Liberals at war

Tensions between the DA and one of its former leading lights, Raenette Taljaard, flared this week as a DA-backed blog attacked Taljaard’s leadership of the Helen Suzman Foundation.

It has been suggested that the DA is seeking to exert greater influence over the foundation, which claims independence of any political party. The controversy is also seen as highlighting a battle over liberal thinking against the backdrop of a succession race within the DA.

The Insidepolitics blog author, DA media and research director Gareth van Onselen, lambasted the foundation for failing to uphold liberal values, warning that it could slip into the ideological paradigm of the ANC.

Criticism of Taljaard, a former senior DA MP, came in response to the choice of panelists at a recent round table discussion and the selection of contributors to the most recent edition of the foundation’s journal Focus.

On line, Van Onselen accuses Taljaard of ‘going out of the way to accommodate the most virulent critics of liberalism and liberal discourse” in a foundation round table on Chapter 9 institutions.

He names panelist Kader Asmal, a senior ANC member and former minister, as one of these critics. Asmal chairs a parliamentary committee on the Chapter 9 institutions.

Van Onselen questions why there were no liberal thinkers or DA members among the other panelists. The other panelists were Judith February from governance NGO Idasa, the Human Sciences Research Council’s Mcebisi Ndletyana and Jody Kollapen from the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

He adds that the latest edition of Focus included contributions from people such as Jeremy Cronin of the South African Communist Party.

Taljaard countered that Asmal had done extensive research on the topic and Kollapen was invited because it had been suggested that Chapter 9 institutions be placed under the HRC.

She said the online attack reflected a personal vendetta related to the circumstances of her resignation from the DA. She declined to elaborate on those circumstances.

Taljaard’s resignation in December 2004 was attributed to her fall-out with senior DA leaders such as chief whip Douglas Gibson. There were also reports that she was critical of DA leader Tony Leon’s style of opposition.

DA insiders say that Leon’s departure will cast uncertainty on the political future of officials who owe their party status to his efforts, including Van Onselen, CEO Ryan Coetzee and the chief of staff in Leon’s office, Paul Boughey.

It is believed that Taljaard’s support for DA mayor Helen Zille has further antagonised Van Onselen and Coetzee, who oppose Zille’s candidacy.

Van Onselen told the Mail & Guardian that the DA runs the Insidepolitics blog to generate debate among people interested in the party’s perspective. Van Onselen, speaking in his personal capacity, added that it was necessary to monitor the line between a liberal democratic approach and the ANC’s ‘hegemonic view”.

‘Taljaard identified a need to make liberalism more relevant,” he said, referring to her inaugural speech as a new director. ‘But perhaps there has been an overcompensation.”

The article says Patrick Laurence was ‘removed” from his position as Focus editor by the foundation for unknown reasons. Laurence responded that he had left after 10 years as a contributor and editor after a trustee informed him that Taljaard wanted to take up the editor’s position.

Foundation trustee Richard Steyn confirmed that he had asked Laurence to leave so that Taljaard could take over as editor. However, this was for financial reasons, as the foundation had to downsize, restoring the journal to its past structure where executive directors also served as the journal’s editor.

‘I think that it is vitally important that NGOs that promote liberal ideas should exist in South Africa and prosper,” Laurence said. ‘I hope that the foundation will continue to do so in spite of the observations made by Van Onselen.”

He added that the foundation should not simply dismiss the concerns expressed.

Taljaard said that liberalism tends to be defined in a narrowly economic way in South African, that there was a ‘myopia” within the DA on the matter, and that people tended to appropriate the term to serve their own agendas.

The foundation, by contrast, was trying to promote a broad discussion of the liberal values entrenched in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, such as tolerance and respect for different views.

Former foundation director Lawrence Schlemmer said the DA had always interacted as closely as it could with the foundation, but that there had always been an element of discomfort.

This was because ‘in order to survive as a research institution, any foundation has to present itself in South Africa as totally independent or part of the government stable”.

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Tumi Makgetla
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