South African white liberalism had become, by the end of apartheid, something quite extraordinarily unlike anything to do with justice, freedom or democracy. The flagbearer of traditional white extraparliamentary liberalism, the Institute for Race Relations, had become a propagandist not merely for apartheid, but for the most vicious aspects of apartheid; among the elements and policies which it embraced were the last surviving supposedly-independent homeland of Bophuthatswana, the apartheid riot police, and the murderous thugs of the Inkatha movement, while it denounced every kind of anti-apartheid activism outside the white community as “Mass Mobilisation”, which it defined as evil. Ironically, while it was doing this its researchers chronicled the crimes which its leaders, such as Andrea Wentzel and John Kane-Berman, were endorsing and approving.
Liberal journalism had, if anything, become worse than this. In the pro-apartheid Sunday Times, but also in the supposedly anti-apartheid Business Day, the “muscular liberal” journalist Ken Owen denounced all anti-apartheid activists as brutal agents of the Soviet Union at best, or else as covertly planning to install what he loved to call a “Pol Pot” dictatorship. He was helped by the “alternative Afrikaner” journalist Rian Malan, whose drug-addled racist fantasies were distributed all over South Africa by such energetic reactionaries as Dennis Beckett, and peddled all over the world by those seeking to prove that the apartheid state was at least better than the cowardly white radicals and “slideaway liberals” who were foolishly helping murderous, savage blacks come to power. (To be fair, both Owen and Malan have recanted some of their worst lies, though Malan continues to peddle them and both characters, if South African society had any moral compass, would be unable to come out of their homes for fear of being debagged and horsewhipped.)
Meanwhile, there was the Democratic Party, which spent the transition period (1990-94) claiming that it was better, more liberal, and more experienced in the ways of black people than the National Party. To prove this, it devoted a good deal of time to flirting with anti-democratic conspirators like Anthony Horowitz, whose “consociationalism” was basically an extension of separate development. When the eventual deal went down in 1993, virtually every word of the new Constitution, an impeccably liberal (in the eighteenth-century sense of the word) document, had been drafted by the ANC with no thanks to the Democratic Party. Its contribution was to accuse the National Party of selling the country (by which it meant, the white part of the country) down the river by caving in to demands of one-person, one-vote in a unitary state — a shocking, horrible and unacceptable concession from the white-leadership perspectives of white liberalism.
The consequence of this was, perhaps, unsurprising. In 1989 the Democratic Party had received a substantial fraction of the National Party’s vote in the whites-only election. In 1994 the Democratic Party gained less than a twelfth of what the National Party gained. Not only had the Democratic Party, the party of white liberal values, failed to hold on to its support-base, losing something like half its voters to the National Party, the party of apartheid and reactionary conservatism. The Democratic Party had also totally failed to pick up black, coloured and Indian votes, as the National Party did.
Meanwhile, of course, the National Party entered the Government of National Unity, as did the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, in approximately the ratio 2:1:6; the Democratic Party, had it chosen to take part, would have entered in the proportional ratio of 0,17, which would probably have gained it a very junior deputy ministership on sufferance. Perhaps wisely, it decided to stay out of the GNU. The GNU, however, proceeded to pursue impeccably liberal politics (thus, well to the left of anything that the Democratic Party stood for). It abolished the death penalty and did away with racial and sexual discrimination, and made a modest start on providing some kind of social security and unemployment insurance, all things which the Democratic Party was queasy about.
It ostensibly endorsed all these things, but in practice the DP was largely supported by pro-death penalty people, had a lot of homophobes and misogynists in its ranks, and was fiercely opposed to social democracy, so that among the people purged from the party’s parliamentarians was the long-standing MP Harry Schwartz, who was deeply reactionary in many ways, but was also a social democrat and hence unacceptable to the DP’s new leadership. It seemed that this new leadership, based around a small cabal of right-wing Johannesburg ex-councillors and their friends and partners, and with a startlingly high proportion of closet homosexuals in denial about their identity, was not only out of touch with reality, but had no prospect of any success.
This was an illusion. For one thing, the DP controlled the English-language press, which by now dominated the Afrikaans-language press. For another thing, the NP had shot its bolt. It pretended to serve the interests of blacks, coloureds and indians, but while it was in alliance with the ANC it was unable to denounce the ANC’s policies as the DP could. The NP united wildly differing class and ethnic identities who had felt that it would protect them against the ANC, but now it was clearly not protecting them, and when the DP promised to denounce the ANC and the whole post-apartheid dispensation, the NP had nothing to offer in return. Eventually, in desperation, Deputy President De Klerk took his party out of the Government of National Unity to free its hand. But it was useless, for it was impossible to hold the fragments of the party together; having been in government too long, the National Party could not attack the ANC as hysterically or as dishonestly as the DP could — and all the withdrawal accomplished was to weaken the NP’s public profile even further.
