Introduction to Liberalism

“Liberalism” has been graced, and tarred, with various definitions and descriptions, many of which can be read on this page. The differences between these conceptualisations of the word have received far more attention than their similarities. Stated most concisely, all approaches to liberalism fundamentally regard liberty or freedom as one of, if not the, most important value in politics, economics, and society.

There are various approaches to liberalism, the most prominent of which are the political, economic, social, and cultural. Many liberals adopt some or all of these approaches into their liberalism; and depending on the approaches they decide to adopt or emphasise and reject or de-emphasise, they could be labeled as classical liberals, libertarians, social liberals, libertines, social democrats, liberal democrats, democratic liberals, democratic capitalists, or democratic socialists.

Liberal South Africa is broadly concerned with classical liberalism, libertarianism, and liberal democracy — the dominant approaches to liberalism in South African history.

‘Liberalism’ in the South African context

Liberalism has had a long tradition with its own unique character in South Africa. Timothy Hughes writes:

“Like those of its classical forebears, the parameters of South African liberalism do not lend themselves to definition with theodolite precision. The South African variant embraces the manifold dimensions of both utilitarian and rights-based theory and discourse, but also overlaid within it the dynamics of a colonial and post-colonial legacy with which it continues to struggle and come to grips to the present. South African liberalism exhibits the complexities and nuances of traditional, classical and new liberalism, but does so within the context of an ethnically and racially divided society.” (Hughes 1994, 15)

Generally speaking, liberalism in South Africa is not understood to be quite as far to the left in the field of economics as it is usually understood to be in America, but it is also not the undiluted free-market liberalism of Ludwig von Mises or Albert Venn Dicey. There has been a constant tug of war between classical liberals and left-liberals, alternatively called social democrats (Sunter 1993, 41; Dubow 2014, 9). Phyllis Lewsen wrote of the liberals of the interwar period as scoring “fairly well on the factious-minority scale” (Lewsen 1987, 110). But through much of South Africa’s history it has been common to refer to all liberals as being on the “left,” for until very recently “left” almost exclusively connoted a support for non-racialism over Apartheid (Swart 1991, 160). And today both left-liberals and classical liberals claim the word ‘liberal’ (Johnson 2011; Shandler 1991, 21–22).

A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.

In the interwar years, two white parliamentary representatives set aside for blacks (known as ‘native representatives’), Margaret Ballinger and Donald Barkley Molteno, certainly liberal in outlook on cultural and interpersonal affairs, regarded themselves as economic socialists, whereas two of their colleagues, also native representatives, Edgar Harry Brookes and John David Rheinallt Jones, believed in the free-market system (Lewsen 1987, 115). At the end of Apartheid, one would have found personalities like David Welsh and Terence Beard in the left-liberal camp, and Leon Louw and Ken Owen in the classical liberal camp (O’Malley 1988, 5).

In South African academic economics, there has been little discernible classical-liberal thought, except for a select few figures like William Harold Hutt, Ludwig Lachmann, and Karl Mittermaier. The contemporary South African undergraduate economics curriculum, according to Stephen Graham Saunders (2008), is almost entirely mainstream material, viz., “the synthesis of Neoclassical Economics and Keynesian Macroeconomics.” The economic discipline is rarely placed “into its philosophical context,” and the “philosophical underpinnings of economic theory . . . are often not taught or ignored,” at least in first-year classes, Saunders writes. The “conceptual, methodological and ethical issues” of the discipline are left unaddressed. Discussion of schools of economic thought like the Austrian school is left to advanced or postgraduate levels of education (Saunders 2008, 740–741).

The belief that people should have a lot of political and individual freedom.
Collins English Dictionary

Up to 1994, when Apartheid ended, liberalism, like most other ideologies and political groupings in South Africa, was preoccupied with matters of race, and economics was often ignored. The two camps of South African liberalism, the classical and left-liberals, also obviously could not agree on what economic direction South African policy should pursue (O’Malley 1988, 6). Yet liberals throughout South African history have been opposed to Apartheid, which was in large part an economic system, that is, a system of restrictions on human activity, notably economic activity.

In many respects, therefore, ‘liberal’ usually meant little more than ‘not racist’ or ‘anti-Apartheid’ before 1994, and more often than not was presumed to refer to an ideology of whites exclusively. It comes as no surprise then that the de facto leader of South African liberals before his death in 1948, Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, would have declared in 1935: “When I speak of Liberalism I think especially of the Native people of this land” (Robertson 1971, 4). Both the Progressive and Liberal parties—each having a strong commitment to free enterprise in their statements of principles—were widely referred to as ‘left-wing’ before the end of Apartheid. The question of race was foremost in giving content to where one stood on the political spectrum in South Africa.

A political philosophy held by people who strongly believe in the principles of liberty and equality for all.
Legal Dictionary

Still there is a substantive liberal tradition in South Africa that, apart from race, goes into aspects of politics, economics, and philosophy. Much has changed since 1994. The ‘liberal’ identity today is known to embrace all races but continues to have some unfortunate baggage, such as the idea that its ‘neoliberal’ policies benefit only the elite and particularly whites, and the perception that its colorblind approach to public affairs amounts to a refusal to acknowledge and redress the suffering black South Africans endured under Apartheid. Liberals of all races today have the difficult task of convincing a very skeptical population of why individual freedom should be the apex political goal in South Africa.

