The Soul of Liberalism Under Apartheid.

In the 1970s there really seemed to be only one game for liberal white English South Africans to play, and it was a Parliamentary game. For a child growing up in a liberal white English household, it was a matter of natural course to support the Progressive Party (PP), which merged with the Reform Party to become the Progressive Reform Party (PRP), and then after it got a new Afrikaans leader, became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). No accident that the party’s acronyms pronounce remarkably like the sound of belches and farts.

18 was the legal voting age, so that child could not vote, but could at least go to political meetings and discover that parties which were not Progressive — the gangrenous fragments sloughed off by the disintegrating United Party, lovely ironic name — were awful. The National Party, the party of apartheid, was unacceptable. There were a few little white groupuscules, such as the National Union of South African Students, who were playing left-wing games, but nobody official took them seriously. The media represented black South Africans as irredeemable haters of whites. No, the best way to show one’s liberalism would be to support a Parliamentary opposition which, best of all, had no prospect of success, even after it became the “Official Opposition”. (That ridiculous term had been invented by the National Party to justify ignoring the Progressives, who had spent a decade and a half in the wilderness before gradually overtaking the UP at the polls.)

There was a small problem with this liberal party. Officially, the government presented it as being more or less aligned with the anti-apartheid movement represented by Biko and, eventually, the ANC. Unofficially, however, the government connived with it under various conditions (such as the invasion of Angola) and they all seemed quite polite to each other when they weren’t shouting across the Parliamentary floor. The problem was that the PFP was a whites-only party, because that was the law under the “Prohibition of Political Interference Act” which had destroyed the old Liberal Party.

Being a whites-only party, it had to somehow sell liberalism — freedom for all — to white South Africans who had no interest in seeing liberalism implemented. It did this in two ways; one was by being too small to accomplish anything, so that you could vote for them knowing that your vote did not threaten your interests. The other was that the Party’s new Leader, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, had come up with a brilliant idea under which change could happen without affecting white interests.

This idea, which endured in various forms for nearly twenty years in South African politics, was “federalism”. Essentially, the country would be broken up into self-governing fragments. Some of these fragments would be mainly white and rich, some would be mainly black and poor. Each fragment could set its own rules, within a broad framework. Does this sound like the Bantustan system? Excellent point; in fact, the Progressive Party originally split from the United Party because the Progressives wanted to give the Bantustans a chance. In this system, whites would hang onto their power and privilege but would no longer be in any way responsible for blacks’ lack of power or privilege. It was a pipe-dream, but one which P W Botha seized on in his “constellation of states” policy, which the PFP initially endorsed.

If you were going to an English university out of an English community, it made sense to join NUSAS (especially since at most English universities membership of NUSAS was compulsory, as a sop to counter the government’s smearing and bullying of campus politicians). NUSAS hated liberals with a passion, and NUSAS were in peripheral touch with actual black people (though at this time very few blacks were allowed to study at white campuses). However, it was only the heaviest NUSAS people who were engaged in real political activities of this kind, and they tended to turn off new recruits by their self-important asceticism (which was often the purest put-on). As a result, people drifted out of NUSAS again.

But this was the early 1980s and now there were real things going on which were not just Parliamentary. The UDF was getting going; interestingly, the liberal Black Sash tended to distrust it as a reformist organisation. The Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee was another liberal grouping which grew increasingly as more and more people ended up in the jug, and the DPSC was non-racial and sufficiently activist so that one could stand around with a placard if one so chose without compromising one’s liberal principles.

But all this seemed like little more than play, at least in the white community. In the black community it seemed a little more than play; people were actually doing things. Sebokeng exploded in September ’84 and the army was photographed rumbling through town. A student riffling through second-hand bookshops might suddenly come across banned publications discussing the implications of this activity, and wonder why the newspapers and the politicians weren’t discussing this.

Then came March ’85, and at Langa, the main township for Uitenhage, an industrial satellite of Port Elizabeth, the local UDF organised a march to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre. The local police had their own method of commemorating the massacre; they fired into the crowd with shotguns, using SSG ammunition (extra-heavy buckshot) instead of birdshot, and killed 21 of them. Possibly they hoped that since it was only a third as many as had been killed at Sharpeville, nobody would care very much, but if so, they were mistaken.

The masses were up in arms, and the PFP organised a meeting which a liberal young adult would be inclined to go to. (How were the really responsible liberals going to sort this out?) The meeting was poorly attended, but that was nothing compared with the fact that the PFP had absolutely nothing to offer apart from writing a letter to the Minister of Police, Louis le Grange, who had already shown himself to be something like Jimmy Kruger without the compassionate side. When confronted with the real world, instead of fantasies of Parliamentary rhetoric or imaginary homelands, the PFP was completely without ideas, let alone capacity to implement them.

But the extraparliamentary universe had answers. The solution was to support the revolution; it was never quite clear what the revolution would be about, but what was clear was that it would be televised, and if you wanted your name in lights, you had a chance to get arrested, beaten or killed while the cameras rolled. Mobilise the people, even in the white community, in the name of resistance to oppression. It was perfectly possible for liberals, and even PFP supporters, to get on board such a policy, and such a policy was also a ticket to a journey to township rallies where one could hear people singing about the weapons they wanted, but did not have. (This made PFP people queasy, however.) In effect, the PFP, because they were so lacking in ideas, and so wishy-washy in action, had been marginalised.

