The soul of the white liberal

After the PFP’s thrashing at the polls last week, the options facing white liberals may have narrowed to three:

  1. Throw in the towel.
  2. Dash off overseas.
  3. Find options for change outside the white party political system.

Anton Harber examines No. 3

Nothing captured the sad demise of the PFP more effectively and more poignantly than Sutherland’s announcement that he was going to emigrate to Australia as his party won control of South Africa’s biggest city. By doing so he destroyed the majority his party had won that day in the council, the only cause for PFP celebration in the wake of the election. There was nothing for the party to do but shift its furniture from the offices of the official opposition in parliament and begin a long, bud process of self-examination and reassessment.

The PFP’s three member steering committee met for 90 minutes on Monday, the party caucus met on Thursday, an expanded federal executive meets tomorrow and a full meeting of the PFP federal council — the highest policy-making body — is expected within weeks. “The examination and analysis of the election results must be thorough and brutally frank,” party leader Colin Eglin said in an interview this week. “We must look at the performance of the party, of the campaign, of the leadership and of personalities. “Our instrument (the party) is blunted and we must decide what we can do with it now.”

Although Eglin was reluctant lo preempt internal discussions on the future of the party, he anticipated no fundamental change in direction. His “two-track strategy” is likely to stay in place. This strategy was first enunciated as a response to the resignation in January 1986 of the PFP leader Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. It was a fairly simple approach: the first and most important track along which the party ran was parliament; alongside it ran the track of extra-parliamentary activity. “We’ve got to use this (parliament) as the base and maximise our performance in this site of power and simultaneously be relevant to politics where it is happening elsewhere,” he said.

But Slabbert’s resignation was not just a challenge to the way the PFP was using parliament. It was a challenge to the legitimacy of the institution itself; it was a recognition that in the eyes of most South Africans, parliament was an instrument that impeded rather than promoted change and was to be undermined, challenged and ultimately destroyed.

To Eglin, however, the problem was simply one of how parliament was being used. “The inadequacy of parliament is that it represents only part of the nation, but has to deal with the total problems of our country.” He differed with most of the opposition movement in what he saw as the final goal of party political activity: “Our attempt must not be to weaken parliament as an institution, but to restructure it, to make it more relevant …”

Last week’s election results brought a renewed challenge to the appropriateness of parliament as an avenue for change. With the Conservative Party, as the official opposition, setting the tone of the debate, few people can maintain faith in the ability of the PFP to do more than register the kind of moral protests that characterised its stand during the many years in which Helen Suzman was its sole MP.

If Slabbert’s resignation a year ago was parliament’s “swan song”, as it was dubbed in the Weekly Mail at the time, last week we heard the dirge. The election result was the final and ultimate destruction of the notion that change will come through parliamentary action. Organisations to the left of the PFP have always argued that participation in parliament created false hopes and gave a false sense of legitimacy to this institution. The PFP countered this by presenting itself as a potential element in an alternative government and by holding up the value of its extra-parliamentary work. The first argument has been smashed.

The PFP is no longer a potential official opposition, let alone an alternative government. A united far rightwing would have within its reach a number of marginal seats, killing any hopes of the PFP re-establishing its parliamentary position. Ironically, the PFP has gained its greatest strength from its extra-parliamentary work. It has shown that it can focus public attention on human rights issue, its members can use parliamentary privilege to move in troubled areas with relative ease, and MPs can often use their access to cabinet ministers for the good of a great deal of people.

Eglin himself acknowledged this: “Helen Suzman is not known as the world’s greatest orator; but she is known around the world because of what she’s done. She has stood up on practical issues. Similarly, the PFP gained its greatest credibility during the Emergency for the work of its Unrest Monitoring Group and its use of parliament to publicise this work. Sadly, however, it was many of those MPs who were most closely identified with this kind of work who failed to be re elected, such as Errol Moorcraft in Albany, Graham Newish in Pietermaritzburg North and Robin Carlisle in Wynberg.

Eglin has implied that the work in the streets will continue to take second place to the work in the House. “All extra-parliamentary activities are relevant only if they produce an influence on parliament. If the only thing that is happening is that pressure is being exerted on the government outside parliament and this is not being moated in parliament, then we have no option, left but violent confrontation,” he said. It is not only the PFP’s election performance that has made many people sceptical of the party’s role in parliament.

