Research and Policy Brief: Lessons from History for the Opposition – 21st May 2013

In a speech to the Education Colloquium of the Democratic Alliance caucus on 15 May 2013, Professor Hermann Giliomee, vice-president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, put forward some lessons to be learnt from history by opposition parties as they reposition themselves for the prospect of power around the corner.
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Research and Policy Brief: Lessons from History for the Opposition – 21st May 2013

In a speech to the Education Colloquium of the Democratic Alliance caucus on 15 May 2013, Professor Hermann Giliomee, vice-president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, put forward some lessons to be learnt from history by opposition parties as they reposition themselves for the prospect of power around the corner.

I want to start with a story that I first told in my recent book The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power, which deals with the careers of Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, P W Botha, F W de Klerk and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

On the eve of the 1981 election my daughter, Adrienne, then 11 years old, came home a little perplexed. She had an argument with her friends at Bloemhof, an Afrikaans-medium school for girls in Stellenbosch, where more than 80% of the Afrikaner voters supported the National Party (NP). The question came up for which party they would vote if they could do so.

As could be expected, all her friends opted for the NP. She, however, said she would vote PFP (Progressive Federal Party). Her friends exclaimed: “Oh you silly one. Then the blacks will govern.” Adrienne replied bravely: “No, the Progressives will govern.” She asked me: “I am right, am I not?”

Slabbert, at that point in the second year as party leader, laughed when I told the story, and joked: “We shall turn these blacks into Progressives.”

But there was of course a fundamental problem that plagued all who supported Slabbert and the Progs. What if the blacks were not Progressives of the kind that Slabbert was? Of course Slabbert knew that liberal principles were universal, but that it was quite possible that some may give these principles a different interpretation or emphasis than some whites.

 

Jan Smuts and Van Zyl Slabbert

During the time he was in politics Slabbert was often compared to General Jan Smuts, prime minister for 12 years and perhaps the craftiest politician in twentieth century South African politics. In private conversation Slabbert, with a twinkle in his eye, often told how on different occasions during the time he was in politics an elderly couple would come up to him and would almost reverently say: “You are the country’s only hope. You remind us so much of General Smuts. He was also the country’s only hope.” There is some truth in it — both Smuts and Slabbert were intellectually brilliant, and both were charismatic personalities with an exceptionally broad vision.

But both Smuts and Slabbert were not easy to fathom as political animals. The British historian A J P Taylor wrote an essay on Smuts called “Catching Slim Jannie”.  It ends with the line. “He has not been caught yet.” Similarly, I don’t think we have quite caught Van Zyl Slabbert yet.

The politician Arthur Barlow, who was a lifelong friend of Jan Smuts, described him as one of the most baffling personalities he knew. Smuts, in his view, was not at home in Africa. Born and raised in the Afrikaner community, he never spoke Afrikaans in his party’s caucus.

When asked in 1950 why he gave such scant attention to the struggle to establish Afrikaans as a proper official language, he replied: “Good heavens! How much other work did I have to do.” Somehow Smuts had failed to realise that this lukewarm attitude to Afrikaans was steadily draining his Afrikaner support.

Slabbert was essentially an academic who remained an academic throughout his political career. He, more than any other person, deserves credit for destroying the faith the NP leaders in Parliament had in the credibility and morality of apartheid policy.

But like academics, who are accustomed to having the lecture hall to themselves or to demolishing opponents in a face to face argument, Slabbert was never quite comfortable with the rituals of Parliament.

A year or two after he had started his parliamentary career, Vorster, who was prime minister at the time, dismissed Slabbert in the following terms: “Opposition newspapers rave about him, speak of him as a future prime minister and that kind of thing. If that is so, then that future is very, very far off indeed.  I get the idea that being a back-bencher in a small party with limited time for debate is steadily killing Slabbert politically.”[1]

Vorster was right. Unlike Colin Eglin or Helen Suzman, Slabbert was not in opposition politics for the long haul. He did not say like Eglin and Suzman: “Wait. Be patient. We must make sure people know exactly what we stand for. Our time will come when people desperately will need an alternative. And they will turn to us because we offer a clear-cut alternative to the ruling party.”

Between the early 1960s and mid-1980s Slabbert did not stay longer than five years in any job. He had brilliant mind but also, what Philip Myburgh called a five-year attention span. He had to move on after five years.

Arthur Barlow also said that Smuts seemed to believe Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum that to govern a party you must be either be superior to it or despise it.

Slabbert, by contrast, was open, accessible, and a man with a wonderful sense of humour. He never acted as if he was superior, but I can remember several private occasions on which he spoke with acid disdain of leading members of his party.

Slabbert was initally much more a social democrat than a liberal. Manie van der Spuy, who befriended him in the late 1950s, told of how alienated Slabbert felt from the Progressives as the party of the super rich. Japie Basson tells the story in his memoir of how Slabbert wanted to join the United Party and how, when he stood for Parliament in 1974 he first signed a membership card of the United Party.

 

Van Zyl Slabbert: a puzzle

Slabbert remains a puzzle. He was exceptionally loyal to his friends (I can testify to that) and he was also a man of great integrity. It is these very qualities that make it so difficult to understand how in 1986 he could walk out of Parliament and almost in so many words tell his fellow Progressives that they were wasting their time.

A few months earlier the party had set up the Van Zyl Slabbert Fund to attract exceptionally brilliant young people to the idea of becoming parliamentary candidates for the party. But in his resignation speech he came close to calling Parliament an utterly useless institution.

Very often experiencing adulation, Slabbert developed an exaggerated sense of his ability to attract electoral support.  Meeting with Tony Leon, Democratic Party(DP) leader before the 1999 election, about the possibility of standing as DP leader in the provincial elections in the Western Cape, he emphasised that in the event of a hung parliament he would insist that the DP align itself with the African National Congress (ANC), not the NP.

Leon noted: “His loathing for the NP was still evident. I told him it would be a deal-breaker: our voters would never accept such a proposition.”  Slabbert’s demand was incompatible with the DP call in the election to “fight back”.[2] It is amazing that Slabbert could even think of proposing a coalition of the ANC and the DP in the Western Cape.

But the biggest puzzle of all was that Slabbert, normally such a shrewd judge of people and especially of what we can call bull-shitters, could so totally misjudge the two-faced Thabo Mbeki and the authoritarian tendencies of the ANC in exile, which the book by Stephen Ellis Mission in Exile (2012) makes so vividly clear.

In the final five years of his life Slabbert was morbidly pre-occupied with the question of how he, who was generally known as such a good judge of people, could allow Mbeki to exploit so thoroughly and so cynically his help in building up the ANC as an indispensable player in making South Africa governable and saleable to investors. Surely any open-minded chat to someone senior in the British or South African intelligence service would have cleared up any illusions about the leadership of the ANC in exile.  

