Liberalism in South Africa developed most in the Cape Colony, which later became the Cape Province. British influence was always greatest at the Cape, which was home to most English-speaking South Africans, who have always been somewhat cosmopolitan compared to the other section of South Africa’s white population, the Afrikaners.
The Union of South Africa was established, at least in part, on considerations that might be described as classically liberal. The historian Leonard Monteath Thompson, in his comprehensive account of the events surrounding the South African National Convention of 1908–09, writes that the last prime minister of the Cape Colony, John Xavier Merriman, who would also go on to play a leading role in the convention, was a Whig in the British tradition. According to Thompson, Merriman believed that:
“The functions of a Government should be limited; taxation and public expenditure should be kept to a minimum; an unbalanced budget was a major evil; and Parliament should be the sovereign element in a Constitution—the real forum of a nation, where decisions should be made by free votes after full public debates.” (Thompson 1961, 95)
Merriman, along with Jan Christiaan Smuts, later multiple-time prime minister of South Africa, insisted that the new country’s constitution be unitary instead of federal, and that Parliament must be sovereign and not subject to substantive constitutional safeguards (ibid., 97-98). This was because Merriman was concerned that a federal dispensation and/or a dispensation with constitutional rights, would be too costly to the South African taxpayer (ibid., 102-104).
Despite this economic liberalism, the Whig ideology was intensely conservative in some respects. It opposed equal representation of constituencies in the legislature, preferring that rural areas be given weighted preference, and it opposed women’s suffrage. But Merriman was also opposed “to the increase in the range of government action” (ibid., 95.). In the end, however, Merriman and the other unitarists convinced the convention of the downsides of federalism and strict constitutionalism (ibid., 105), and from 1910 to 1993 South Africa had a centralized political system that, in part, enabled later governments to relatively easily extend their racially-discriminatory policies across the whole country.
The Cape Colony had had a non-racial, but qualified, franchise, which allowed all men who complied with certain literacy and property qualifications to vote and stand for elections (even though any man could stand for an election, by the time of the unification only whites had been elected.). The liberal Cape Colony’s delegates at the 1908–09 National Convention that led to the establishment of the Union of South Africa had hoped to negotiate an extension of those rules to the northern territories, where non-whites were excluded from the franchise. They failed, however (Rich 1987, 271). The failure did not mean the end of liberalism in South Africa but represented a setback. The setback culminated in the constitutional crisis of the 1950s—arguably liberals’ finest fight for civil rights, but a fight they lost as well.
The Cape liberal tradition, of which Merriman was said to be a part (Bickford-Smith 1995, 70), represented four principles of classical liberalism: free expression, economic freedom, political rights (in the form of a non-racial but qualified franchise), and access to justice (Hughes 1994, 16). The Cape liberal tradition is associated with the slogan “equal rights for all civilized men” (Johnson 2011).
Delegation of Cape Colony politicians that went to Britain to lobby for a non-racial constitutional dispensation in South Africa in August 1909. Left to right: John Tengo Jabavu, A Abdurahman, former prime minister William Schreiner, Walter Rubusana and Matt Fredericks. Back: Thomas Makipela, J Gerrans, Daniel Dwanya and DJ Lenders. These delegates were not present at the National Convention.
The delegates of the Cape Colony at the National Convention represented the only liberal tradition existing in the region at the time. As the South Africa Act (i.e., the 1910 Constitution) was being drawn up, however, the delegates abandoned these liberal principles (Hughes 1994, 20). They were faced down by the uncompromising Afrikaner conservative nationalists from the northern colonies, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal Colony. Even their fellow English-speaking colonists from the Natal Colony, which had a more restricted form of qualified franchise, resisted the Cape liberals’ attempts to extend the franchise throughout the whole Union (Robertson 1971, 3–4).
The liberals had believed that from the time of the unification of the South African colonies, whites would gradually grow more liberal in their outlook on race and race relations, a hope maintained as late as the 1950s (Robertson 1971, 7). The first notable liberals — it must be emphasized that some of these individuals were not necessarily as liberal as one would today desire — within the Union of South Africa who were concerned about the freedom of non-whites under the political dominance of the whites were the chief justices John Henry de Villiers and James Rose Innes, the journalist FD Malan, and the politicians Jacobus Wilhelmus Sauer, Walter Ernest Mortimer Stanford, John Xavier Merriman, William Philip Schreiner, and Jan Hofmeyr (Robertson 1971, 2–3).
