Don't blame the liberals - Politicsweb

6 May 2019 - Right-wing critics of liberals miss the fundamental point. Apartheid was abandoned for the simple reason that it had become unenforceable.

John Kane-Berman

Some of the contributors to the comments below these columns blame liberals for some of the disasters that the African National Congress (ANC) and its communist and trade union allies have inflicted upon South Africa. Liberals, the argument goes, have no business complaining because they have got the disastrous majority rule they always wanted. We should rather have heeded all the warnings against universal suffrage.

There are essentially two rejoinders to this critique. The first is that whites willing to make compromises towards black political demands left it far too late, strengthening the position of revolutionaries. A national convention to draw up a new constitution materialised (in the form of Codesa) only decades after liberals began arguing the need for it. Moreover, even if blacks had been willing to accept a qualified franchise, very few whites were prepared to go that far, as the minimal support for the Liberal and Progressive parties showed when they were still committed to such a franchise.

Secondly, those now attacking liberals from the Right were always living in cloud cuckoo land. Some still are. Apart from their moral objections to apartheid, liberals were the first people to demonstrate its economic and practical absurdity. Some early liberals flirted with territorial separation of the races, but they soon recognised that industrialisation and urbanisation ruled this out.

Prime Minister JC Smuts told a meeting of the Institute of Race Relations in 1942 that black urbanisation could not be stopped, but it was not until 1986 that President PW Botha's government repealed the pass laws, which had been designed to minimise and even reverse the flow of black people from country to town. Botha conceded that the pass laws had become unenforceable only after successive governments had managed to carry out pass arrests which averaged 721 a day for 65 years. If that aspect of apartheid could not be implemented, little else could. Apartheid indeed was not about racial ideology. It was always, first and foremost, about numbers.

Once the pass laws had been jettisoned, the Botha government took the next logical step of abandoning the Verwoerdian fantasy of "self-determination" in the form of ethnic homelands – into which, in pursuance of the fantasy, two million or more blacks had been forcibly removed. Once ethnic self-determination had been abandoned, the only alternative was the common society that liberals had always said was inevitable. Federalism, and better entrenchment of minority rights, would have improved the constitution eventually adopted in 1996, but that does not alter the dominating reality that the irreversibly integrated South African economy could never be confined within a straitjacket of political apartheid.

Those who attack liberals from the Right need to explain how they would have brought about a different outcome. Would they have doubled up on pass arrests? Built more and more prisons? Deported not two million but four million people to homelands? How would they have forced the six remaining non-independent homelands to take "independence'?    

How would they have dealt with black opposition to such an intensification of apartheid? Would they have kept the bans on the ANC and other organisations? How would they have dealt with exploding unrest in the townships? Detaining more people without trial? Doubling the size of the police force? Keeping the country in a permanent state of emergency? Would they have waged a never-ending campaign against neighbouring states that provided bases for ANC and other revolutionaries to launch attacks on civilian and other targets in South Africa? How big a defence force would they have budgeted for?

Would they have banned black trade unions? Locked up black workers every time they went on strike? Locked up employers who engaged blacks in skilled jobs in defiance of the industrial colour bar? Extended the migratory labour system to the entire economy?

Right-wing critics of liberals miss the fundamental point. Apartheid was abandoned for the simple reason that it had become unenforceable. John Vorster started the process, PW ("adapt or die") Botha continued it, and FW de Klerk completed it. Despite all its failings – mainly attributable to the ANC's revolutionary agenda – the only alternative to the Verwoerdian fantasy is what we have got, a common society under majority rule.*      

Correction: Last week's edition of this column said that ballots were now required before workers could be called out on strike. This is only partly true. The constitutions of trade unions are indeed required to provide for secret ballots, but strikes called without such ballots may not be interdicted for that reason nor do they automatically count as "unprotected" strikes.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.  

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