Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”?

Both liberals and conservatives made mistakes in the past, and these must be honestly recognised. For every conservative “prediction” or “warning” about what lays in South Africa’s future, there was a liberal “prediction” and “warning” that proved equally true.

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failed democracy

It is common nowadays for South African conservatives to look back at the transition from minority to majority rule and say that they or their intellectual forebears predicted that democracy could not work in South Africa. Liberals did not listen. The conservatives’ warnings have proven true, so now conservatives can say “we told you so”.

This is the fourth in a series of five articles addressing common conservative assaults on South African liberalism. The links for all articles in the series appear at the bottom of every article.

While it is fun to lay the failures of South African democracy at the feet of liberals and liberalism alone, conservatism has its own, significant burdens to carry. A historical inquiry is apt. In the previous article the historical record on decentralisation was briefly considered – here, a broader look at the conservative role played during the transition is undertaken.

The role played by the right during the transition

In the intensely insightful book, Denksprong vir die Regse Beweing in Suid-Afrika, author Gerdus Kruger undertook an interesting psycho-political analysis of the (Afrikaner) right-wing during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kruger, a founding member of the erstwhile Afrikaner Volksunie (AVU, Afrikaner People’s Union), participated in the negotiations that led to the adoption of South Africa’s Constitution. He was embedded in the conservative movement of the time.

One is struck by the introspective and honest spirit with which Kruger approached his task. Without abandoning his own conservative values and policy preferences, he unapologetically wrote about the cultural, psychological, and political handicaps that conservative Afrikaners laboured under, often of their own making. It was not necessarily the fault of the English, or of the liberals, or of the African National Congress (ANC), but simply the inability of the conservatives to rally and be serious about the task at hand.

Among other things, the conservatives, who are nowadays said to have predicted all the terribleness that was to come in a democratic South Africa, were toiling under a slave mentality in their political culture – total subservience to the State – regardless of whether it is Afrikaner, white, black, or ANC – and a refusal to rock the boat when necessary. (Dr Carl Boshoff makes a not dissimilar point in his writings and talks about the “second Afrikaner”.) Conservatives had become so accustomed to the British Westminster system, argues Kruger, that they were effectively immobilised after the announcement of the 1992 referendum. They kept up the pretence of resistance to the change that was being foisted upon them, but offered no real resistance whatsoever.

Conservative Afrikaners had every opportunity to influence how the transition would play out, but did not take that opportunity. I need not even dwell on the less than nominal role played by conservative English whites, who were a non-entity, and conservative blacks, who for reasons of understandable convenience threw their lot in with the ANC – with a small holdout associated with the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Conservatives’ participation in CODESA was marginal (by both Afrikaner conservatives and Inkatha) because of a lack of vision from their leaders – indeed, a lack of leadership in general, to the extent that Kruger had to lament the fact that Eugene Terre’Blanche was the closest thing the right-wing had at the time to a “leader” – and a lack of cooperation and organisation.

Constand Viljoen and the other retired military generals who played a leading role in the Afrikaner right-wing at the time were not the extremists the international media attempted to portray them as. They had histories of being good government officials during a time of relatively progressive reforms, who would not stick their necks out. They were errantly confused with the Boer generals who served during the Second Boer War. These were leaders, sometimes visionaries, who spontaneously rose from among their people, whereas the generals during the time of the transition were State-appointed functionaries who were disciplined to comply with (white or black) State edicts.

The Afrikaner Broederbond required all its members – including high-ranking military officers, government officials, and politicians – to prove loyal service to the State if they were to receive the support necessary to advance their careers. This mentality was inculcated in several generations of Afrikaners. The result was a total absence of leadership and independent vision. Afrikaner conservatives could not divorce themselves from the State, regardless of who happened to be running that State.

Kruger hoped, and I think his hope proved to materialise, that the post-1994 generation of (conservative) Afrikaners would be less psychologically dependent on government. The good work by organisations such as Solidarity and AfriForum, I think, confirms that this has come to pass.

Kruger heavily implies – although he does not say so outright – that if Afrikaner conservatives could have produced leaders with vision, and unity of purpose, around the time of the 1992 referendum, they could today have proudly had their volkstaat (people’s state), or at least an autonomous area within a united South Africa, even if they lost the referendum.

But every group had its own idea of where such an area would be located. Political parties like the Conservative Party, the AVU, and later the Freedom Front, could scarcely choose a specific area, because that would mean large numbers of their voters would find themselves living outside of that area. Hence, these groups had to remain sufficiently vague, or on occasion propose such outlandishly large areas for the relatively small number of Afrikaner people, to ensure their supporters did not abandon the parties for “excluding” them.