Liberals initially focused on establishing forums, known as joint councils, to facilitate contact and cooperation between the politically dominant whites and the other racial groups, outside of politics (Hughes 1994, 20). The joint councils were based on the American model spearheaded by W. W. Alexander in the southern United States to promote good relations between blacks and whites toward the end of World War One. JDR Jones was behind the joint council idea in the South African context, where they would afford “an opportunity for whites and blacks to get to know each other personally, and they did a good job in furthering black adult education, child welfare and other social services” (Byrne 1990, 21).
The councils steered away from politics partly because it was expected that the United Party, formed in 1934, would provide the progress needed on the political front to end racial prejudice (Hughes 1994, 21). Until the 1950s, the United Party was the only political home of liberals. It enabled certain liberals, like Jan Hofmeyr, to serve in government and to work toward a gradual loosening of authoritarian racial policy. But early liberal trust in the United Party would be progressively disappointed—by the United Party abolishing the limited black franchise in the Cape in 1936, for example—until the eventual formation of the breakaway Liberal and Progressive parties in the 1950s (Hughes 1994, 34; Robertson 1971, 12).
The liberal doctrine of trusteeship—the notion that oppressed peoples in what are today the developing countries should be protected and their status and rights elevated to that which was enjoyed in the West—was ironically used as a basis for both the Cape liberal tradition and what would later be known as Apartheid. The white regimes of the Union of South Africa accepted the powers that came with trusteeship but employed them to the benefit of whites, paying only lip service to the elevation of blacks. The National Party, the party that created and implemented the Apartheid system—acknowledging that the South African Party and United Party, too, contributed their share to entrenching racial discrimination in public policy—was primarily concerned with the protection of white political supremacy, which it considered to be compatible with trusteeship (Malan 1964, 282). As a result, Apartheid reinterpreted trusteeship as paternalism rather than as a system of empowerment. Trusteeship, which by its nature was intended to be temporary, was made into a permanent institution by the time of Apartheid (Ntsane 1994, 22).
At some point in 1947 or early 1948, the liberal (at the time) Cape Times wrote about the National Party’s proposed Apartheid policy in its comment on Adv JG Strijdom (also spelled Strydom)’s, the NP’s leader in the Transvaal Province, explanation of the policy as follows:
“The long-experienced Dr [DF] Malan is wiser — or perhaps it would be better to write wilier — than Mr JG Strydom in his statements on Native policy. Dr Malan says ‘apartheid’, and he leaves it at that. Mr Strydom explains apartheid; and that is a mess. He does not agree with ‘well-meaning people’ who promise to segregate the Natives somewhere in Central Africa. Central Africa, he explains, does not belong to us. Nor, Mr Strydom explained, was it practicable to segregate the Natives into one big reserve somewhere in the Union. It was also undesirable, because it would unite them. He also denied that he intended the separation of the Natives from the European-owned farms. There was no harm in their staying there. What he proposed was the gradual removal of Natives, with their wives and families, from the towns. They must be sent back to the reserves, where they could develop their own industries, and staff their own professions, with European encouragement (but not European financial assistance). If the Native men were needed for industry and other employment, they would leave their families cosily at home n the reserves and work according to the system that had been practised by the mines for many years.
All this is part of Mr Strydom’s realist policy to maintain white supremacy in the Union. The trouble about these realists is that they seem to have swallowed whole the doctrine, much publicised by a certain school of popular psychology, that ‘Thoughts are Things’. Mr Strydom thinks there is room in the reserves for the urban Natives and their families as well as for the Natives already there. In his mind, therefore, reserves with plenty of space exist. But they do not exist on the ground. The Native reserves are already grossly over-crowded, and there is no room in them for the hundreds of thousands of Natives now living with their families in the towns. The migratory labour system which Mr Strydom wishes to perpetuate is one of the greatest single causes of the steady deterioration of the Native people, and one of the most potent causes of the increase in Native crime. They wish-dreams which he peddles as a policy would, if carried out, lead not only to further physical and moral degeneration among the natives, but also to a suppuration of discontent among them that would spread its rank poison throughout the Union, so that the fears of Mr Strydom and his following would be visited upon our children to the third and fourth generation, and even further.” (Macdonald 1948, 233-234)
The Cape liberal tradition did not die out with the formal establishment of Apartheid in 1948. In October 1952, for instance, the Liberal Party was founded. Indeed, some of the founders declared in an article that non-whites should be offered “a reasonable status in our common society,” something only possible by reviving “the liberal tradition which prevailed for so many years with such successful results in the Cape Colony.” This liberal tradition, they wrote, was based on the principle of “equal rights for all civilized people and equal opportunities for all men and women to become civilized” (Robertson 1971, 86).