LETTER: Liberal Party complexities

Blowing the old coals of the Liberal Party and its ethos into life is more complex that Peter Bruce describes. (A cry for the beloved liberalism of Alan Paton, May 10)

I attended the last meeting to disband the Liberal Party in Orange Grove, Johannesburg, in 1964. Paton, then president of the Liberal Party, said: “I always believed that where there is a will there is a way, but I realise now that even with the will, the way is at times not possible”.

Bruce describes the Liberal Party as having died, with only whites allowed to vote and not having ever won a seat in Parliament. (I am not aware they ever put up a candidate). This gives a very false impression of the reality of those times.

Unlike today, Liberal Party members were hounded from pillar to post by the security branch. If not held in custody, in solitary confinement, banned or confined for years, as was Peter Brown, they were forced out of work by employers, especially if they were doing work for the government, pressured and threatened as security risks, harassed for any association with communist sympathisers, here or overseas and any left-leaning individual, organisation or activity. To be Liberal was to be a traitor to one’s society.

The despair expressed by Paton at that last meeting encapsulated the years of unacceptable pressure and vilification. If dislike and visceral anger from the government could be expected, derision and anger from many opposition “Progressive” party members was the more hurtful.

In today’s almost unfettered freedom of expression and association, to compare the current scope of liberalism to that of Paton’s times is simply not possible. Nor does the description “liberal” in any way embrace every kind of nuanced liberal political or social view. Members of the old Liberal Party could vary from a quite unsophisticated black person living in a township to a remote intellectual such as Patrick Duncan who, at his farewell meet in Fish Hoek in 1960, made a mystifying speech in Latin.

What held them together was a common sense of humanity and decency and outrage at injustice. They simply wanted normal levels of freedom, justice and opportunity for all, which I detect in Mmusi Maimane’s brand of liberalism in the DA today.

But the liberal ethic cannot be generalised. In SA, then as now, liberalism cannot exist in isolation from multiculturalism (this includes both race and class). On paper at least, that more than anything else defined the old Liberal Party. It is not enough today to fulfil the tenets of liberalism simply because liberal arrangements have permeated the political and legal framework of the country.

Which might explain why many liberal people, even activists, left the country after 1994. They wanted the liberal idea but not multiculturalism, just as apartheid supporters — the bulk of white South Africans — wanted a more drastic separate-but-equal division of the social fabric of the country.

Liberals who remained found other more practical outlets for their frustrations in highly effective organisations such as the Black Sash, still alive today.

But Paton’s liberal tradition has to be worked for and its practical realities constantly reinvented. It is not naturally robust in SA but, by his standards, so pertinently illustrated in Bruce’s column, it is very much alive and Paton’s pessimism in 1964 could turn out to have been premature.

RWT Lloyd