Above all, however, Afrikaners in general did not want to pack their bags and move to wherever such an area would have been. Where Afrikaners were, is where Afrikaners would remain. This kind of political comfort makes the success of any political movement difficult, and I will not claim that South African liberals and libertarians today do not suffer from the same problem. We absolutely do. But we must abandon the idyllic notion of brave conservatives having fought and lost the battle for South Africa’s soul to those filthy liberals during the transition.

The Afrikaner right got as far as the new government recognising a Volkstaat Council, but even on this council no unanimity could be reached in good time, with a significant number of the members believing in the northern option (where most Afrikaners actually lived), and others in the southern option (which was more sparsely populated) for the volkstaat.

Liberals during the transition

For their part, the AVU adopted a relatively inclusive notion of what it meant to be an Afrikaner. It was inclusive in the sense that anybody who identified with Afrikanerdom could qualify as an Afrikaner, but exclusive in the sense that the Afrikaner people would first have to accept that person as an Afrikaner. This conception (deliberately) moved Afrikanerdom away from whiteness and is arguably the kind of Afrikanerdom that exists today. The insistence on whiteness has largely fallen away, and it is not unheard of to learn of black or coloured members of AfriForum or Solidarity these days. Afrikaans concerts, television shows, and news platforms, owned and hosted by arguably conservative Afrikaner groups, now regularly boast fluent black and coloured Afrikaans singers, actors, and anchors.

Kruger writes of a meeting he and the AVU had with a group of academics in November 1993. Among them was liberal-fellow-traveller Lawrence Schlemmer, who warned that the promises of equal treatment of Afrikaans in the new constitutional dispensation were not going to work out that way. Afrikaans would be removed from the public sphere and become a private language. Already around the time of the interim Constitution, then, some liberals were acutely aware of the impending failings of the negotiated constitutional instruments.

That liberals thought everything would be rosy upon Apartheid being ended, is untrue, although certainly some who moved in liberal circles had this mentality. Take the example of Denis Beckett, who in a speech to students at the University of the Witwatersrand (reproduced in the Spring 1995 edition of Sidelines as reprinted in Watchdogs or Hypocrites?: The Amazing Debate on South African Liberals and Liberalism) argued that liberals should have been overjoyed at how the transition was turning out, but instead they were continuing to complain about what government was up to. “More rose, less thorn” was the title of his talk. Other liberals like Paul Pereira repudiated Beckett’s sentiment.

Ernst van Zyl, in a conversation with Daniël Goosen already referenced earlier in this series, claims that so-called “classical liberals” hailed South Africa’s Constitution as one of the best in the world when it was adopted during the transition. I would be interested to know which classical liberals these were. Both the Free Market Foundation and the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s only two classically-liberal policy institutes at the time, condemned the arguably leftist aspects of the Constitution, including the socio-economic “rights” and the horizontal application of the Bill of Rights, warning (correctly) that these phenomena, if adopted, would have detrimental consequences. The idea that classical liberals in particular were unqualifiedly elated about the Constitution is mistaken, although the Constitution (in particular the underrated interim Constitution) was and remains better than what came before.

That conservatives somehow “predicted” what would happen if South Africa adopted a democratic system is scarcely something they can claim to monopolise. Liberals throughout South African history had their own share of predictions. In fact, the conservatives were very late to this particular party.

Both John Xavier Merriman and Jan Smuts, around the time of the unification of South Africa, warned that the degradation of the dignity, liberty, and property of the black majority would have significant consequences down the line, but they were prepared to kick this can down the road. Merriman and Smuts, ever the hypocrites, also played their own part in ensuring their prophesy would come true.

At every juncture of potential political reform, South African liberals warned the establishment that failure to bring about a more just dispensation would radicalise the disenfranchised black majority and doom the future of whites in South Africa. The ANC’s embrace of communism in the 1940s was no surprise, as Janet Robertson writes in Liberalism in South Africa, 1948-1963. Liberals had warned that black political leaders, up to then very moderate and arguably classically liberal in their political outlook, would be driven into the waiting arms of the communists unless the political system in the land of their birth accommodated them on just terms.

Now, I am not particularly a fan of Frederick van Zyl Slabbert. To me, it seems that he was one of the main drivers of bringing excessively democratic thinking into South African liberalism. It was around his tenure as a leader of the Progressive Federal Party that that organisation abandoned the quintessentially liberal policy of so-called “qualified” franchise in favour of so-called “universal” franchise (both are, in fact, qualified franchise – liberals and democrats simply disagree on the qualifications).