The phenomenon of government by mandarin — the granting of more and more power and influence to government appointees such as ministerial representatives, provincial executive committees and the National Security Management System — has deprived parliament of much of its power and importance. The Emergency was presented to parliament as an established fact probably decided by the State Security Council, which heads the NSMS and the massive web of Joint Management Centres; few of the reforms we have seen in the last few years have originated in parliament.

The Emergency itself invested massive powers of decree in the Commissioner of Police which he has used to brutal effect with no reference to parliament’s sovereignity. An even more important factor in the demise of parliament as a central decision making body has been the growth of extra-parliamentary resistance over the last five years. The argument for parliament as an avenue of change was strongest when there were no other apparent options.

Today, the primary pressure for change comes from outside parliament. Whites have faced more pressure than ever before in the streets and on the factory floor — and parliament has never been so complacent. This was most clearly shown on the day of the election itself, which saw the country’s biggest ever two day worker stayaway.

Eglin and the PFP will have to face up to the fact that parliament has become a sideshow. If the PFP sticks to the role it has played in the past it could find itself becoming a sideshow within a sideshow. Facing up to this does not necessarily mean leaving parliament. But it may mean looking for a new balance between parliamentary and extra- parliamentary work; it may mean that the PFP will have to stop viewing what it does in the streets as a means to holy the party in the House of Assembly, but begin to see its parliamentary activity as a way of protecting and assisting its work in the streets.

Eglin is sceptical deal of loose calls for involvement in extra-parliamentary politics: “One must define what one means by extra-parliamentary activity. Apart from giving one a good blow of adrenalin, what does it achieve?” Groups like the Five Freedoms Forum, an umbrella body of white opposition groups, are adamant there is a great deal to be done. FFF, for example, started last year by groups participating in the Free the Children Campaign, then worked (though somewhat reluctantly) around the election issue, is now about to launch a “Stay and Contribute” campaign. The latter is planned to convince people that there is an important political role for them, despite the demise of the parliamentary option and the lure of Australia.

Similar alliances have sprung up in Durban and Cape Town. The United Democratic Front responded to the election by telling whites that to vote was not enough; to face the future, they should align themselves directly with mass political organisations that represent the main thrust of the opposition movement. It is an uphill battle for such organisations. Most whites believe extra” parliamentary politics involves making petrol bombs and throwing an occasional stone. There is also a fear that they may have to learn the national anthem in a black language and dance the “toyi-toyi”.

There are three types of white extra-parliamentary organisations. The first consists of organisations of professionals such as doctors, lawyers, architects and journalists. Some of these — such as the National Medical and Dental Association or Lawyers for Human Rights – have had an impact because of the professional standing of their members and their i6temational recognition. The second type of organisation is the single-issue organisation, which focuses attention on such things as children in detention, conscription or censorship. The Free the Children Alliance and End Conscription Campaign am two of the best known of these. The third kind is the more general political organisation, such as the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee.

In terms of their impact and the range of their membership, this kind of organisation has had the least impact. For one thing, state persecution of such organisations has been extraordinary. Leaders have been harassed, detained or forced into hiding. Another factor is that these organisations have not engaged significantly in white politics. This showed most clearly in the election, when bodies such as the Five Freedoms Forum declined to call either for a boycott or for support for the PFP and its allies. In fact, because extra-parliamentary organisations fudged the question of whether or not people should vote, they offered very little clarity to many people who were searching for a new direction.

Contradictory calls were issued from different organisations; the debate was never really thrashed out. The effect of this confusion was to make these organisations a sideshow, in the last few months, in “white” politics. More seriously, it put them in a position where they have w shoulder some of the blame for the PFP’s poor showing. A few more leftwing votes would not have shifted the massive movement away from the party towards the National Party. But it would almost certainly have swung marginal seats such as Wynberg, Hillbrow and even Helderberg.

The PFP may then have survived as the official opposition and the left would not feel quite so worried about the election results. The coming of the “Dark Ages”, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu dubbed them was in many ways a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leftwing organisations failed to act to help prevent it — and then unanimously bemoaned the result. Some members of the left would argue that the election results do not really matter. It was a setback but at least it smashed the myth of parliamentary reform and they can now concentrate on what really counts — getting support for mass political organisation.