In consequence, the DP stood to gain, and in fact did so. The problem appeared to be that the DP would be stepping into the NP’s shoes. The leadership of the DP evolved a “strategy” which was fairly simple: rather than develop a coherent ideology to unify the party, they would simply absorb the coloured, white and indian constituencies previously occupied by the NP. (Any africans who happened to come in would be most welcome, but the party would not devote much time to acquiring them.)
Thus the party would build itself into a force to be reckoned with, like the NP at the time of the 1994 election. This was a strategy in the sense that catching the apples falling from a tree is a strategy; it required no effort other than spending money and devoting attention to denouncing the ANC. With its racist “Fight Back” strategy, the DP overwhelmed the NP at the 1999 election, overtaking it and declaring itself to be the new “Official Opposition”, a meaningless, antiquated term which resonated with those who were nostalgic for the old white Parliament. But where would it go from here, and what had all this to do with liberalism?
The answer, of course, was nowhere and nothing, but the party refused to accept this. Instead, it pressed for an alliance with the NP and suggested that in fact the two parties should amalgamate. De Klerk had departed after the NP’s humiliating defeat, his place taken by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, a pragmatic former securocrat with inclinations towards the ANC. Unable to take the party with him, however, and since the DP and NP were already in coalition in the Western Cape to keep the ANC out of power in that province, Van Schalkwyk surrendered to the inevitable and the DP and the NP began to merge.
Essentially, since the DP had already expanded by taking over NP branches lock, stock and barrel, what this meant was that the DP leadership was capturing the NP voters, but at branch level the NP practice and membership was taking over the DP brand. The party, having already abandoned liberalism in practice, was now becoming a sort of Christian Democratic party, except that instead of hiding its reactionary nature behind the Pope, it was hiding it behind the ghosts of white liberals like poor Helen Suzman, who was wheeled out whenever possible to legitimate the horrible stew which was to be called the Democratic Alliance. The formerly liberal press, now neoliberal, and the formerly liberal think-tanks, now also neoliberal or reactionary, cheered these events to the echo.
The death of parliamentary liberalism, however, still had one last joke to play on its members. This came at the 2000 municipal election. In the Western Cape and in Cape Town, the alliance between NP and DP was particularly painful because the NP was much stronger than the DP and yet the DP was calling the shots; the NP people were resentful. Embarrassed by this, Leon’s Johannesburg contingent hatched a plan; they would win Johannesburg and thus cow the Cape NP by their might and authority. Unfortunately, Leon’s cabal were incompetent, hopelessly out of touch, and completely unselfcritical. (Leon himself toured the country with a vast video-screen to blow him up out of proportion at his rallies, revealing him wearing a relaxed black leisure shirt which made him look like a pigeon-chested, chinless Mussolini.) When the votes were counted, the DA’s defeat in Johannesburg was total, while the NP-dominated Cape DA, led by a banjo-playing Elvis impersonator named Peter Marais, had won Cape Town.
Leon was not prepared to tolerate this. He demanded that Marais step down as Mayor, inventing a fraudulent excuse for this and whipping up a massive press campaign against Marais. Such contempt for democracy and party principle proved too much for the leadership of the NP, who walked out of the DA en masse, taking many of their followers with them, and eventually defected to the ANC after that party used its two-thirds majority in Parliament to organise a “floor-crossing” Constitutional loophole for them. The DA lost the Western Cape, and temporarily even lost Cape Town, to the ANC, because of its hatred of democracy and freedom. It would have been hilarious if the DA had not been the only Parliamentary alternative to the ANC, and the anointed heir of a century and a half of white liberalism.
Where did this leave liberalism? The short answer is, that, as with mathematics at Gö ttingen under the Nazis, “there really is none, anymore”. Leon’s misrule of the DA, and the weakening position of the Johannesburg cabal, eventually saw him lose control and be unceremoniously replaced by a duumvirate, the right-wing union-busting neoliberal Helen Zille in Cape Town, and the right-wing Afrikaner nationalist Sandra Botha (no close relative of the apartheid President, but a direct political descendant). Outside Parliament, neoliberalism rules unchecked in the press, the think-tanks (such as the Freedom of Expression Institute, a body curiously uninterested in corporate suppression of free expression) and to a great extent in academia, where big business calls the financial shots even for Trotskyites. It seems that liberalism was simply a passing fad which, now that it is no longer needed, has become an embarrassment to the corporate interests which pretended to foster it.
Since 1994 white liberalism has been racing to greet this opportunity, hoping that at some stage it could, with the help of big business, become the neoliberal front-rulers of South Africa. Ironically, however, they have been too slow and too incompetent. Now that neoliberal big business controls the ANC, it no longer needs the white liberals. It is perfectly likely that, having destroyed all capacity to pursue any meaningful agenda of their own, the white liberals will see their hopes and dreams, along with all their values and principles, withering on the vine. It would be justice — though it comes at the expense of the people of South Africa, so it’s nothing to cheer about.