This was at the peak of the so-called “liberal slideaway” (named after Jill Wentzel’s eponymous book), when some wavering liberals, so disillusioned by their failure to bring about the end of Apartheid, threw in their lot with violent and radical (invariably socialist) Africanists. White guilt was also starting to make an appearance, no doubt under the influence of the developing American scholarship on Critical Race Theory.

Finally, I have written before about the conservative, and liberal, omission to engage in constitutional discourse and creativity. Whereas American conservatives, American liberals, and American progressives all engaged in their own constitutional discourse to “take ownership”, as it were, of their constitution, conservative Afrikaners (nor conservative English or blacks) did nothing of the sort. They abandoned the Constitution almost as soon as it was adopted, despite there being (very) generous room to bring about a dispensation of self-determination and decentralisation. Conservative Afrikaners were so comfortable living all across South Africa that they failed entirely to agree upon a region where they could exercise their self-determination. This inability to organise, to rock the boat, and to sacrifice comfort for freedom, tanked the earlier volkstaat idea and tanked any notion of self-determination within a united South Africa.

I did not write this article (or the series) to throw shade at conservatives (as is religiously done to liberals), but rather to point out certain historical myths and misunderstandings. Well-meaning but misguided conservatives have in recent years attempted to create the impression that liberals have been undermining “their” attempts to decentralise and secure self-determination in the political order, and this has caused an unacceptable misunderstanding of the transition and contention among many South Africans who should be working together to stop the socialist, statist onslaught.

Both liberals and conservatives made mistakes in the past, and these must be honestly recognised. For every conservative “prediction” or “warning” about what lays in South Africa’s future, there was a liberal “prediction” and “warning” that proved equally true. Many conservative and liberal predictions and warnings also proved false, of course, but that’s for another article.

Setting the record straight

It is a great pity that contemporary South African conservatives have nothing but contempt and ridicule for liberalism, in particular recently “classical liberalism”. That is while most South African liberals (not to be confused with social democrats or “progressives”), including myself, have almost nothing but praise and gratefulness for the work that conservatives do. It is, largely, a one-sided attack, wherein conservatives blame South African failed democracy, increased socialism in economic policy, and the failure of constitutional institutions, on liberals.

Liberals, meanwhile, can say a lot about the failures of conservatism throughout South African history up to and including the transition, but for the most part, we don’t dwell on it. A fellow liberal from the time of the transition, who will remain anonymous, recently told me that he and his colleagues were hoping for a stronger conservative movement at the time of the transition so more effective checks and balances could be incorporated into the Constitution, but this hope was not realised. But liberals have not held this against conservatives.

Liberals, now more than ever, realise that these two groups need one another. Liberalism and conservatism are not (necessarily) opposites. One can, and many do, have a liberal approach to politics but hold conservative positions otherwise. While I wouldn’t call myself particularly conservative on anything, most of the liberals I know can easily be described as conservatives when it comes to their culture, personality, or religion.

Many of the conservatives I know, too, come remarkably close to having a liberal approach to politics. Notably, however, they fail to appreciate that. They would tweet about the importance of limiting government power, about how a government that does less is better for society, about the importance of freedom of expression, privacy, and property rights. But in the next moment they would tweet about the apparent futility or inappropriateness of liberalism.

I have dealt with the tendency of conservatives to strawman liberalism with positions that are not and have never been liberal elsewhere.

It makes one wonder whether South African conservatives are too invested in American politics. Liberalism, and what is called “liberalism” in the United States, bear no resemblance or familiarity. In fact, the words do not even refer to the same meaning of liberalism.

Liberalism proper, as a political philosophy, refers to the centrality of liberty as a political value. What passes for “liberalism” in the United States refers to liberality, meaning a generosity of spirit, of openness, dynamism, and fluidity. Generosity, openness, dynamism, and fluidity are all fine in some contexts, but as a political philosophy where taxes are spent generously, where there is openness to illiberal ideas (cultural relativism), dynamism in how government power is conceived of, and fluidity in policy principles, a disaster awaits. The American “liberal” preoccupation with openness and fluidity have led those “liberals” down a path of willingness to consider any government policy that might achieve their preferences, no matter how authoritarian and liberty-destroying it might be.

Conservatives have not abated in their intense criticism of proper liberalism despite progressives, social democrats, and socialists being the obvious enemy.

This series of articles is not a criticism of conservatism. But it needs to be said that the well-meaning South African conservatives of today make a mistake by identifying themselves with the conservatives of yesteryear, who did not share their love of decentralisation and whose predictions about what would come with democracy conveniently left out the fact that they, the old conservatives, were often precisely the people who were creating the environment for exactly that to occur. (To their credit, some conservatives associated with the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs recognised that Apartheid was a morally bankrupt system and that the Afrikaner community – while it had a right to self-determine in its own volkstaat – cannot and ought not continue to impose its will on other communities.)