So why did Slabbert risk so much by getting at least partly in bed with the ANC? His friend Breyten Breytenbach answered the question gently just before his death: “He was too trusting of the ANC.”  “He did not realise”, Breytenbach added, that “the ANC is neither about building a new nation nor about reconstruction and development, but about divvying up the spoils of victory.”[3] To be fair to the ANC government no one, Slabbert included, expected the large-scale provision of welfare to the poor that the ANC introduced after coming to power.

 

Lessons of our political history

Although Slabbert reviewed my book The Afrikaners, which was published ten years ago, I don’t think he was really interested in history, and from our conversations I know that he discounted the possibility that political leaders can learn from a careful and dispassionate study of history. Yet I think history has impacted powerfully on our politics from the days of Union in 1910 to Jacob Zuma and the Guptas in 2013.

The real role of history, as the French poet Paul Valéry once remarked, is to play a part in history itself –that is history does not go away; it vitally affects present day politics.

           

Lesson 1: Radical political change can come suddenly

The NP did not do so well from 1948 to 1980 because the Afrikaners were blindly following the NP leaders and apartheid policy. It was because the NP succeeded spectacularly in preventing a polarisation between the rich and the poor in the Afrikaner community. 

The income inequality among all Afrikaner income earners, expressed in Gini-coefficients, actually slightly improved between 1946 and 1980, as Table 1 shows.

Table 1: Gini-coefficient for Afrikaner income earners for selected years

Income earners

   1946

     1960

     1980

Total

   0.464

     0.441

     0.446

Male

   0.443

     0.398

     0.404

Source: T J Steenekamp, ‘n Ekonomiese ontleding van sosio-politieke groepvorming met spesiale verwysing na die Afrikaner, doctoral diss., Unisa, 1989, p208

By the end of the 1970s, with the growth rate plummeting and black demands on the rise, it was impossible to sustain this unity. The NP was bound to split and splinter. The same will happen to the ANC.

But by the mid-1980s Slabbert had completely ruled out the possibility that the NP’s leaders were capable of making a radical about turn and would embark on an attempt to reach a negotiated settlement with the ANC and other extra-parliamentary movements. He loathed the NP leaders so much, as Tony Leon noted, that he could not bring himself to believe that  the party could change. 

He was disillusioned by the result of the referendum of 1983, which he took to be a personal defeat. He did not accept that patience was the watchword, and that a combination of external events and shifting internal forces could bring about a completely unanticipated radical shift in our politics. If he had prepared to sit it out up to 1990, like Suzman and Eglin, sticking to his and the party’s principles, his moment may well have arrived at the point where the De Klerk cabinet decided to unban the ANC and start negotiations.

De Klerk told me that he felt strongly that the DP and the NP should forge a coalition in order to negotiate and that he indeed did propose something along these lines to Zach de Beer, the DP leader. De Beer did not take up the suggestion and did not even mention it to his caucus.

Slabbert’s Progressive Party, like the Democratic Alliance (DA) today, was confronted with a ruling party that was like an elephant in a small room: outsized, seemingly confident that nothing could shake its grip on power, and arrogantly throwing its weight about.

I am sure Slabbert would have leaped at the opportunity if De Klerk’s NP had offered the DP in 1989 the prospect of participating in a coalition. The country itself would have been much better off with such a coalition at the negotiating table than the star-starved and ideas-starved NP on its own.  

Slabbert would have revelled in the opportunity to play a meaningful role rather than do what he actually had to do, namely sit on the sideline and watch in sheer frustration.

 

Lesson 2: Radical change happens with a Big Bang after some cataclysm rather than incrementally

First, major political change in South Africa has not come about incrementally but as a result of a Big Bang, brought about some major external cataclysm. In South Africa the twentieth century cataclysms were the First World War, the Second World War and the end of the Cold War.

After the Union of South Africa was inaugurated in 1910 the South African Party (SAP) could have remained in power for quite long but for a fatal mistake. Louis Botha’s cabinet recklessly complied with Britain’s request to invade German South West Africa, triggering the Rebellion of 1914-15 and a groundswell of support for the fledgling NP, which otherwise would have remained in the doldrums for many years.

In the 1915 election the ruling SAP won twice the number of NP seats; in the 1920 election the NP won three more seats than the SAP and was now the biggest party. Smuts wrote privately afterwards: “I am fighting very hard against the Nationalist republican movement.  Before me [is] the ugly prospect of going or forming a coalition government with the Unionist Party (UP).” Having absorbed the Unionists, Smuts won handsomely in 1922 but he was defeated in 1924.

In 1938 the NP won just 27 seats and only one in the Transvaal. But entering what came to be called the Second World War on a split Parliamentary vote in 1939 sapped the strength of the UP.

The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989, thereby ending the Cold War. Three weeks later F W de Klerk decided to negotiate. The DP looked doomed to extinction despite the sterling achievements in Parliament and at Codesa of Colin Eglin and the up-and-coming Tony Leon.

 

Lesson 3: Radical shifts in the electorate come about because of revulsion and exasperation with the ruling party not because of the shrewdness of the opposition’s policies or its marketing

Our politics was and still is largely determined by identity and emotion. You choose the party of your heart and you assign to it the duty to promote your and your community’s interests. This is particularly true of a country emerging from trauma, the Anglo-Boer War in the first decades of the twentieth century, and apartheid in the last few decades.

The brutal suppression of the white miners’ strike in 1922, leaving 250 dead, caused such revulsion that the PACT alliance of the NP and the Labour Party won the election in 1924. According to some reports the ANC also supported the PACT.

D F Malan, the Cape NP leader, went even further. Before the election he sent this message to a meeting of African voters in Queenstown: ‘No race has shown a greater love for South Africa than the native and in that respect he is certainly an example of true patriotism.  He should therefore take his place alongside the nationalist in the same area.’[4]

Then came the next cataclysm, the four years between 1929 and 1932 witnessing the most severe economic crisis ever and a prolonged spell of drought. In late 1932 a delegation of Afrikaner farmers urged Prime Minister General J M B Hertzog to form a coalition with Smuts’s SAP to deal with the economic crisis. Particularly hard hit were the exporters (miners and fruit and wool farmers), who could not compete on overseas markets with a much overvalued currency. When Hertzog asked how he could be expected to work with a party that had always opposed him on the language issue, a farmer exclaimed: ‘In God’s name, General, forget the language and give us bread.’[5] In the final days of that year the Government stepped off the gold standard, but by then the entire party system was ready for a major realignment.


Lesson 4: A party’s greatest asset is an image of integrity, clarity and consistency. An opposition must represent starkly clear alternative policies and much better performance in delivery than the ruling party.  

