Liberalism is under siege and needs to reach a compromise with other ideologies to survive, says Richard Calland.
What is it to be a liberal in contemporary South Africa? I ask because "liberal" was one of the milder but more predictable insults tossed in my direction recently during the initial, uglier phase of the online and Twitter response to my reported comments about the president's reading habits. (I had recorded in my new book, The Zuma Years, that a senior Cabinet minister told me the problem was President Jacob Zuma doesn't read Cabinet memoranda and other briefing documents properly; this has an impact on Cabinet governance, with implications for the power of the presidency.)
This got me thinking again about something that has baffled me for nearly 20 years: Why is "liberal" such a common, and apparently acceptable, term of abuse when projected from modern South Africa's political establishment?
When I first heard people I expected better of (such as Barney Pityana) describing people (such as Dennis Davis, whom I regarded as progressive, even Marxist, in world view) as liberals, I was puzzled.
Of course, I quickly learnt that many black radicals regarded the strain of "white" liberalism that emanated from the Cape as wafer-thin in its commitment to social transformation and social justice; that the veneer of respect for individual rights – that had found persuasive expression in the anti-apartheid movement – concealed a deep distrust of a more profound collective emancipation.
In other words, white liberals, consumed by guilt, were eager to fight against apartheid provided that what followed did not assault their lifestyles and the underlying structural political economy of power and wealth. Or, more bluntly, such liberals were actually scared of majority rule.
Yet that did not answer the question as to why the insult of "liberal" was thrown around with such promiscuity or why, moreover, real liberals – or those simply accused of being liberals – could not adequately defend themselves or shift the parameters of the discourse.
Was it a crisis of liberalism, with traditional liberalism – premised on English philosopher JS Mill's idea of "victim citizen" against "big bad state" – causing fundamental offence to a new government with a big majority? Or was it a weakness in the political disposition of liberals in South Africa? Or both?
And so the bigger question began to form: Could liberals ever escape the clutches of a discourse that resolutely refuses to acknowledge that liberalism can be anything other than "anti-transformation" and thus conservative?
After all, liberalism had a historically progressive dimension, as South African Communist Party deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin acknowledged in a 2005 paper presented to a party education school (a notion that sounds decidedly retro eight years later).
The liberalism associated with the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the 17th and 18th centuries, initially in Europe, was closely attached to the emerging capitalist system and had, therefore, an exploitative dimension.
But it also had a progressive side, which, argued Cronin, lay "essentially in the challenge it posed to feudal ideologies". This liberalism embraced individual rights and freedoms – free speech, a right to vote, notions of free choice and self-determination.
Traditional liberalism has been too easily tainted by the neoliberalism of minimalist governments, free markets and laissez-faire economics that has been the dominant political ideology in global capitalism these past 25 years and that has found powerful expression in surprising places across the political spectrum.
I'm not sure Cronin's argument would extend this far, but certainly I agree with the view I heard the late Kader Asmal express: that individuals may hold within their world view ideological strains drawn from a number of political philosophies; that "real" progressives, with an authentic commitment to socioeconomic transformation and substantive equality, may also be deeply committed to "liberal" rights and freedoms that have an individual as well as a collective form. In other words, liberalism can be egalitarian.
Cronin was one of the speakers at a timely conference a week ago, convened at the Constitutional Court by the political studies department of the University of the Witwatersrand and the law faculty at the University of Johannesburg, which asked of "egalitarian liberalism": What are its possible futures in South Africa?
As the historian Saul Dubow suggested in his paper to the conference, the character and content of rights can shift over time, depending on who is claiming a right and how it is being claimed.
For example, when communities who, grievously discontented by the performance of government, and who can no longer remain patient with their material conditions of chronic poverty, claim their right to free speech as they assemble and protest, are they not giving expression to a liberal political freedom but for an egalitarian purpose?
One of the reasons it is worth asking about the content and character of liberalism is because the strength of the political freedoms won in 1994 is likely to be tested more and more in the coming years as electoral competition increases.
The political question is: What happens when the ANC's hold on power is seriously threatened? The ideological question, at least for liberals, is whether liberalism can adapt to the demands of the age – which are surely, above all, to take seriously the structural conditions that deliver levels of inequality that are ethically barbaric and strategically unsustainable.
Herein falls the shadow of British philosopher John Gray's Two Faces of Liberalism: the one is a fatter, fuller commitment to the universalist values of traditional liberalism; the other is a thinner yet more pluralist view of a world in which liberalism survives but has to reach accommodation with other ideologies. For die-hard liberals, the latter portends a loss, or at least a diminution through moral ambivalence, of the universalism that is axiomatic to liberalism.
Cronin's 2005 paper ended with a prescient warning: "The danger in the present is that [whereas] there are real possibilities of a decisive left advance within the National Democratic Revolution, these may be squandered by internal disputes, and populist and ultra-left mobilisations that are diversions from the real transformational challenges and possibilities of our situation."
This was – and remains – the challenge for the left. The equivalent challenge to liberals is to adapt or die: if liberalism is to avoid being cast permanently as conservative or neoliberal, and to escape "liberal" as an insult, it must embrace egalitarianism as one of its core values.