Liberals had warned the conservatives of those days that they were playing with fire. But this is not to say liberals were saintly. The first South African liberals had a tense relationship with principle, and later liberals, like conservatives, were too preoccupied with distractions than to engage in necessary constitutional discourse.

Article 1: Liberalism, Conservatism, and South Africa’s Failed Mass Democracy

Article 2: Liberal Universalism and the Western Export of Mass Democracy

Article 3: Centralisation of Power: Liberals and Conservatives in South African History

Article 4: Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”?

Article 5: How Both Liberals and Conservatives Failed South Africa

In this article

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  1. Helgard Muller Reply

    This is your best in the series so far. That said, I don’t think it makes sense to conflate white minority politics during Apartheid with debates about ideology or political analysis today. (I don’t always follow your debates with Ernst – but I would think the labels are meant to be used with a more contemporary meaning?)

    If anything this debate about the transition show how many whites still struggle to make peace with being a minority (less than 10%) in a country with a history of minority oppression. You never mention anyone but white liberals and white conservatives – unfortunately something we still find today in a lot of our conservative vs liberal debates – a debate amongst minorities that don’t even make up 10% of the country and will be even less going forward. Talking if the fate of the country is still in their hands…(I read the same undercurrent in the TDF special podcast on 9/11 were there was some weird love for bringing liberty by the barrel of an American gun to the world and South Africa – instead of winning the argument domestically)

    It is silly to argue liberalism or liberals are to blame for the ANC’s record in governance or the interpretation of the constitution. It is even sillier to claim white Afrikaners verkramptes (really more so than conservatives) had any real solution or prospects. They did not – 100% agree. Again this is a debate about white Apartheid politics and not about an inclusive democratic South Africa. This is our family and fellow citizens, patriots and brothers – all of South Africa…

    More relevant are liberal and conservative interpretations of South Africa post-1994 (in an inclusive sense) and its future going forward.

    A liberal project in South Africa that doesn’t embrace aspects of social justice (economy and race) and democracy has no prospects. The “leave me alone in my suburb” because I have my “individual rights” liberalism of the new DA has no chance…

    The biggest shift, for both “liberals” (meaning IRR/FMF and DA) and “conservatives” (Solidarity / Afriforum) using the labels as this debate seems to suggests (two sides of the white debate) – is to actually engage South Africa and South Africans – to get out of the old Apartheid thinking / old suburbs and into new inclusive communities and suburbs. That means dealing with the fact that any ideology and political settlement can only gain traction where there is sufficient buy-in from the majority. A majority with its own strong historical experience, consciousness, tradition and often markedly different particularities that shape their politics and political aspirations.

    There are some shared common interest we can build from and others we need to work on – some more contentious ones we need to find ways of modus vivendi. But it is hard work – something a constitution cannot do, that will be imperfect and require lots of muddling through and compromise…It requires both a strong state and strong society – that is how successful including eventual liberal nations in the West were build – we are very frail on both counts…

    We need a South African liberalism, conservatism, socialism, community and nation building debate – that is the conversations we should be having…

    1. Martin van Staden Reply

      This series responds to common conservative criticisms of liberalism. You want me to do something other than what the series is about. And I do a lot of writing, so not all my writing has to be about one thing. Get the full list here:

      I have already addressed in this series that South Africa does not, and at the time did not have, a discernible black conservative bloc. Organised “conservatives” in South Africa are almost exclusively white. Inkatha was the closest thing to a conservative black movement but was entirely synonymous with the personality of its leader. And they did not criticise liberals — they worked with liberals. White conservatives criticised liberals.

      Black socialists did and do criticise liberals. Years ago I did a lot of writing around Bikoist criticisms of liberalism. Been there, done that. Might do a bit more in the future.

      You say liberalism in post-1994 South Africa has no prospect. Instead it must be some social-democratic statist nonsense. I do not agree. I am interested in prosperity, and studies are basically unanimous that only liberal orders in complex societies lead to prosperity. Yes, a small village might make “social justice” work. But in a country like South Africa, you need the constitutionalism, a free market, individual liberty, and property rights. Absent those things, at least for a few generations, we have no prospects. I don’t know why you think it has “no chance”. I always get this impression that older white folk think black South Africans are just socialists by default, and if you aren’t socialist you will never win their votes. Well, I don’t really know what to say about that. I believe that people can be convinced, regardless of their race or socio-economic background. I think liberalism’s prospects are epic, provided liberals get better at marketing their ideas.

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