Fatal compromises made the UP government between 1939 and 1948 a party full of unresolved contradictions, often on the defensive and almost always lacking in conviction. It can be illustrated with two stories. In 1944 Major Piet van der Byl, minister for native affairs, decided to give practical effect to what he believed was the UP government’s policy, namely the implementation of a policy of racial integration, which meant accepting the permanence of the urban black population, and rejecting migrant labour, except in the mining industry.[6]

But, as Van der Byl many years later noted, a crucial question remained unresolved: Was the Government’s policy still the traditional one of segregation, or had it been replaced by integration? Unwisely, he raised the issue in the UP caucus and a predictable battle between the liberal and conservative factions broke out. Smuts was furious and hardly spoke to Van der Byl for several months.[7] After the war the Government renewed the policy of limiting black urbanisation to a minimum.

The other story is told in the autobiography of Ray Swart, the Natal Progressive Party leader. He tells of an exchange in Parliament during the 1950s between Harry Lawrence, a liberal UP parliamentarian and a consummate politician, and NP members.

“[Lawrence] was attacking the Nats on their apartheid policy…but on this occasion interjections from the government benches forced him on the defensive. ‘What is your policy?’ they asked. ‘Is it integration or segregation?’  He tried to disregard the question and continue his attack but they repeated it, and he hesitated before replying. ‘Our policy is one of partiality’, he said, ‘yes, partiality – partiality with justice!’ Swart comments: ‘It was an unfortunate answer and the Nats roared with laughter’.”[8]

The stories of Van der Byl and Swart show that obfuscation in politics in an attempt to reform an offensive policy does not pay.

 

Lesson 5:  “Never bat on your opponent’s pitch”

I was told that the Naspers board was mulling over the question of whether the company should accept the invitation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to testify. The board was undecided until a director with many decades of experience in courts and human foibles, spoke up: “Never bat on your opponents’ pitch.”

This was the best quality of Van Zyl Slabbert in his 12 years in Parliament. As leader of the official opposition he did not try to bat on the NP’s pitch. He rejected race-based policies unambiguously, and he never tried to “improve” apartheid.

He also did not buy the story of “a step in the right direction” to justify the establishment of a tricameral parliament with Africans left out. He correctly, in my view, insisted that race classification and race-based policies were the fundamental flaws of apartheid. They could not be improved or better applied.

When I read the debate between Frans Cronje and Wilmot James in Rapport about the DA proposing to implement black economic empowerment (BEE) better[9], I thought of Jeff Malherbe’s words: “Don’t bat on your opponents’ pitch.” His last book, published posthumously, warns of the danger of perpetuating a race-based society by policies whose objective, ostensibly, is to do away with racial disabilities.[10]

The DA can never compete with the ANC with a policy to improve BEE implementation. It must offer a clear alternative to the ANC’s race-based policies. It should take the form of a class-based support for poor children and small business, and a much better balance between the requirements of merit and regstelling together with the promise of efficient service delivery.

The DA’s natural constituency is conservative blacks disgusted with BEE and the beneficiaries the policy has created. Its constituency is those willing to work but kept out of the labour market by trade unions and ridiculous labour laws. It must respect and uphold the Constitution but it must remember that the great majority of the electorate is much more conservative on moral issues (abortion, pornography, prostitution, etc.) than the Constitution.

As a country we are schizophrenic: a highly progressive constitution lies at odds with the values of a deeply conservative citizenry. The DA, if it wants to become a majority party, will have to face this dilemma squarely.[11]

 

Lesson 6: Even if a leader shifts policy or the choice of partners there must be an over-arching consistency and your own history mustn’t be written off

Slabbert never got far beyond winning the English middle and upper class core support. But by 1985 he had begun to play for much higher stakes. In a private interview with the then-President Botha he called the ANC a myth and suggested that there were strategies that “could pull the ANC’s teeth”. He wanted to talk to Dr Niel Barnard about it and Botha approved such a meeting and invited him to address the special cabinet committee on black rights. When Slabbert afterwards claimed that Botha was so intransigent that he decided to abandon parliamentary politics, Botha published a transcript of the interview which raised questions about Slabbert’s claims. Colin Eglin wrote in his memoirs:

“The meeting was not confrontational and the differences between Slabbert and Botha were no greater than one could have expected at the commencement of exploratory discussions … At no stage did Slabbert lay down any markers that would define reasons for his political resignation.”

After Slabbert had left Parliament it became clear to those close to him that he was throwing everything he had into getting the ANC legalised, which he believed would open the door to the ANC to come to power within a democratic framework. In 1989, an IDASA conference of Afrikaans writers and an ANC delegation, chaired by Slabbert, even supported the ANC’s call for a cultural boycott.

The climate changed so much that some commentators cavalierly dismissed the NP government’s call for minority rights as an obscene attempt to cling to the perks of office. At work was what Bernard Crick in a different context called a combination of “noble hopes and fatuous credulity”.

During these years I invited Slabbert and Lawrence Schlemmer to put their views in a public exchange of letters in a journal with which I was involved.  Slabbert wrote that he recognised the dangers of the ANC coming to power but undertook to join the struggle if the liberation movement became a tyranny.[12]  Lawrence Schlemmer replied that South Africa needed a constitution preventing simple majority rule to hold the ANC in check. Was it not better, Schlemmer asked, to work for a settlement in which all groups would enjoy security and in which whites did not have to “write off their history”?[13]

When I wrote the chapter on Slabbert in my book, The Last Afrikaner Leaders, I thought of the line in  the Irish folk song, which is also the title of a wonderful biography by two aides of John F Kennedy. [14]

The song is about a lover who deserts his woman and their child to fight in a war. He returns blind and badly disfigured. Yet the woman says she will keep him. She sings

          “Where are the eyes that looked so mild?

          When my poor heart you first beguiled

          Why did you run from me and the child?

          O Johnny I hardly knew ye”

I don’t think Van Zyl Slabbert was entranced enough by Thabo Mbeki to embark on such a hazardous road with the ANC. I think he was so outraged by the NP government, its objectionable race policies, and its destabilisation of the frontline states that Slabbert used desperate measures to end the political stalemate.  There is a danger that for the DA that it is so repelled by the corruption and the misrule going on that it would be prepared to use desperate measures to defeat the ANC.

It is striking how quickly leaders lose touch with their followers. In 1995 Roelf Meyer told the leader of another party. “The NP supporters have nowhere else to go.”  Less than a year later the NP’s own polls showed its support had plunged. It had not delivered on power-sharing and had lost touch with the voters.

When Smuts was defeated in 1948 Smuts said: “My people have deserted me.” The party’s secretary general replied: “No, general, they did not desert you; they are all dead.” And when Van Zyl Slabbert left Parliament, after having urged the members of his caucus to follow his example, he found not a single member ready to follow him.

 

Lesson 7: No party must ever take its existing constituency for granted

The DA did very well to capture the support of the New National Party (NNP) once it became clear that party wanted above all to become a junior partner and a pale resemblance of the ANC rather than an autonomous force.  But the DA should remember that the NNP support it won is soft.  It would never have reached its present level of support without the large-scale endorsement of people that once voted NP. The DA should remember Schlemmer’s words that it is better to work for a party in which all groups would enjoy security and dignity and in which no faction have to write off its own history.[15]

There is a great need among people to feel that they have contributed to making the new non-racial South Africa and that their history is not written out of the master narrative of South Africa, and that when the acid test came, their community responded to “the better angels of their nature”.

