Liberalism in South Africa isn’t only for white people—or black people who “want to be white”

By October 28, 2019 Commentaries/Opinions
Mmusi Maimane

Mmusi Maimane, leader of South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), addresses supporters at his party’s final election rally ahead of the country’s May 8. Photo: Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters

By Steven Friedman —

Liberalism is meant to be about freedom for all individuals, regardless of race. But linking liberalism to whiteness as is happening now is not new in South Africa. Most activists who fought for black freedom dismissed liberalism as a white ideology designed to tame black people, not to free them.

This was hardly surprising, since many white liberals spoke and acted as if liberalism was exactly that: the political philosopher Richard Turner wrote in the early 1970s that white liberals believed that, “although blacks are not biologically inferior, they are culturally inferior. They may be educable, but they need whites to educate them.”

All of this implied that liberalism was not for black people who were proud to be black.

This background is essential if we want to understand the current conflict in South Africa’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and how it might have to end if liberalism is to survive and grow in the country’s democratic era.

Supporters of the Democratic Alliance in South Africa

Supporters of the Democratic Alliance in South Africa gather earlier this year to listen to the party’s leaders. Photo: Epa, Kim Ludbrook

History of the Democratic Alliance

The DA was originally a party for white, English-speaking, liberal suburbanites – it traces its ancestry back to the Progressive Party, formed in 1959 to contest elections at a time when only whites could vote.

After the 1999 general election, when it ran a campaign urging voters to “Fight Back” against the governing African National Congress (ANC), it picked up support from Afrikaans-speaking whites and those members of racial minorities (“Coloured” and Indian people) who feared the ANC.

Some years later, it began a campaign to recruit black African membership which was reasonably successful, although the party has never attracted many black African votes. According to a sympathetic estimate, it attracts 5% of the vote among the racial majority. This culminated in the election of its current black leader, Mmusi Maimane, in 2015.

Few if any of its white leaders bargained for the likelihood that black members would, because of their differing experiences, see the DA’s role through different eyes. And so, they were shocked when black DA parliamentarians supported forms of race-based affirmative action which white liberals tend to oppose on the grounds that it violates the principle that jobs should be allocated by “merit”.

These tensions were hidden by the fact that the party was growing – until this year when it suffered setbacks in May’s general election which saw it lose five seats in parliament. This was followed by severe losses in municipal by-elections to its right and left. This has brought deep internal divisions into the public eye.

Race is the fault line. Prominent black DA figures label attempts to remove Maimane—plus the return of key white figures to important roles in the party – as an attempt by whites to force black members into a subordinate position.

This impression has been greatly enhanced by the fact that researchers at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a research organization which has long been a fixture in the white liberal firmament, are campaigning for Maimane’s replacement by a white leader on the grounds that this will show that the DA elects people on merit rather than race.

The claim that “merit” means choosing whites and that black incumbents always lack merit is a deeply rooted prejudice among many white South Africans.

Liberalism debate

Liberalism plays a core role in the dispute. This is because (mostly white) opponents of the party’s direction under Maimane claim it is now too close in worldview to the ANC and insist that the DA has strayed from its liberal roots and must rediscover them. The view was best summed up by former leader Helen Zille, who has emerged from retirement to contest a powerful position in the party. In her view, the single and most important internal issue in the DA, “is the clash between racial nationalism and democratic liberalism.”

It is not hard to see why that view appears to black DA supporters (and critics) as an expression of prejudice. Everyone knows that all the “racial nationalists” are black and that just about all the “democratic liberals” are white and so Zille’s understanding of liberalism seems to match Turner’s diagnosis.

“Racial nationalism” is wanting measures which will actively redress decades of legalized racial domination – “democratic liberalism” is expressing the view of the suburbs that black people should rely on hard work and the market, a convenient view from people who did so well out of legalized racial deprivation that they could afford to denounce it as someone else’s doing.

But aren’t Zille and her DA allies right to assume that liberalism is a (mainly) white view of the world? No.

South Africa has had, and still has, many black liberals; the problem for the white DA leadership is not that they are nationalists but that their liberalism is influenced by their experience as black South Africans.

Black liberalism

Black liberalism has deep roots in South Africa. During the 1950s, the short-lived Liberal Party boasted among its leadership black liberals such as Selby Msimang and Jordan Ngubane, both of whom began political life in the ANC. Under their influence, its branches in Natal province rallied to the cause of black farmers who were forced off their land by apartheid.

This was a liberal issue—the denial of property rights on racial grounds. But it was also a burning issue for many black people in Natal because of its campaign, the party attracted a substantial black membership in the province.

The Liberal Party was divided – its Cape branch harbored many of the prejudices which Turner criticized. But its Natal and Transvaal branches’ support for votes for all adults (the Cape group wanted educational and property qualifications which would have denied most black people the vote) and its support for civil disobedience (and in some cases armed insurrection) to defeat apartheid showed that a liberalism which spoke to the black experience was possible in South Africa.

Strains of liberal thought could also be found within the historic liberation movements, the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress.

Today, a liberalism led by black people who do not wish to become white may be even more possible. The black professional and business class has grown substantially over the last quarter of a century. Many of its members don’t feel at home in any of the political parties. While many may find liberalism unappealing, a substantial number might endorse it enthusiastically as long as it does not confuse whiteness with liberalism.

Opportunity amid travail

The DA’s current travails may be an opportunity for South African liberalism. For some time, political gossip has had it that parts of its white rump want to break away and form a “liberal” party in which white suburbanites can feel at home. But a far more credible breakaway may be one led by its black members who could seek to link up to other liberal currents in black South Africa to form a party whose liberalism would reflect the black experience.

Whether that happens or not, black liberalism in South Africa is not a contradiction in terms. A party which expresses it could become an important fixture in the country’s politics.


Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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