Radical to be liberal

In his widely praised albeit controversial Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, William Mervin Gumede argues that opposition parties in South Africa “have been caught embarrassingly off guard” by the “dramatic repositioning” of the African National Congress. The ANC, he writes, “has become a party with more liberal values than the Democratic Alliance, even if that fact irks the DA and is fiercely contested by the ANC leadership”.

Not so, according to a group of seasoned politicians, academics and political commentators who presented a series of lectures to honour veteran anti-apartheid fighter Helen Suzman.

Reflecting on “Liberalism and its Challenges in South Africa”, Lawrence Schlemmer, Tony Leon, Helen Zille, Van Zyl Slabbert, Rhoda Kadalie, Hermann Giliomee and Sipho Seepe questioned the ANC’s commitment to liberal democracy and identified important challenges for liberals in post-apartheid South Africa.

The difference between the old order and now, explained Leon, “is that the new South Africa is governed by a liberal-democratic Constitution.
Whereas liberals once tried to replace the system of the government, its institutions and its laws, we now find ourselves trying to protect them.” Indeed, the need to protect the liberal gains of 1994 was stressed by most of the speakers.

Perhaps prompted by controversy surrounding proposed judicial legislation, speakers called on civil society to maintain a healthy vigilance: a liberal Constitution does not in itself guarantee a democratic future. We need to guard against the co-opting of democracy and its supporting institutions, warned Van Zyl Slabbert.

All speakers acknowledged South Africa was an infinitely better and more open society than before, but disturbing trends were identified within the ruling alliance, including the centralisation of power and the closing down of debate.

Does the liberal vision offer solutions to the problems faced by our young multicultural democracy? According to most speakers, yes. It is precisely the liberal idea—expounded by philosophers such as Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin—that provides a compass to navigate the complex road ahead.

Giliomee was less sanguine. “The basic fallacy of liberalism is the belief that, in societies that have developed out of colonialism, competition occurs on the basis of individuals rather than groups.” Yet Giliomee valued the historic contribution of liberals and, in the words of Elie Wiesel, urged liberals today “to speak truth to power”.

Striking a balance between individual rights and the rights of minorities is clearly a battleground for liberals in the near term. This was the challenge in advanced multi-cultural democracies and would exercise South Africans as well, explained Schlemmer. “We must not allow ‘the elite within minorities’ to undermine real minority interests,” he urged.

Examining the role of parliamentary opposition, Kadalie questioned the viability of true democracy as long as the ANC enjoys its huge electoral majority. The ANC, she argued, fails to understand the notion of a loyal opposition. Free and open debate is being eroded and Parliament is not fulfilling its role as a watchdog.

Kadalie was also critical of the media for not challenging the ANC when necessary. Seepe was even more forthright. Highlighting a narrowing between the executive and judicial branches of the government, he called on liberals to confront power and defend the freedoms gained after generations of struggle. On the other hand, liberals also had to engage with those who accused them of protecting privilege.

Put simply, the moral defence of liberty necessitates an engagement with our past and its legacies. Leon acknowledged the challenge. “We cannot rest easy at a time when millions of South African are still denied the most basic freedoms.”

Significantly, speakers hardly touched on government economic policies. Instead attention focused on the ANC’s centralisation of power, the need for checks and balances, and the ANC’s intolerance of opposition.

Paradoxically, liberals with a fine record in the struggle are now maligned. But whites had to expunge fears of being labelled racist, exhorted Kadalie. In an ironic twist, remarked an astute observer , “to be a liberal in post-apartheid South Africa is really quite a radical position”.

All speakers paid handsome tribute to Suzman’s long political career and praised her willingness to “speak truth to power”. It had been “an honour” serving with her in Parliament, noted Slabbert. “She did so with great distinction and courage and I treat contemporary attempts to airbrush her contribution out of our recent past with absolute contempt. We have just survived 40 years of invented Afrikaner Nationalist history and it would be a travesty ... if we now have to be subjected to a prolonged period of ANC-invented history”.

In the years ahead it will not only be our past that is contested. The liberal vision in itself will be tested. Those carrying its message have a formidable task. Liberals have to ensure—through civil institutions—that “an open society endures and grows”, said Slabbert. “Liberals do not have to be: whiners, whingers, bad-mouthers, denouncers, sulkers or pontificators; they can be activists as well”, he maintained. The battle is ongoing. Liberal opposition, as Schlemmer concluded, “is in for a long, long haul”.

Professor Milton Shain is director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town. The lectures were held under the auspices of the centre