In his eloquent celebration speech after the Referendum of 1992 this indeed was what De Klerk told those who voted yes. He quoted the moving poem of N P van Wyk Louw, who wrote of the dream that people in the “wide and woeful land” will one day transcend “dumb deeds, small trust, small treachery” with a deed that “would echo over the earth”.

I don’t think I do Slabbert a disservice if I say that he had given up trying to persuade whites to accept full black participation. He failed to explain patiently to the electorate how simple majority government would bring about a balanced form of rule and why they should accept it. He did not rise to the challenge issued by Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford that no divided society so far has been able to provide stable and effective government without power-sharing, so that no one permanently feels left out. He simply expected the voters to come gradually to their senses and trust his judgement that the time for white rule was up.

I fully agree with R W Johnson’s judgement of Slabbert written a few days after his death: “[He] represented the very best that white South Africa had to offer: intelligent, humorous, humane, liberal-minded and deeply concerned for the future of his country beyond any personal motive. So his truncated and ultimately unsuccessful political career poses the question, what went wrong ?”

My answer is that not everything went wrong. Slabbert was brilliant and indeed devastating in denouncing apartheid, and this is indeed his greatest contribution to South Africa.  What went wrong is that Slabbert simply failed to accept that politics is about tirelessly explaining, about taking the voters seriously, about keeping your existing support and patiently building on that in seeking new support while not discarding the party’s founding ideology.

This brings me to my final point.

 

Lesson 8: It is better to project the party as a viable coalition of classes and communities that all helped to build the country than a vehicle of the true faith.[16]

The DA is a direct descendant of the Progressive Party. For many years – indeed I would argue until 1999 it was the party of the true (liberal) faith. Now it has become much more of a catch-all party with diverse and often conflicting viewpoints on various key issues. The likely large-scale influx of blacks over the next six years will put the party under tremendous strain because the DA is at the moment still “the party of the minorities.” The NP experienced the same strains when in the course of the 1980s it shed its ethnic character and became a catch-all party. It helped the party to survive the 1987 election (when for the first time most English-speakers voted NP) and the 1989 election.

While the NP  survived the 1980s it had become unfocused and had begun to drift ideologically.  I think this partly accounts for the NP’s lack of coherence in the negotiations after May 1992. The leadership lacked a discernible ideology. It discarded power-sharing and now embraced with a fervour the idea of a constitutional state despite the fact that constitutional states had no significant success in developing countries. 

It is the party that successfully integrates its different historic components that succeeds, not the one in which one tradition dominates. It was this ability – and not the policy of apartheid— that enabled Malan’s NP to defeat Jan Smuts’s UP.

In the 1938 election the NP won 27 seats (only one in Transvaal) against the 111 of the UP. Both parties were effectively coalitions with quite divergent interests and goals. But under Smuts the UP did very little to integrate the party. Everything was built around Smuts as leader and the need to pull together to win the Second World War.

By contrast Malan did much better in integrating and reconciling the different factions in his party. He stressed a single, binding principle: power and the ideal of a republic could only be achieved through the ballot box and Parliament. In 1948 Malan’s NP won 70 seats and the UP had dropped from 111 to 65. In the intervening election of 1943 the NP had achieved an important goal: it had cemented a coalition of factions opposed to the ruling party and its policies. Very much the same thing happened in the 1924 election. I think 2014 can be the same kind of election as that of 1943, being the bellwether of major impending change.

Slabbert did less well in integrating the different parties that came together in the PFP. He had abandoned incremental change and he had given up hope on Parliament and the ballot box as the only effective instruments of change. He had become impatient and wanted to fast-forward history.

In 1980 he expelled Japie Basson who had been a member of the Reform Party that joined forces with the Progressive Party to form the PFP. The issue was the Government’s proposed exclusion of Africans from membership of the President’s Council.

I think this was a big mistake. It was a forerunner of Slabbert’s fateful decision to leave Parliament because it did not represent blacks. Slabbert was giving up on the politics of persuasion.

In the articles Slabbert wrote and in the exchange with Schlemmer he completely discounted the possibility of the NP electing a leader who would be willing to end the outlawing of the ANC and other extra-parliamentary movements and to start negotiations.

The DA must accept that the breaking down of apartheid was the work of many actors and among them there was the now often “airbrushed out” NP.[17]

As we know, it was De Klerk who broke down apartheid and marshalled his cabinet and his caucus to accept a constitution that they never had thought they would have to accept. Steven Friedman made the perceptive comment in 1995 that, “The Nats got a pretty good deal for white South Africans, but not such a good deal for the party.” The Afrikaners lost most in the form of losses of careers in the civil service and rapid downgrading of Afrikaans as an official language. I don’t  plead for sympathy for the Afrikaners, but only ask that they must not be written out of the history of the ending of apartheid.

 

To conclude

Charisma and intelligence are important qualities, but for a leader and a party nothing is as important as patient persuasion, digging in for the long haul, and keeping closely in touch with the concerns and wishes of its constituency.

 

Hermann Giliomee

Professor Giliomee is vice-president and a former president of the Institute.  He was Professor of Political Studies at UCT and is author of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (expanded edition 2009) and most recently The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power. The latter has been short-listed for the 2013 Alan Paton Prize.



[1] John D’Oliviera, Vorster: The Man  (Johannesburg: Edward Stanton, 1977), p.247.

[2] Tony Leon, On the Contrary: Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2008), p.603.

[3] LeMaitre and  Savage, The Passion for Reason, p. 14

[4] Edward Roux, Time Longer Than Rope: A History of the Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), pp. 184, 199; HAD, Joint Sitting, 1936, col. 325.

[5] At van Wyk, Die Keeromstraat-kliek (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1983), p. 42.

[6] Piet Meiring, Tien Politieke Leiers (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1973), p.209.

[7] Piet Meiring, Tien Politieke Leiers , p.208

[8] Ray Swart, Progressive Odyssey (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1991), p. 25.  

[9] See their articles in Rapport, 9 and 16 September 2012

[10] Neville alexander, Thoughts on a new South Africa

[11] See the three tables  based on survey data in Pierre du Toit and Hennie Kotze, Liberal Democracy and Peace in South Africa London: Macmillan, 2011), pp.110-11.

[12] F van Zyl Slabbert,”‘Hoe ry die boere sit-sit so”, Die Suid-Afrikaan, October 1988, p. 24.

[13] Lawrence Schlemmer,” Politieke Keuses”, Die Suid-Afrikaan, October 1988, pp.20-22.

[14] Kenneth P. O’Donnell. Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (Boston: Little Brown, 1979). When Kennedy briefly visited Ireland as President of the USA his party saw a banner welcoming it with these words. Kennedy liked it very much.