But the fact is that their attitude to the vote did little to enhance their standing in the white electorate — even among many of those who are now sceptical of the PFP path and are casting around for new options. With the PFP in retreat the field should be open for extra-parliamentary “white” organisations. But there is a great deal of work to be done before these organisations present a credible political option to potential supporters on the left of the PFP.

… and the amorphous soul of the verligte Nats
Last week’s election results have been broken down into statistical minute. But the analyses do not answer the vital question of whether the independent nationalists are a force for the future or transient actors doomed to disappear. Independents obtained 1,32 percent of the more than 2-million votes. But that included votes cast for the renegade former Progressive Federal Party MP, Horace van Rensburg, as well as for lesser known independents outside the charmed triangle of disillusioned Nats: Denis Worrall, Wynand Malan and Esther Lategan.

Most anti-government newspapers welcomed the three independent Nats as though they were an entirely new phenomenon. They were not. Over the years the National Party has shed rebels of various shades on its Left as well as its Right. The press in general has been so fascinated in recent years by the revolt of the ultra-rightists under Andries Treurnicht that it has apparently forgotten there were rebellions by verligte Nats long before the appearance of Worrall et al.

Going back to 1960 there was the rebellion of Japie Basson, the same man who stood for the NP in Gardens last week. Basson, who was originally expelled from the NP in 1959 for opposing the abolition by Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd of the “native representatives”, formed the National Union soon afterwards. The NU hoped — in the words of political scientist Kenneth Heard — “to occupy the relatively narrow strip of territory separating the two major parties” of the time: the National Party and the United Party. Its objective was to wean “from the National Party those who, among its supporters, disagreed with the more restrictive and oppressive aspects of its policies but who could nu bring themselves to vote for the United Party”.

Led by Basson and backed by a former Chief Justice, FA Pagan (author of the Pagan report), the NU had similar hopes to those espoused by the present trio of ex-Mats: of luring discontented Nats into their fold and growing into an independent force. The National Union was seen by the old United Party as a catalyst which would initiate the flow into its ranks via the NU of the NP’s more “enlightened” followers (the word verlig had not yet been coined). Similar hopes were entertained by the PFP in last week’s elections, except that the focus of its hopes was the troika of independent Nats. The NU was swallowed by the UP in the end.

Two of its ablest young candidates, Rennie Serfontein and Hans Strydom, however, refused to contemplate a fate inside the entrails of the UP, choosing instead to join the newly-formed Progressive Party. The question today is whether the trio of independent Nats have a more viable future than the NU. Those who see Worrall, Malan and Lategan in a class of their own forget if they eve knew, the degree of courage which it took to strike out against Verwoerd who, whatever the legacy of his apartheid policies, was a formidable man.

For the record the NU put up 10 candidates in the 1961 general election, winning close to 39 000 votes of nearly five percent of the total votes cast. Only one of its candidates, Basson, was elected. More than a decade later another disillusioned Nationalist Theo Gerdener, broke away to found the Democratic Party. Gerdener resigned from the Cabinet where he held the home affairs portfolio, to found first Action South and Southern Africa and then, in 1973, the Democratic Party.

The DP, which stood for closer links and eventual equal rights between whites, coloureds and Indians, fielded eight candidates. It did not win a single seat but polled a relatively high average of nearly 1 600 votes per seat. There was a by election soon after the general election, occasioned by the defeat of the Natal leader of the UP, Radclyffe Cadman, in the general election. Gerdener stood against Cadman in the seat vacated for him by a UP stalwart losing by a mere 30 votes. Gerdener’s narrow defeat invites comparison with Worrall’s narrow loss by 39 votes to Chris Heunis, Minister of Constitutional Development, in last week’s election.

But in spite of its credible showing in the 1974 election, the DP — which, like the NU in 1961 and the trio of independents today, stood to the left of the government and to the right of the main opposition party – disappeared in to the limbo of history. The NU and the DP offer an historical prism through which to assess the long-term viability of the independent Nats: to consider their chances of survival and growth. As Worrall noted at the weekend, he and his co-independents obtained more than 20 000 votes, an average of more than 6 600. Judging from the 1981 election, about than half of the 20 000 votes came from PFP voters, the PFP having stood back for the independents. Even so, it was a credible performance to take 10 000 votes from the NP in three constituencies at an average of 3 300 per seat.