Well, they fought back. First they got rid of that Dutchman running them (Slabbert resigned, coincidentally, about the time the Challenger exploded) and then, O joy, they saw the State of Emergency declared. Now, they explained, with the extraparliamentary movement out of action, it was time for the Parliamentary party to show what it could do in the 1987 election. The PFP decided to make a massive leap towards gaining power by abandoning all their liberal principles, embracing the Suppression of Communism Act and endorsing political repression. Coincidentally, NUSAS called for a white boycott of the election, which doubtless had all the impact of a very small custard pie dropped in private.

But oddly enough, it appeared that many people had voted for the PFP because of their principles, so when they abandoned them, those people failed to show up at the polls. Also, those people who really supported political repression knew perfectly well that P W Botha could do it better, and with more panache, than Colin Eglin. Hence the PFP’s support-base collapsed, and the far-right Konservatiewe Party became the Official Opposition, to the hilarity of the National Party.

As good liberals, Eglin and Co. took stock of the situation. First they got rid of Helen Suzman, that dangerous leftie, replacing her with a reactionary corporate lawyer named Tony Leon who had close connections with the military and police. Secondly, they had to explain their defeat at the polls, and since it couldn’t possibly be there fault, they blamed the awe-inspiring power of NUSAS, who had betrayed South Africa’s true liberal freedom fighters (under orders from the white master of the Soviet plan to conquer Southern Africa and enslave us all, KGB Colonel Joe Slovo of the SACP). Yes, that was what was being said. The PFP swallowed the apartheid state’s line absolutely uncritically, and set about marginalising anyone within the Party who disagreed with it. Within a few months the liberals in the Party decamped, becoming independents.

What all this meant was that, unbeknownst to many white South African liberals, (the term “boneheaded” is far too polite), NUSAS and the other leftist critics of Parliamentary liberalism had been correct all along. The moment the PFP faced a real problem they ditched their principles and all that went with them, and became almost indistinguishable from the parties of apartheid. Ugh! The fact that the press went along with this merely helped to show that the white establishment which pretended to be anti-apartheid was far more reactionary than anyone on the outside had fully realised. (This was the harbinger of the full-on reactionary stance which the press has taken ever since.)

Gradually, even the Eglinites began to realise that they had made a small error in calculation. To save the liberal Parliamentary opposition from total destruction, in 1988-9 they made a huge fuss about their plans to reunite the party (negotiating with the people they had driven out only a year or so earlier) and to suck up to Afrikaners. (With perfect timing, they called the Afrikaners who supposedly backed their party the “Third Force” — the name applied by the anti-apartheid movement to the government-sponsored terrorists who were provoking conflict between black political organisations in that period!)

So there came the 1989 election. By this time it was obvious that things were changing; De Klerk was not the same as Botha, and the times were no longer so propitious for the Conservative Party’s white racist psychotic garbage. The new party was going to be called the Democratic Party, which sounded awfully nice and which at least didn’t seem as exclusionary as its predecessor.

On the other hand, at a time dominated by the red, yellow and black of the United Democratic Front and the black, green and gold of the ANC, the DP chose for its colours blue and yellow — which just happened to be the colour-scheme of the South African Police. Ouch! But perhaps that was just ignorance. If you were an experienced activist, you might have wandered into a DP election rally in your neighbourhood, in a venue which you were still not permitted to use because your organisation was technically banned. And you might then have seen the local candidate, an air-headed female corporate media crony, sitting around while her helpers set up the microphones and decorated the stage. And you might then have noticed, because you could not help it, that those helpers were former members of the National Student Federation, which was a far-right-wing organisation set up by the apartheid secret police to spy on and disrupt anti-apartheid student politics, and that some of the people helping set up that DP election rally, the vanguard of white South African liberals, were paid apartheid police spies.

And you might ask yourself: How did I get here?

And you might ask yourself: My God! What have I done?


3 Responses to The Soul of Liberalism Under Apartheid.

  1. Steve says:


    Of course yellow and blue were the colours of the old Progressive Party, so perhaps the DP were trying to recover some of the magic pixie dust and their lost supporters. And please don’t call them the “soul” of liberalism. Liberalism surely deserves better than that.

  2. The Creator says:

    Interesting. The Progressive Federal Party were red and blue in colour, of course. Yellow seems a rather ill-advised colour to choose given that the apartheid regime were obviously going to accuse them of cowardice. But then the old Progs were never that good at planning.

    Unlikely, however, that the DP were after any “magic pixie dust” from the 1960s and early 1970s. They were very much creatures of the late 1970s and middle 1980s. As to liberalism deserving better than that — well, perhaps we can wait and see if white liberalism can try and earn a little respect. If there are any left in South Africa.

  3. Steve says:

    Why “white” liberalism?

    Some black PP supporters accused me of “Congoism” for advocating one man one vote.

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