[15] Lawrence Schlemmer,” Politieke Keuses”, Die Suid-Afrikaan, October 1988, pp.20-22.

[16] Newell Stultz, The Nationalists in Opposition, 1934-1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p.4, citing Karl Deutsch.

[17] See the column of Rhoda Kadalie, Die Burger  8 May 2013.

IRR TV

I want to start with a story that I first told in my recent book The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power, which deals with the careers of Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, P W Botha, F W de Klerk and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

On the eve of the 1981 election my daughter, Adrienne, then 11 years old, came home a little perplexed. She had an argument with her friends at Bloemhof, an Afrikaans-medium school for girls in Stellenbosch, where more than 80% of the Afrikaner voters supported the National Party (NP). The question came up for which party they would vote if they could do so.

As could be expected, all her friends opted for the NP. She, however, said she would vote PFP (Progressive Federal Party). Her friends exclaimed: “Oh you silly one. Then the blacks will govern.” Adrienne replied bravely: “No, the Progressives will govern.” She asked me: “I am right, am I not?”

Slabbert, at that point in the second year as party leader, laughed when I told the story, and joked: “We shall turn these blacks into Progressives.”

But there was of course a fundamental problem that plagued all who supported Slabbert and the Progs. What if the blacks were not Progressives of the kind that Slabbert was? Of course Slabbert knew that liberal principles were universal, but that it was quite possible that some may give these principles a different interpretation or emphasis than some whites.

 

Jan Smuts and Van Zyl Slabbert

During the time he was in politics Slabbert was often compared to General Jan Smuts, prime minister for 12 years and perhaps the craftiest politician in twentieth century South African politics. In private conversation Slabbert, with a twinkle in his eye, often told how on different occasions during the time he was in politics an elderly couple would come up to him and would almost reverently say: “You are the country’s only hope. You remind us so much of General Smuts. He was also the country’s only hope.” There is some truth in it — both Smuts and Slabbert were intellectually brilliant, and both were charismatic personalities with an exceptionally broad vision.

But both Smuts and Slabbert were not easy to fathom as political animals. The British historian A J P Taylor wrote an essay on Smuts called “Catching Slim Jannie”.  It ends with the line. “He has not been caught yet.” Similarly, I don’t think we have quite caught Van Zyl Slabbert yet.

The politician Arthur Barlow, who was a lifelong friend of Jan Smuts, described him as one of the most baffling personalities he knew. Smuts, in his view, was not at home in Africa. Born and raised in the Afrikaner community, he never spoke Afrikaans in his party’s caucus.

When asked in 1950 why he gave such scant attention to the struggle to establish Afrikaans as a proper official language, he replied: “Good heavens! How much other work did I have to do.” Somehow Smuts had failed to realise that this lukewarm attitude to Afrikaans was steadily draining his Afrikaner support.

Slabbert was essentially an academic who remained an academic throughout his political career. He, more than any other person, deserves credit for destroying the faith the NP leaders in Parliament had in the credibility and morality of apartheid policy.

But like academics, who are accustomed to having the lecture hall to themselves or to demolishing opponents in a face to face argument, Slabbert was never quite comfortable with the rituals of Parliament.

A year or two after he had started his parliamentary career, Vorster, who was prime minister at the time, dismissed Slabbert in the following terms: “Opposition newspapers rave about him, speak of him as a future prime minister and that kind of thing. If that is so, then that future is very, very far off indeed.  I get the idea that being a back-bencher in a small party with limited time for debate is steadily killing Slabbert politically.”[1]

Vorster was right. Unlike Colin Eglin or Helen Suzman, Slabbert was not in opposition politics for the long haul. He did not say like Eglin and Suzman: “Wait. Be patient. We must make sure people know exactly what we stand for. Our time will come when people desperately will need an alternative. And they will turn to us because we offer a clear-cut alternative to the ruling party.”

Between the early 1960s and mid-1980s Slabbert did not stay longer than five years in any job. He had brilliant mind but also, what Philip Myburgh called a five-year attention span. He had to move on after five years.

Arthur Barlow also said that Smuts seemed to believe Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum that to govern a party you must be either be superior to it or despise it.

Slabbert, by contrast, was open, accessible, and a man with a wonderful sense of humour. He never acted as if he was superior, but I can remember several private occasions on which he spoke with acid disdain of leading members of his party.

Slabbert was initally much more a social democrat than a liberal. Manie van der Spuy, who befriended him in the late 1950s, told of how alienated Slabbert felt from the Progressives as the party of the super rich. Japie Basson tells the story in his memoir of how Slabbert wanted to join the United Party and how, when he stood for Parliament in 1974 he first signed a membership card of the United Party.

 

Van Zyl Slabbert: a puzzle

Slabbert remains a puzzle. He was exceptionally loyal to his friends (I can testify to that) and he was also a man of great integrity. It is these very qualities that make it so difficult to understand how in 1986 he could walk out of Parliament and almost in so many words tell his fellow Progressives that they were wasting their time.

A few months earlier the party had set up the Van Zyl Slabbert Fund to attract exceptionally brilliant young people to the idea of becoming parliamentary candidates for the party. But in his resignation speech he came close to calling Parliament an utterly useless institution.

Very often experiencing adulation, Slabbert developed an exaggerated sense of his ability to attract electoral support.  Meeting with Tony Leon, Democratic Party(DP) leader before the 1999 election, about the possibility of standing as DP leader in the provincial elections in the Western Cape, he emphasised that in the event of a hung parliament he would insist that the DP align itself with the African National Congress (ANC), not the NP.

Leon noted: “His loathing for the NP was still evident. I told him it would be a deal-breaker: our voters would never accept such a proposition.”  Slabbert’s demand was incompatible with the DP call in the election to “fight back”.[2] It is amazing that Slabbert could even think of proposing a coalition of the ANC and the DP in the Western Cape.

But the biggest puzzle of all was that Slabbert, normally such a shrewd judge of people and especially of what we can call bull-shitters, could so totally misjudge the two-faced Thabo Mbeki and the authoritarian tendencies of the ANC in exile, which the book by Stephen Ellis Mission in Exile (2012) makes so vividly clear.

In the final five years of his life Slabbert was morbidly pre-occupied with the question of how he, who was generally known as such a good judge of people, could allow Mbeki to exploit so thoroughly and so cynically his help in building up the ANC as an indispensable player in making South Africa governable and saleable to investors. Surely any open-minded chat to someone senior in the British or South African intelligence service would have cleared up any illusions about the leadership of the ANC in exile.  

So why did Slabbert risk so much by getting at least partly in bed with the ANC? His friend Breyten Breytenbach answered the question gently just before his death: “He was too trusting of the ANC.”  “He did not realise”, Breytenbach added, that “the ANC is neither about building a new nation nor about reconstruction and development, but about divvying up the spoils of victory.”[3] To be fair to the ANC government no one, Slabbert included, expected the large-scale provision of welfare to the poor that the ANC introduced after coming to power.