Worrall saw the independent performance as, “just the beginning of a new spirit of hope in South Africa”, adding: “We will carry this spirit into the future and into the next election.” The independents appear to have certain advantages going for them, not least substantial financial backing (from whom, for how long and at what cost?) and intellectual support. But their rise as an enduring political force is not inevitable. The demise of the NU and DP apart they only have one seat in parliament.

Worrall’s challenge to Heunis came desperately close. But in the end it failed. One of their problems in the future is that the NP, having proved it is tough and full of fight may regain the support of these who deserted for the trio of independents when the NP looked vulnerable and confused. Another is that many voters may back the NP to prevent further gains by the CP, whose advances overshadow those of the independents. Finally the independents — like the PFP — may find themselves marginalised by the looming conflict between the largely black extra-parliamentary forces and the white-controlled state. — Patrick Laurence

Just a nose away from the city hall
For five days the Progressive Federal Party held a majority in the Johannesburg City Council. The decision by one or their councillors, Mike Sutherland, to remain in Australia reduced the 47-seat council to a deadlock in which 46 seats are split between the Nationalist/Independent Ratepayers Association alliance and the PFP. Until a by-election is held, probably towards the end or June, the council is effectively “on hold”. PFP council leader Sam Moss sees their local victory last week as a vote against the current management committee, which has six members — four National Party representatives and two from the Independent Ratepayers’ Association. “We have persistently hammered the management committee over the years,” he says. A “more vibrant and innovative” management committee is one of the changes he hopes to see under a PFP-controlled council.

Moss recognises that there is doubt over what a PFP controlled council can achieve within existing legislation — for example the Group Areas Act. “People will say that it’s third tier government but I believe there’s a lot we can do. Within the system there’s always room for manoeuvrability. We’re going to have to find that. Within any particular system if there’s a will to do, you can find a way to alleviate the harshness or legislation. “There is a fundamental difference (in a PFP management committee). We’re not government stooges. This management committee has not fought the government as hard as it should have been because it’s dominated by the Nationalist component.”

As to what the PFP could achieve, 24 bodies willing, Moss is pragmatic. “Let’s not have any illusions about it. The next (municipal) elections are in October next year.” This would give the PFP 18 months in which they “would like to start setting the basis for more innovative, management. I would like to see the mechanism created for more effective public participation in decision-making, ” Moss says. Security in the city is an issue they would like to address Moss believes it should become a local government functions “because the prosperity of the city is dependent on security — whether it’s by way of a city police force, whatever”. He is confident Johannesburg citizens would be willing to contribute towards as the “quality of life in the city would improve”. Improvement and “better use” of amenities such as parks and recreation centres would also be on the PFP agenda.

Moss also believes the council should look at greater privatisation to avoid losses the city cannot afford, such as the approximately R24-million lost on the bus service this year. The city should be run “as efficiently as possible”, Moss says. “It’s easy to increase rates all the time. The point is one must ask if the public is getting value for the Increased assessment rates that it’s called upon to pay year after year, increase after increase. “And when you examine the services that are given you find there has been no real growth in the quality of service. If you take our garbage collection, at one stage it was once a day, then once every two days now its probably once a week. “Because of inflationary trends, and one must be fair about it, there is a deterioration in terms of the services this council has been giving to its ratepayers.”

The priority for a PFP management committee, Moss says is “to create a vision for the future. I believe that we can create that vision and when we come back in ’88 we can fulfil that vision by setting up support groups from the outside. Moss envisages these support groups being drawn from the private sector and “providing a think tank” to produce “an innovative approach to city living”. He believes this approach would evolve from private and public involvement and must not “come from any form of stultified or fossilised thinking which tends to be the trend in bureaucratic institutions”.

How the PFP fares in next year’s municipal election will depend on its performance over the next 18 months, assuming they win the by-election, says Moss. “We would only have 18 months lo prove to the public that a PFP management committee must be different to the existing committee.” Delimitation will be another important factor. Population changes in th6 city could see the southern suburbs gaining seats. — Ruth Becker

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