Liberals, illiberals and liberalism

2013-02-10 10:00

In SA, only black majority movements have been consistently liberal

Unfortunately, Carien Du Plessis (City Press, February 3 2013) has not grasped the gravemen of my critique of South African liberalism (Business Day, November 22 2012).

It was explicitly stated in these terms: “...the love/hate relationship that evolved between all schools of African nationalism and liberalism in South Africa is not a result of political intolerance. Its cause is the liberals’ perceived betrayal of the principles they claim to uphold.”

In other words, the liberals, as a political trend in South Africa, were judged as deficient in that they were not upholding liberalism as a value system.

It is important we underscore the distinction between liberals (usually an organised political current) and liberalism (a modern political value system). That distinction is particularly relevant in colonial, racist and repressive environments.

The core liberal principle was born in the American revolution that affirmed the supernaturally ordained equality of all humans and their universal right to freedom.

The US Constitution unequivocally repudiated the notion that there are humans who can claim the right to rule by natural or supernatural right.

The ironic birth of the liberal ideal in a society being built by the conquest of an indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans produced a political tradition fraught with internal contradictions.

Recent US history has, in great measure, been shaped by the struggle to resolve that paradox.

There have been instances in which liberalism advocated a strong state to enforce democratic liberties; and there have been others when liberalism advocated anti-statist positions.

An example is the Brown v Board of Education ruling of the US Supreme Court in 1954.

Liberalism was then associated with a strong government that would enforce the Constitution even if it meant bringing in troops to register four African-American kids in a school.

We derive the values of democratic government from the principle of “God-given rights” to freedom. To guarantee that freedom, government must derive its authority from the consent of the governed.

It is on this specific principle that liberals have consistently sold liberal values short. Writing in the context of an imperialist Victorian Britain, John Stuart Mill, in “On Liberty”, says this principle is applicable to all people except “savages” – ie Britain’s colonial subjects, presumably also the Irish!

In South African history this paradox was played out precisely around that issue. In general terms, except for the most radical, the majority of liberals adopted Mills’ attitude to black people.

Nineteenth-century liberals spoke of “equal rights for all civilised men”; Alan Paton’s Liberal Party spoke of “equal opportunity for all to become civilised”; the Progs spoke of a qualified franchise.

The irony was that while liberals were open to the political enfranchisement of blacks, the most enthusiastic advocates of the enfranchisement of women were the racists of Hertzog’s National Party.

White women were enfranchised by Hertzog’s government in 1930. Five years later, the same Hertzog led the charge to completely disenfranchise Africans in the Cape.

Liberals, as organised political currents and as a body of opinion, have insisted on the principle of majoritarianism in a number of instances to overcome reactionary and conservative minorities.

Liberals, as a body of political opinion, were integral to a national majority in the US. Liberalism, as a value system, however, equally underlines the right to dissent from a majority viewpoint.

Which means the rights of majorities are restrained in terms of the fundamental principles and values of equality.

Liberalism, as a value system, recognises the right to be different, not to conform. At the same time, non-conformity must not impair the rights of others.

Perhaps the deficiencies of South African liberals are inherent in the tradition itself. But the thrust of my argument was that in South Africa organised liberal opinion has never made the grade.

The most consistent advocates of liberal values have consequently been the national movements of the black majority.

Because the liberals, as a body of opinion, have at all times sought to retain a political foothold among an illiberal white community, they opted to compromise and betray fundamental liberal values of equality and universal human rights.

Helen Zille’s toyi-toyi is a desperate attempt to wipe our memory banks clean by giving the liberals a deep suntan.

- Dr Z Pallo Jordan, Former minister of arts and culture publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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