Old progressives would approve of DA’s ‘new liberalism’

The hardcore liberals in the Democratic Alliance may be aggrieved to find themselves with a leader willing to put the death penalty to a popular vote, but the progressives who moulded the forerunner to the spiritual predecessor of the DA are not spinning in their metaphorical graves.

This, after all, is politics.

“[Mmusi] Maimane seems to be quite willing to look for gaps, to occasionally almost be populist,” says Peter Gastrow, a member of the Progressive Party (PP) in the 1970s and a leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) in the 1980s.

The DA traces its roots back to the 1959 split in the United Party that formed the PP, and the DA’s last incarnation before its current form, the Democratic Party, was created by a merger between the PFP and others.

Maimane’s willingness to put political gain ahead of principle would, Gastrow said, horrify some of the “lighthouse Progs” of his day, those English-speaking liberals who preached absolute and inviolable values – but only to the same extent that they were similarly horrified in the 1980s.

“You had these people who would never compromise on anything, and then came Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. He was very different.”

Van Zyl Slabbert died in 2010. Despite having a long career after apartheid, he remains most famous for abandoning Parliament entirely after opening up discussions with the ANC in the mid-1980s, on the basis that the legislature was irrelevant.

“I’m not saying [Van Zyl Slabbert] didn’t share the values of the Progs, their liberal principles,” said Gastrow. “Of course he believed in them. But he tried to look at the minefield and find a way out of it.

“He started the caucus meetings every week with an analysis of what had been happening in the last week politically, identifying possibilities [and] developments, looking at how the Progs should respond. He was always looking at ways and means of achieving the political goal.”

Exploiting opportunities rather than holding on to absolute values comes with dangers; hypocrisy is a dirty word in politics and can cost votes, and party members who think the values they stand for are being watered down can turn mean.

“In those situations [Van Zyl Slabbert] would immediately and very easily defend, explain, put people at their ease,” says Gastrow. “Maimane … as a young person, relatively inexperienced … I hope he can walk that road.”

Maimane’s atavism notwithstanding, debating just how liberal or opportunistic a leader he will be may be entirely beside the point, said Max du Preez, a political commentator who closely watched the growth of progressive politics in the 1980s.

“That stuffy old liberalism of the Westminster kind – that definition is going to fall away now. When we say Mmusi is a liberal, we mean something different. We’re seeing a new brand of liberalism here, something so far away from the old liberalism that we should probably call it something else.”

Maimane was elected DA leader, Du Preez said, on a platform that is very tolerant and holds strongly to the value of choice of the individual, but takes into account family, community and tradition – the aspects of South African culture that liberals had the most trouble with historically. And if old-style liberals have a problem with that, well, they too may be irrelevant. It will be the younger white voters Maimane will have to consider first, he maintains.

“Apart from young black people in the DA, Maimane’s most ardent and enthusiastic supporters were young, and even not-so-young, Afrikaners in the DA. This is a terrible generalisation but Afrikaners like a strong leader … I think they find it liberating to be supporting a young black man.”

Maimane has not deracialised himself to win such support, Du Preez said, but white people – and Afrikaners in particular – have a strange relationship with blackness.

“They open up their hearts and it is so beautiful how they embrace black people, until a certain point where the black people threaten to become a majority, then ‘welcome to this place of ours’ becomes ‘oh God, it’s not our place any more’ and the reactionary stuff starts flying.”

An old liberal guard Maimane may not have to worry about. But an assertive black DA caucus – that may threaten the party’s new identity of being proudly led by a black man.

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