 

Lessons of our political history

Although Slabbert reviewed my book The Afrikaners, which was published ten years ago, I don’t think he was really interested in history, and from our conversations I know that he discounted the possibility that political leaders can learn from a careful and dispassionate study of history. Yet I think history has impacted powerfully on our politics from the days of Union in 1910 to Jacob Zuma and the Guptas in 2013.

The real role of history, as the French poet Paul Valéry once remarked, is to play a part in history itself –that is history does not go away; it vitally affects present day politics.

           

Lesson 1: Radical political change can come suddenly

The NP did not do so well from 1948 to 1980 because the Afrikaners were blindly following the NP leaders and apartheid policy. It was because the NP succeeded spectacularly in preventing a polarisation between the rich and the poor in the Afrikaner community. 

The income inequality among all Afrikaner income earners, expressed in Gini-coefficients, actually slightly improved between 1946 and 1980, as Table 1 shows.

Table 1: Gini-coefficient for Afrikaner income earners for selected years

Income earners

   1946

     1960

     1980

Total

   0.464

     0.441

     0.446

Male

   0.443

     0.398

     0.404

Source: T J Steenekamp, ‘n Ekonomiese ontleding van sosio-politieke groepvorming met spesiale verwysing na die Afrikaner, doctoral diss., Unisa, 1989, p208

By the end of the 1970s, with the growth rate plummeting and black demands on the rise, it was impossible to sustain this unity. The NP was bound to split and splinter. The same will happen to the ANC.

But by the mid-1980s Slabbert had completely ruled out the possibility that the NP’s leaders were capable of making a radical about turn and would embark on an attempt to reach a negotiated settlement with the ANC and other extra-parliamentary movements. He loathed the NP leaders so much, as Tony Leon noted, that he could not bring himself to believe that  the party could change. 

He was disillusioned by the result of the referendum of 1983, which he took to be a personal defeat. He did not accept that patience was the watchword, and that a combination of external events and shifting internal forces could bring about a completely unanticipated radical shift in our politics. If he had prepared to sit it out up to 1990, like Suzman and Eglin, sticking to his and the party’s principles, his moment may well have arrived at the point where the De Klerk cabinet decided to unban the ANC and start negotiations.

De Klerk told me that he felt strongly that the DP and the NP should forge a coalition in order to negotiate and that he indeed did propose something along these lines to Zach de Beer, the DP leader. De Beer did not take up the suggestion and did not even mention it to his caucus.

Slabbert’s Progressive Party, like the Democratic Alliance (DA) today, was confronted with a ruling party that was like an elephant in a small room: outsized, seemingly confident that nothing could shake its grip on power, and arrogantly throwing its weight about.

I am sure Slabbert would have leaped at the opportunity if De Klerk’s NP had offered the DP in 1989 the prospect of participating in a coalition. The country itself would have been much better off with such a coalition at the negotiating table than the star-starved and ideas-starved NP on its own.  

Slabbert would have revelled in the opportunity to play a meaningful role rather than do what he actually had to do, namely sit on the sideline and watch in sheer frustration.

 

Lesson 2: Radical change happens with a Big Bang after some cataclysm rather than incrementally

First, major political change in South Africa has not come about incrementally but as a result of a Big Bang, brought about some major external cataclysm. In South Africa the twentieth century cataclysms were the First World War, the Second World War and the end of the Cold War.

After the Union of South Africa was inaugurated in 1910 the South African Party (SAP) could have remained in power for quite long but for a fatal mistake. Louis Botha’s cabinet recklessly complied with Britain’s request to invade German South West Africa, triggering the Rebellion of 1914-15 and a groundswell of support for the fledgling NP, which otherwise would have remained in the doldrums for many years.

In the 1915 election the ruling SAP won twice the number of NP seats; in the 1920 election the NP won three more seats than the SAP and was now the biggest party. Smuts wrote privately afterwards: “I am fighting very hard against the Nationalist republican movement.  Before me [is] the ugly prospect of going or forming a coalition government with the Unionist Party (UP).” Having absorbed the Unionists, Smuts won handsomely in 1922 but he was defeated in 1924.

In 1938 the NP won just 27 seats and only one in the Transvaal. But entering what came to be called the Second World War on a split Parliamentary vote in 1939 sapped the strength of the UP.

The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989, thereby ending the Cold War. Three weeks later F W de Klerk decided to negotiate. The DP looked doomed to extinction despite the sterling achievements in Parliament and at Codesa of Colin Eglin and the up-and-coming Tony Leon.

 

Lesson 3: Radical shifts in the electorate come about because of revulsion and exasperation with the ruling party not because of the shrewdness of the opposition’s policies or its marketing

Our politics was and still is largely determined by identity and emotion. You choose the party of your heart and you assign to it the duty to promote your and your community’s interests. This is particularly true of a country emerging from trauma, the Anglo-Boer War in the first decades of the twentieth century, and apartheid in the last few decades.

The brutal suppression of the white miners’ strike in 1922, leaving 250 dead, caused such revulsion that the PACT alliance of the NP and the Labour Party won the election in 1924. According to some reports the ANC also supported the PACT.

D F Malan, the Cape NP leader, went even further. Before the election he sent this message to a meeting of African voters in Queenstown: ‘No race has shown a greater love for South Africa than the native and in that respect he is certainly an example of true patriotism.  He should therefore take his place alongside the nationalist in the same area.’[4]

Then came the next cataclysm, the four years between 1929 and 1932 witnessing the most severe economic crisis ever and a prolonged spell of drought. In late 1932 a delegation of Afrikaner farmers urged Prime Minister General J M B Hertzog to form a coalition with Smuts’s SAP to deal with the economic crisis. Particularly hard hit were the exporters (miners and fruit and wool farmers), who could not compete on overseas markets with a much overvalued currency. When Hertzog asked how he could be expected to work with a party that had always opposed him on the language issue, a farmer exclaimed: ‘In God’s name, General, forget the language and give us bread.’[5] In the final days of that year the Government stepped off the gold standard, but by then the entire party system was ready for a major realignment.


Lesson 4: A party’s greatest asset is an image of integrity, clarity and consistency. An opposition must represent starkly clear alternative policies and much better performance in delivery than the ruling party.  

Fatal compromises made the UP government between 1939 and 1948 a party full of unresolved contradictions, often on the defensive and almost always lacking in conviction. It can be illustrated with two stories. In 1944 Major Piet van der Byl, minister for native affairs, decided to give practical effect to what he believed was the UP government’s policy, namely the implementation of a policy of racial integration, which meant accepting the permanence of the urban black population, and rejecting migrant labour, except in the mining industry.[6]

But, as Van der Byl many years later noted, a crucial question remained unresolved: Was the Government’s policy still the traditional one of segregation, or had it been replaced by integration? Unwisely, he raised the issue in the UP caucus and a predictable battle between the liberal and conservative factions broke out. Smuts was furious and hardly spoke to Van der Byl for several months.[7] After the war the Government renewed the policy of limiting black urbanisation to a minimum.

