Despite its inherent appeal to nationalism, the African National Congress (ANC), which rules South Africa today, was a largely liberal organization from the time of its founding in 1912 to roughly the end of the 1940s. It advocated the removal of discriminatory government policy but tolerated a qualified franchise. Above all, it sought equal rights, including property rights, across racial lines (Robertson 1971, 28–29).
The ANC Youth League was founded in 1944. One of the founders, Jordan Kush Ngubane (1917–1985), said in a 1964 interview that he split with more militant elements within the League partly for “ideological reasons.” He was from a family that owned land, with a traditionalist mother and a realist father. These influences made him become, in his own words, “a non-racialist and a liberal.” His father, for instance, “rejected race as criterion by which to fix the position of the individual in society” (Ngubane 1964). Ngubane wrote that, “True liberalism recognises every man’s right to a life of his own; to a culture of his own, so long as these do not constitute a threat to his fellowmen,” and that liberalism was “the only philosophy on which we can build a lasting Union of South Africa” (Ngubane 1954).
Ngubane wrote that he “rejected Communism,” “a foreign ideology.” His own “liberal background,” however, led to him stop short of expelling communists from the Youth League. He thought they, the liberals in the League, should instead come up with an idea more powerful than communism. A fellow Youth Leaguer, Anton Lembede, opted for Africanism, “a racially exclusive attitude among the Africans which would be similar to that of the Afrikaner nationalists,” an idea that did not sit well with Ngubane. Some, like Ngubane, “wanted a liberal democratic republic,” while others “preferred a socialist community.” The differences between these groups would be set aside until the common enemy—the white government—was vanquished. Lembede “disliked [Ngubane’s] friendship with white men and women of liberal persuasion.” But Ngubane was not prepared to consider all whites as “sinners”—he “did not wish to judge any human being as a member of a racial group.” He thought that “the element of liberalism on the race question had always been an important ingredient in the makeup of African nationalism.” Ngubane’s thinking on what the liberation movement should have done is handily summarized in his own words: “Our task was to move events in the direction of our choice; to establish a new social order where liberty would mean the freedom to make the best possible use of our lives as human beings and not just as members of a particular racial group” (Ngubane 1963–64).
In 1961 Ngubane went into exile in Swaziland, before going on to lecture about Apartheid in the United States. By 1980, Ngubane had allied with Inkatha, the main black group opposing the African National Congress in South Africa (Ngubane 1980). His 1963 book, An African Explains Apartheid, contains a chapter titled “Communists versus Liberals,” wherein he wrote about the impotence of the Liberal Party, which had been formed in 1952 to oppose Apartheid and promote full rights for all South Africans. It would dissolve five years later (Trewhela 2017).
Left to right: Thomas Mapike, Rev Walter Rubusana, Rev John Dube, Saul Msane, Sol Plaatjie. This ANC delegation sought to persuade the British government to intervene against the Natives Land Act in 1914.
Jan Smuts, while prime minister, was instrumental in drafting the World War II Atlantic Charter, a fact that gave liberals and the ANC hope that the United Party regime would soon adopt a policy resembling respect for equal rights. This was especially true after Smuts declared economic segregation impossible (Robertson 1971, 30). Smuts also composed the preamble to the United Nations Charter (Lewsen 1987, 108). Smuts was later evicted from power by the National Party, which turned “his international standing against him” and attacked him “for being under the sway of liberalism and for prioritizing his personal international reputation over white national interests” (Dubow 2019). But in reality, as Saul Dubow writes: “Smuts was nowhere as hard line as some of his white compatriots, but neither was he in favor of black political rights. Like many paternalistic and ‘moderate’ whites, he was inclined to defer problems of race equality to the future” (ibid.).
The ANC’s proposed bills of rights in 1943 (Nthai 1998, 142) and 1945 (Robertson 1971, 31. Robertson quotes Carter [1958, 484–485].) were inspired by the Atlantic Charter, thereby seeking, according to Janet Robertson, “freedoms which democrats outside South Africa regarded as inalienable rights” (ibid.). Importantly, the ANC wanted protection for the right to land ownership. Both the ANC’s 1923 and 1943/1945 bills of rights sought the entrenchment of property rights as an individual right founded in the British common law tradition (Nthai 1998, 142–143).
Despite the ANC’s early liberal and moderate character, white South Africans, including many white liberals, did not believe that fully extending political rights to blacks would end well for the rights of whites (Robertson 1971, 31). This attitude was largely in response to the views of the younger, more radical Africanist members of the anti-Apartheid movement, chiefly those in the ANC Youth League (ibid., 34). Immediately after the end of World War II, and the failure of the government to grant rights to the blacks who served in the armed forces, the ANC’s character started to move away from moderate liberalism (Robertson 1971, 32) and toward cooperation with communists. That relationship persists to this day, and it has led to the effective end of liberalism within the ANC and to a break in the relationship between white liberals and the ANC.
Robertson usefully outlines the three reasons why the ANC warmed up to communism. First, the leadership of the Indian Congress in Natal was already communist, and Apartheid forced the ANC and the Indian Congress into a close relationship to resist racial discrimination. Second, the communists in South Africa did not act condescendingly toward black aspirations for equal—as opposed to “qualified”—rights. On this second reason, Robertson quotes Nelson Mandela at his terrorism trial in 1964:
“[F]or many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society.” (Mandela 1964; quoted in Robertson 1971, 75)
Third, the government’s clampdown on communism from 1950 onward with the Suppression of Communism Act was interpreted by the ANC as a thinly veiled attack on activism for equal rights between blacks and whites, rather than as only the suppression of communist ideology (Robertson 1971, 69–78). Thus, by 1965, liberals found themselves caught between the twin extremes of Afrikaner nationalism and black nationalism fused with communism, both of which were hostile to the values underlying a liberal democratic order (Spence 1965, 56).