 15.7 million in 2015. Data from StatsSA put the proportion of ‘managers’ in the economy in 2015 who happened to be black at 56.2%.

“The number of black students at university increased from 333,905 in 1995 to 804,324 in 2014, an increase of 141%. The proportion of children under the age of five who were severely malnourished fell from 13.1% in 2000 to 4.5% in 2014. The murder rate fell from 67 per 100,000 people in 1994 to 33 per 100,000 in 2015.”

But today, despite being the only liberation movement on the African continent to win power in a country as industrialised and economically and technologically advanced as South Africa was in 1994, life expectancy is lower than in war-ravaged Afghanistan in an environment where the state has witnessed capture by private interests alongside colossal mismanagement.

South Africa also remains the world’s most unequal country, 26 years after the end of the apartheid system. According to the World Bank, on the scale of 0 to 100, with 0 representing total equality, South Africa scores 63. Extraordinary poverty levels persist with unemployment rates of nearly 60% among young people.

As political commentator Ebrahim Harvey writes: “Today poverty is as gruelling as it was under apartheid, unemployment is at its highest in many years and social inequalities are far worse than they were under apartheid, due to the fact that such inequalities have grown much more within the black population than between it and the white population.”

Moreover, as stated, the quality of delivery Cronjé details across health, education, housing and utilities leaves much to be desired.

Post-liberation legacy, paradox and cognitive dissonance

If South Africa had emulated the call by Gandhi for the Indian National Congress to be dissolved once it had done its job of ending British rule, things might have been different. The wise and wizened Mahatma had famously called for a new organisation to serve the people of India; one that would eschew corruption.

According to Venkita Kalyanam – the only living witness to the assassination of Gandhi five months after independence – Gandhi received more than 50 letters daily from freedom fighters and concerned citizens. Most of the letters were about the rampant corruption and cronyism of Congress ministers. Gandhi shared his views with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – to no avail.

Kalyanam says Gandhi dictated a note – his last major missive – towards the end of 1947, in which he said: “I am not responsible for what is happening in this country. I have repeatedly said that I have neither any part nor any say in many things that are going on in the country today. The plain matter of fact is that I am no longer the current coin I fancied I once was. My voice is in the wilderness. My writ runs no more. Time was when whatever I said the masses followed. Today, mine is a lone voice. I now say things which do not go home. I know that I am a back number. Yet, I go on saying what I believe to be true.”

Prophetic stuff, this, and so very relevant to the ANC and South Africa 25 years since the fall of apartheid.

But Mandela, like Nehru, formed the first government and the real internal rot began towards the end of his term and the start of Thabo Mbeki’s. It started with the arms deal, the proceeds of which provided the ANC with much-needed cash and many intermediaries with fat personal rewards. It continued unabated. No one really needs a commission of inquiry to obfuscate or elucidate – it’s a fact – sad and indisputably responsible for our moral decay.

Despite this, the paradox remains: while diminishing, the hegemony of the ANC still holds considerable sway among the very people who have borne the brunt of the party’s slide towards a failed state. The ANC, despite being mired in mismanagement and corruption, has been able to disingenuously exploit racial grievance.

An understanding and acknowledgement of this history is therefore crucial to fashion a narrative and a message centred perhaps on a coalescence of like-minded people, which claims and communicates a common past role and presents a practical and considered future offering – one that resonates with the aspirations of South Africans and debunks the divisive racial myth peddled by the ANC which brands the loyal opposition (“loyal” indicating that the non-governing parties may oppose the actions of the sitting Cabinet while remaining loyal to the formal source(s) of the government’s power, such as the Constitution) as white focused and hell-bent on resurrecting apartheid.

As history attests, nothing could be further from the truth. DM


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  • Thank you for a wonderfully balanced historical review.

    An additional historical fact to be emphasised is that, contrary to the ANC’s efforts to brand the DA as somehow the successor of the Nats. This is a lie. When the NNP disbanded, a much larger number their MPs joined the ANC than those who joined the DA. In fact, the NNP leader, Kortbroek van Schalkwyk, ended up as an ANC cabinet member for many years.

    I also think it is important to highlight the pivotal role played by the DP under Colin Eglin’s leadership in shaping the constitution at CODESA.

  • If only we had a decent opposition that could avoid the perception of being ‘white-focused’ – perhaps by not constantly electing middle aged white people to all its senior positions – and one that could lay out a clear and understandable plan, with the relevant guiding policies, that the majority of our population could understand as being one that would boost the economy, create jobs and enable SA to grasp the opportunities created by things like the 4IR.

    Wouldn’t that be so much better than consistently pointing to all the faults of the incumbent party (and there are many of those) while not laying out any clear policies to differentiate itself from them, or any obvious plan to undo the rot created by the ANC’s wholesale robbing of the fiscus for personal gain.

    That is certainly the kind of opposition party I, and I am sure many of my fellow citizens of all colours, could vote for – if only it existed, hey Ghaleb?

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