How Both Liberals and Conservatives Failed South Africa

The fact of the matter is that South Africa is facing an existential crisis requiring everyone who favours limited government, decentralisation, and property rights, to come together.

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Conservatives should stop blaming liberals for the failures of the centralised South African mass democratic experiment. Democracy is not a liberal idea and has more in common with forms of conservatism. Democracy is something liberals wield in the right circumstances, but in every instance liberals would prefer the system that safeguards freedom most effectively. The failure of democracy in South Africa is due to a variety of factors, including:

  • A failure by old conservatives to heed (repeated and unending) liberal warnings about repressing the black majority;
  • A failure by old liberals to federalise South Africa when they had the power and influence to do so;
  • A failure by conservatives and liberals to engage in constitutional discourse alongside the progressives and socialists;
  • Above all, a determined progressive and socialist movement that outwitted everyone else.

This is the fifth and final 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.

The progressives and socialists learned early on that they required vision, leadership, and narrative. They excelled. Their vision was clear: A centralised and democratic South Africa with “universal” franchise (qualified according to their preferences) that will include an interventionist state dedicated to engineering social and economic outcomes, rather than leaving these outcomes to individual and community freedom as liberals would have preferred. They had leaders willing to get their hands dirty and bloody. And their narrative was expertly crafted and exported through popular media and culture. Progressives and socialists, not liberals, sang songs about justice and equality in South Africa. Johnny Clegg sang about Steve Biko, not Jan Hofmeyr.

The liberal vision was less than clear: Would franchise be qualified or “universal”? People like Alan Paton and Frederick van Zyl Slabbert by this time had also muddied the water about whether liberals would favour a free market economy, a “social” market economy, or simply an interventionist state. The committed liberals strove for the first-mentioned, but the liberal slideaway of the 1980s had errantly associated the succeeding options with liberalism as well.

The liberals had leaders, but certainly not of the calibre that they once had under the likes of Jan Hofmeyr and Edgar Brookes. None of the later leaders were visionaries, nor did they compensate with a willingness to get their hands dirty.

The liberals had a massive base in the English media but made scant use of it to push their narrative. They wanted a neutral press, after all, and would not soil the pages of the Rand Daily Mail with appeals to liberal philosophy and liberal ideas. Whereas the Communist Party had been issuing pamphlets and lessons in Marx and Lenin, the Democratic Party (of South Africa) had not been issuing pamphlets and lessons in Locke, Hayek, and Bastiat. The liberals had also effectively lost their narrative to the progressives and socialists, without much of a fight. Liberals were the ones struggling for freedom, whereas the progressives and socialists simply wanted a different form of domination. Yet they were allowed to become associated with the fight for freedom.

There was no conservative vision, either, bearing in mind that the only “conservatives” at this stage was the Afrikaner right (see my earlier comments on conservative white English and black conservatives). The National Party flip-flopped between visions for the future every year. The Conservative Party was split between multiple factions, some of which wanted to negotiate, some of which wanted a volkstaat, and some of which wanted to act like nothing had changed. There was intense infighting in the Afrikaner Volksfront and even the small Afrikaner Volksunie. The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) had a vision, but its behaviour (not to mention symbology) had discredited it from the get-go.

There were no conservative leaders whatsoever. Gerdus Kruger, in his insightful Denksprong vir die Regse Beweging in Suid-Afrika, writes about how Andries Treurnicht did not know what to do with himself, other than pray, after the announcement of the 1992 referendum. Treurnicht died soon after. Well-meaning Constand Viljoen was indecisive and could not get past his deference to the wishes of the establishment. Jaap Marais had been a largely irrelevant entity as his Herstigte (Reconstituted) National Party never had any electoral successes. Ferdi Hartzenberg, who followed Treurnicht as leader of the Conservative Party, couldn’t get his bearings, boycotting the new South African political system for years before deciding to participate after all. Eventually, he merged the CP with the Freedom Front, to form the Freedom Front Plus.

The most prominent black conservative leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of Inkatha, in addition to facing a people’s war, relied on the politics of personality rather than principle, which did not allow his ideas to gain widespread adoption.

And the conservatives had no narrative or cultural input whatsoever during this time. Unlike today, when (Afrikaner) conservatives have an established and increasingly influential media, there was nothing of the sort during the transition years.

The fact of the matter is that South Africa is facing an existential crisis requiring everyone who favours limited government, decentralisation, and property rights, to come together. No doubt, conservatives and liberals have important policy differences, but those are battles better fought once we have a secure future to fight them in. That can only be done together.

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

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3 comments

  1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

    An excellent conclusion to an excellent series! Definitely a great addition to the general liberal/conservative/communitarian debate happening on this platform.

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

    […] Article 5: How Both Liberals and Conservatives Failed South Africa […]

  3. Rory Short Reply

    ” Liberals were the ones struggling for freedom, whereas the progressives and socialists simply wanted a different form of domination. Yet they were allowed to become associated with the fight for freedom.”

    Absolutely. Martin you’ve captured our failure exactly


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