The other story is told in the autobiography of Ray Swart, the Natal Progressive Party leader. He tells of an exchange in Parliament during the 1950s between Harry Lawrence, a liberal UP parliamentarian and a consummate politician, and NP members.

“[Lawrence] was attacking the Nats on their apartheid policy…but on this occasion interjections from the government benches forced him on the defensive. ‘What is your policy?’ they asked. ‘Is it integration or segregation?’  He tried to disregard the question and continue his attack but they repeated it, and he hesitated before replying. ‘Our policy is one of partiality’, he said, ‘yes, partiality – partiality with justice!’ Swart comments: ‘It was an unfortunate answer and the Nats roared with laughter’.”[8]

The stories of Van der Byl and Swart show that obfuscation in politics in an attempt to reform an offensive policy does not pay.

 

Lesson 5:  “Never bat on your opponent’s pitch”

I was told that the Naspers board was mulling over the question of whether the company should accept the invitation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to testify. The board was undecided until a director with many decades of experience in courts and human foibles, spoke up: “Never bat on your opponents’ pitch.”

This was the best quality of Van Zyl Slabbert in his 12 years in Parliament. As leader of the official opposition he did not try to bat on the NP’s pitch. He rejected race-based policies unambiguously, and he never tried to “improve” apartheid.

He also did not buy the story of “a step in the right direction” to justify the establishment of a tricameral parliament with Africans left out. He correctly, in my view, insisted that race classification and race-based policies were the fundamental flaws of apartheid. They could not be improved or better applied.

When I read the debate between Frans Cronje and Wilmot James in Rapport about the DA proposing to implement black economic empowerment (BEE) better[9], I thought of Jeff Malherbe’s words: “Don’t bat on your opponents’ pitch.” His last book, published posthumously, warns of the danger of perpetuating a race-based society by policies whose objective, ostensibly, is to do away with racial disabilities.[10]

The DA can never compete with the ANC with a policy to improve BEE implementation. It must offer a clear alternative to the ANC’s race-based policies. It should take the form of a class-based support for poor children and small business, and a much better balance between the requirements of merit and regstelling together with the promise of efficient service delivery.

The DA’s natural constituency is conservative blacks disgusted with BEE and the beneficiaries the policy has created. Its constituency is those willing to work but kept out of the labour market by trade unions and ridiculous labour laws. It must respect and uphold the Constitution but it must remember that the great majority of the electorate is much more conservative on moral issues (abortion, pornography, prostitution, etc.) than the Constitution.

As a country we are schizophrenic: a highly progressive constitution lies at odds with the values of a deeply conservative citizenry. The DA, if it wants to become a majority party, will have to face this dilemma squarely.[11]

 

Lesson 6: Even if a leader shifts policy or the choice of partners there must be an over-arching consistency and your own history mustn’t be written off

Slabbert never got far beyond winning the English middle and upper class core support. But by 1985 he had begun to play for much higher stakes. In a private interview with the then-President Botha he called the ANC a myth and suggested that there were strategies that “could pull the ANC’s teeth”. He wanted to talk to Dr Niel Barnard about it and Botha approved such a meeting and invited him to address the special cabinet committee on black rights. When Slabbert afterwards claimed that Botha was so intransigent that he decided to abandon parliamentary politics, Botha published a transcript of the interview which raised questions about Slabbert’s claims. Colin Eglin wrote in his memoirs:

“The meeting was not confrontational and the differences between Slabbert and Botha were no greater than one could have expected at the commencement of exploratory discussions … At no stage did Slabbert lay down any markers that would define reasons for his political resignation.”

After Slabbert had left Parliament it became clear to those close to him that he was throwing everything he had into getting the ANC legalised, which he believed would open the door to the ANC to come to power within a democratic framework. In 1989, an IDASA conference of Afrikaans writers and an ANC delegation, chaired by Slabbert, even supported the ANC’s call for a cultural boycott.

The climate changed so much that some commentators cavalierly dismissed the NP government’s call for minority rights as an obscene attempt to cling to the perks of office. At work was what Bernard Crick in a different context called a combination of “noble hopes and fatuous credulity”.

During these years I invited Slabbert and Lawrence Schlemmer to put their views in a public exchange of letters in a journal with which I was involved.  Slabbert wrote that he recognised the dangers of the ANC coming to power but undertook to join the struggle if the liberation movement became a tyranny.[12]  Lawrence Schlemmer replied that South Africa needed a constitution preventing simple majority rule to hold the ANC in check. Was it not better, Schlemmer asked, to work for a settlement in which all groups would enjoy security and in which whites did not have to “write off their history”?[13]

When I wrote the chapter on Slabbert in my book, The Last Afrikaner Leaders, I thought of the line in  the Irish folk song, which is also the title of a wonderful biography by two aides of John F Kennedy. [14]

The song is about a lover who deserts his woman and their child to fight in a war. He returns blind and badly disfigured. Yet the woman says she will keep him. She sings

          “Where are the eyes that looked so mild?

          When my poor heart you first beguiled

          Why did you run from me and the child?

          O Johnny I hardly knew ye”

I don’t think Van Zyl Slabbert was entranced enough by Thabo Mbeki to embark on such a hazardous road with the ANC. I think he was so outraged by the NP government, its objectionable race policies, and its destabilisation of the frontline states that Slabbert used desperate measures to end the political stalemate.  There is a danger that for the DA that it is so repelled by the corruption and the misrule going on that it would be prepared to use desperate measures to defeat the ANC.

It is striking how quickly leaders lose touch with their followers. In 1995 Roelf Meyer told the leader of another party. “The NP supporters have nowhere else to go.”  Less than a year later the NP’s own polls showed its support had plunged. It had not delivered on power-sharing and had lost touch with the voters.

When Smuts was defeated in 1948 Smuts said: “My people have deserted me.” The party’s secretary general replied: “No, general, they did not desert you; they are all dead.” And when Van Zyl Slabbert left Parliament, after having urged the members of his caucus to follow his example, he found not a single member ready to follow him.

 

Lesson 7: No party must ever take its existing constituency for granted

The DA did very well to capture the support of the New National Party (NNP) once it became clear that party wanted above all to become a junior partner and a pale resemblance of the ANC rather than an autonomous force.  But the DA should remember that the NNP support it won is soft.  It would never have reached its present level of support without the large-scale endorsement of people that once voted NP. The DA should remember Schlemmer’s words that it is better to work for a party in which all groups would enjoy security and dignity and in which no faction have to write off its own history.[15]

There is a great need among people to feel that they have contributed to making the new non-racial South Africa and that their history is not written out of the master narrative of South Africa, and that when the acid test came, their community responded to “the better angels of their nature”.

