Guardians of SA liberalism?

2015-05-23 11:08

IALWAYS find it amusing when right-wing whites and black activists both call me a liberal — and both mean it as an insult.

The right wing seem to mean that I have turned my back on “my own people”, that I’m a leftist quasi-communist, that I’m a weakling always trying to please the black majority. “Libtard” has become a favourite right-wing insult.

From black quarters, the insult means that I did not turn my back on “my own people” and I’m clinging to my whiteness and privilege; that I’m a reactionary free-market fundamentalist; that I’m self righteous, elitist and insensitive to the plight of the masses and workers.

And then there are the blue-blood liberals themselves, who look down their noses and say I’m not a liberal’s backside. (Perhaps I am?) I’ve never seen myself as a proper liberal. During the turbulent eighties, I viewed the South African manifestation of liberalism as a Prog phenomenon: patronising upper-middle-class whites with a superiority complex paying lip service to the fight against apartheid but living comfortably with the privileges it brought. (Okay, that’s a terrible generalisation, there were genuine heroes among them.)

When Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert called their bluff in 1986 and asked them to leave the white Parliament with him to campaign for negotiations with the black majority, they smugly chose to remain inside the system, sitting on the comfortable green benches and instead started a vicious campaign of gossip and slander against him.

My political values, however, are broadly liberal: tolerance, respect, freedom and dignity of the individual, multiparty democracy, the rule of law, accountability and the separation of powers. I suspect I share these values with most voters.

The debates on what liberalism in South Africa means have been raging for some time, but has been given new impetus with the election of a new DA leadership — the DA being the supposed guardian of SA liberalism. Almost every effort by the DA leadership to support economic transformation and black empowerment has been criticised by the liberal think police as illiberal. The DA is becoming ANC Lite, they say.

The new DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, is seen as foremost among those betraying the DA’s liberal tradition. They didn’t, for instance, like his statement that if people didn’t see that he was black, they didn’t see him at all.

His careful defence so far has been that he’s in favour of “progressive liberalism”. Some of his followers have referred to “African liberalism”.

Just last week, MP and spokesperson for the DA Marius Geldenhuys published a piece on the liberalism he supports. His version, he says, “values individuality and developmental individualism over the classic liberal atomistic, egotistical and possessive liberalism”.

I think the post-Helen Zille DA leadership needs to make peace with the fact that they will never be able to please the liberal puritans. They should stop trying. I would propose that they redefine themselves as social democrats.

Social democrats are people committed to an open society and the freedom of the individual, but they have a special focus on social security, equality and the plight of the marginalised.

They are not socialists, but they believe that the state has a role to play in making sure the goals are achieved, that the free market system should be tailored to be more compassionate. They don’t shy away when a redistribution of resources is called for.

If the Maimane-DA can finally get rid of the liberal tag and develop a clear social democratic vision, it will find it easier to play a meaningful, perhaps even leading role in the inevitable coalition politics we’re entering, especially after next year’s local elections.

If you’re a South African with broad liberal values who wants to see a new, more just and equitable dispensation, you will give yourself much more manoeuvreing room if you declare yourself to be a social democrat. You don’t have to defend yourself all day and every day against the liberal think police, and you avoid the negative “liberal” label.

A new self-identification, a rebranding as social democrats by the DA could, I think, rid the party of outdated ideological restraints and stimulate a whole new mission statement and public image.

Most people expected to vote for the DA in future elections wouldn’t be classic liberals anyway, I suspect.

• Max du Preez is an author, columnist and documentary film-maker

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