/ 12 July 2002

(Illiberal) liberalism?

The Edwardian English writer Saki (HH Munro) began one of his acerbic short stories along the lines of, ”Lady So-and-So was a passionate socialist, secure in the conviction that such a catastrophe would never arrive in her lifetime.”

I am frequently reminded of this barb when listening to South African liberals. In general, they are passionately committed to both free enterprise and the righting of past wrongs — maintaining that the path to the latter realm of justice is attainable only after passing through the former portal of economic righteousness. However, the unspoken thought-bubble here, it seems to me, is the secure conviction that the one will surely cancel out the other — leaving our privileges untarnished.

These suspicions were nudged again by the recent heated debate in the press on liberalism, complete with high rhetoric and low insults. There was talk of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Tony Leon even craftily brought in Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper.

The trouble is that when talking to Leon’s supporters I find they seldom quote Bentham, let alone Popper. Nor do they much discuss Leon’s central tenet of liberalism: ”the belief that individuals are autonomous centres of consciousness”.

In reality (but this may reflect my own limited, low-brow, liberal associations), most tend to talk more fervently about what is generally known as neo-liberal economics.

Indeed, on the broader philosophical front, many local liberals are distinctly illiberal on a wide range of social issues, from hanging to street children. I recall a TV programme, several years ago, by the late Donald Woods; after he’d been filmed dining with some of our most prominent liberals, he turned to the camera to remark, with exasperation, that he was constantly astonished how conservative so many decent South African liberals were on social matters.

Frankly, shorn of Mill, Bentham, Popper and academics from think tanks, what most people who might call themselves liberal are left with is the economic outlook. Here the problem facing the opposition, and traditional economic liberals, is that the African National Congress has adopted a free-enterprise approach. Not nearly as much privatisation as business would like — yet which party is it that now flexes its muscles with public-sector workers, earnestly entreats for foreign investment and urges black business people to get filthy rich?

”The wailing about ANC majoritarianism assumes ethnic minorities as its main victim,” wrote Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and his co-authors Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley in their book, Comrades in Business. ”This thinking still relies on racial antagonisms as the overriding cleavage in South Africa. In reality, the ANC’s historical role is both to represent and control the poor majority.”

In other words, who else could oversee the present economic policy? The ”old” Nats knew the game was up, and began negotiations. What most ordinary liberals don’t seem to ask themselves is: who are the main beneficiaries of current government policy, themselves or shack-dwellers? And what on earth do they think would happen if the Democratic Alliance was in power and tried to implement exactly the same economic strategy as the ANC?

Yet the crisis this government has been unable to resolve is how to right age-old, apartheid-magnified inequalities through the ”free market”. Such colossal inequalities on a national level are reflected in the vast global economic disequilibrium.

Last week the World Bank’s chief economist, Nicholas Stern, remarked that the industrialised countries could not talk about the removal of subsidies in trade and agriculture in developing countries ”when they are subsidising their own trade and agriculture by $300-billion a year”. This, he pointed out, is roughly the total gross domestic product of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. The problem is: they can — and do — talk with forked tongue.

Classic liberalism appears unable, or unwilling, to come to grips with the enormity of these disparities, either on a local or global level. And until liberalism comes up with something rather more forceful than ”laissez-faire” economics to control the brute power exercised by the rich on the poor, it will continue to be a case of Saki’s Ladyship: an avid belief in social justice, just as long as such a catastrophe doesn’t manifest in our lifetime.

Bryan Rostron is a South African journalist, once again resident in this country after working for many years on national newspapers in the United Kingdom