In his eloquent celebration speech after the Referendum of 1992 this indeed was what De Klerk told those who voted yes. He quoted the moving poem of N P van Wyk Louw, who wrote of the dream that people in the “wide and woeful land” will one day transcend “dumb deeds, small trust, small treachery” with a deed that “would echo over the earth”.

I don’t think I do Slabbert a disservice if I say that he had given up trying to persuade whites to accept full black participation. He failed to explain patiently to the electorate how simple majority government would bring about a balanced form of rule and why they should accept it. He did not rise to the challenge issued by Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford that no divided society so far has been able to provide stable and effective government without power-sharing, so that no one permanently feels left out. He simply expected the voters to come gradually to their senses and trust his judgement that the time for white rule was up.

I fully agree with R W Johnson’s judgement of Slabbert written a few days after his death: “[He] represented the very best that white South Africa had to offer: intelligent, humorous, humane, liberal-minded and deeply concerned for the future of his country beyond any personal motive. So his truncated and ultimately unsuccessful political career poses the question, what went wrong ?”

My answer is that not everything went wrong. Slabbert was brilliant and indeed devastating in denouncing apartheid, and this is indeed his greatest contribution to South Africa.  What went wrong is that Slabbert simply failed to accept that politics is about tirelessly explaining, about taking the voters seriously, about keeping your existing support and patiently building on that in seeking new support while not discarding the party’s founding ideology.

This brings me to my final point.

 

Lesson 8: It is better to project the party as a viable coalition of classes and communities that all helped to build the country than a vehicle of the true faith.[16]

The DA is a direct descendant of the Progressive Party. For many years – indeed I would argue until 1999 it was the party of the true (liberal) faith. Now it has become much more of a catch-all party with diverse and often conflicting viewpoints on various key issues. The likely large-scale influx of blacks over the next six years will put the party under tremendous strain because the DA is at the moment still “the party of the minorities.” The NP experienced the same strains when in the course of the 1980s it shed its ethnic character and became a catch-all party. It helped the party to survive the 1987 election (when for the first time most English-speakers voted NP) and the 1989 election.

While the NP  survived the 1980s it had become unfocused and had begun to drift ideologically.  I think this partly accounts for the NP’s lack of coherence in the negotiations after May 1992. The leadership lacked a discernible ideology. It discarded power-sharing and now embraced with a fervour the idea of a constitutional state despite the fact that constitutional states had no significant success in developing countries. 

It is the party that successfully integrates its different historic components that succeeds, not the one in which one tradition dominates. It was this ability – and not the policy of apartheid— that enabled Malan’s NP to defeat Jan Smuts’s UP.

In the 1938 election the NP won 27 seats (only one in Transvaal) against the 111 of the UP. Both parties were effectively coalitions with quite divergent interests and goals. But under Smuts the UP did very little to integrate the party. Everything was built around Smuts as leader and the need to pull together to win the Second World War.

By contrast Malan did much better in integrating and reconciling the different factions in his party. He stressed a single, binding principle: power and the ideal of a republic could only be achieved through the ballot box and Parliament. In 1948 Malan’s NP won 70 seats and the UP had dropped from 111 to 65. In the intervening election of 1943 the NP had achieved an important goal: it had cemented a coalition of factions opposed to the ruling party and its policies. Very much the same thing happened in the 1924 election. I think 2014 can be the same kind of election as that of 1943, being the bellwether of major impending change.

Slabbert did less well in integrating the different parties that came together in the PFP. He had abandoned incremental change and he had given up hope on Parliament and the ballot box as the only effective instruments of change. He had become impatient and wanted to fast-forward history.

In 1980 he expelled Japie Basson who had been a member of the Reform Party that joined forces with the Progressive Party to form the PFP. The issue was the Government’s proposed exclusion of Africans from membership of the President’s Council.

I think this was a big mistake. It was a forerunner of Slabbert’s fateful decision to leave Parliament because it did not represent blacks. Slabbert was giving up on the politics of persuasion.

In the articles Slabbert wrote and in the exchange with Schlemmer he completely discounted the possibility of the NP electing a leader who would be willing to end the outlawing of the ANC and other extra-parliamentary movements and to start negotiations.

The DA must accept that the breaking down of apartheid was the work of many actors and among them there was the now often “airbrushed out” NP.[17]

As we know, it was De Klerk who broke down apartheid and marshalled his cabinet and his caucus to accept a constitution that they never had thought they would have to accept. Steven Friedman made the perceptive comment in 1995 that, “The Nats got a pretty good deal for white South Africans, but not such a good deal for the party.” The Afrikaners lost most in the form of losses of careers in the civil service and rapid downgrading of Afrikaans as an official language. I don’t  plead for sympathy for the Afrikaners, but only ask that they must not be written out of the history of the ending of apartheid.

 

To conclude

Charisma and intelligence are important qualities, but for a leader and a party nothing is as important as patient persuasion, digging in for the long haul, and keeping closely in touch with the concerns and wishes of its constituency.

 

Hermann Giliomee

Professor Giliomee is vice-president and a former president of the Institute.  He was Professor of Political Studies at UCT and is author of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (expanded edition 2009) and most recently The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power. The latter has been short-listed for the 2013 Alan Paton Prize.



[1] John D’Oliviera, Vorster: The Man  (Johannesburg: Edward Stanton, 1977), p.247.

[2] Tony Leon, On the Contrary: Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2008), p.603.

[3] LeMaitre and  Savage, The Passion for Reason, p. 14

[4] Edward Roux, Time Longer Than Rope: A History of the Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), pp. 184, 199; HAD, Joint Sitting, 1936, col. 325.

[5] At van Wyk, Die Keeromstraat-kliek (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1983), p. 42.

[6] Piet Meiring, Tien Politieke Leiers (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1973), p.209.

[7] Piet Meiring, Tien Politieke Leiers , p.208

[8] Ray Swart, Progressive Odyssey (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1991), p. 25.  

[9] See their articles in Rapport, 9 and 16 September 2012

[10] Neville alexander, Thoughts on a new South Africa

[11] See the three tables  based on survey data in Pierre du Toit and Hennie Kotze, Liberal Democracy and Peace in South Africa London: Macmillan, 2011), pp.110-11.

[12] F van Zyl Slabbert,”‘Hoe ry die boere sit-sit so”, Die Suid-Afrikaan, October 1988, p. 24.

[13] Lawrence Schlemmer,” Politieke Keuses”, Die Suid-Afrikaan, October 1988, pp.20-22.

[14] Kenneth P. O’Donnell. Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (Boston: Little Brown, 1979). When Kennedy briefly visited Ireland as President of the USA his party saw a banner welcoming it with these words. Kennedy liked it very much.

[15] Lawrence Schlemmer,” Politieke Keuses”, Die Suid-Afrikaan, October 1988, pp.20-22.

[16] Newell Stultz, The Nationalists in Opposition, 1934-1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p.4, citing Karl Deutsch.

[17] See the column of Rhoda Kadalie, Die Burger  8 May 2013.

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