Works on liberalism in South Africa peaked in the political transition between 1990 and 1996. After 1996, there was a significant decline in liberal works. The use of the word ‘liberal’ has also declined since then. As a result, many liberals today call themselves all sorts of names, from ‘libertarians’ to ‘democrats’ to ‘pragmatists,’ so it is considerably more difficult to craft a historical narrative about the liberal movement after 1994. It is also the case that the attention paid by historians and commentators to liberals and the liberal movement has declined considerably, given that during the period before 1994 liberalism was the main political opponent of the dominant nationalist ideology. Since 1994, when South Africa’s political paradigm changed completely, liberalism’s relevance appears to have taken a knock.

A theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard.

The character of South African liberalism

The principles of South African liberalism were largely transplanted in the nineteenth century from Britain into the then-Cape Colony. Liberalism there traces its roots to the English missionary John Philip in the 1820s (Cardo 2012, 16). Most liberals in South African history have been white and their primary language English. Among non-whites, liberalism was largely discredited during Apartheid because they felt its “promises have been endlessly deferred and its assurances betrayed by discrimination and a white monopoly of Africa’s favors” (De Kiewiet 1955, 36). There were some Afrikaner liberals, such as Jan Hofmeyr as well as, in the 1950s and 1960s, Philip Pistorius, a professor at the University of Pretoria, and Nic Olivier, a professor at the University of Stellenbosch (Swart 1991, 118). Those two universities were then and are still today considered to be more conservative and Afrikaans than the traditionally English universities. That is because their embrace of the government’s post-Apartheid social-transformation policies was slow and gradual, and the bulk of the student body are still white Afrikaans speakers. It should not, however, be assumed that Apartheid was an exclusively Afrikaner enterprise. Many, perhaps most, English-speaking South Africans were conservative on the question of race relations despite their opposition to Afrikaner nationalism (ibid., 104). By the time of Hendrik Verwoerd’s premiership in 1958, the National Party, led by the Afrikaners, was actively courting white English South Africans to support Apartheid (ibid., 90).

Along the lines set by Hughes (1994, 22–31), I would put forward the following as generally uniting principles of, or dimensions to, South African liberalism:

  • The individualist dimension: Racial discrimination in state policy is rejected. The individual must be the object of emphasis in social and political institutions, and the principle of equal liberty must be respected.
  • The Millian dimension (that is, after John Stuart Mill): The conditions conducive to individual freedom are freedom of thought, conscience, expression, movement, and association.
  • The Diceyan dimension (that is, after Albert Venn Dicey): The rule of law is necessary to protect individuals and minority groups.
  • The pragmatic dimension: History and context are allowed to adjust the practice and outlook of liberalism. On the other hand, Kierin O’Malley of the Liberal Forum and a lecturer in political science at the University of South Africa provided a brief description of what South African liberalism constituted in 1994. He argues that there is a core of liberalism that does not shift over time. He pointed out why it is important to appreciate the fixed nature of this core by referring to the liberal slideaway—where liberals abandoned their principles for expediency—that has occurred in South Africa from the 1980s. The liberal core that was slid away from is said to be “individual self-determination and self-realisation (which can only be achieved within a noncoercive framework)” (O’Malley 1994, 29–30). Ken Owen, a popular anti-Apartheid classical liberal journalist, too described the core of liberalism in 1988 as a belief in “individual liberty, the rule of law, the democratic method and the free market” (O’Malley 1988, 36).
  • The institutional dimension: Liberty must be safeguarded by institutions specifically aimed at checking and balancing government power.
  • The economic dimension: An economy unhindered by unnecessary and artificial government intervention will tend to produce more wealth and prosperity.
  • The gradualist dimension: Political change should be brought about not through revolutionary violence but through gradual or incremental steps. Perhaps the one constant and unifying feature of South African liberalism has been its opposition to revolution, and its insistence on evolutionary change from the Apartheid order to a liberal-democratic order (O’Malley 1988, 31).

A political or social philosophy advocating the freedom of the individual, parliamentary systems of government, nonviolent modification of political, social, or economic institutions to assure unrestricted development in all spheres of human endeavor, and governmental guarantees of individual rights and civil liberties.

John Kane-Berman (2002, 2–5) has given a useful account of South African classical liberalism. Kane-Berman served as chief executive officer of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Founded in 1929, IRR is South Africa’s oldest think tank and is one of the oldest classical-liberal think tanks in the world.  I summarize Kane-Berman’s account in the following paragraphs.

Kane-Berman finds that within liberal theory the role of the government should be to protect individuals’ rights so that they may forge their own paths and destinies in society. These rights “are in the nature of man as a sentient being with free will and the ability to imagine, reason, and create.”

Kane-Berman criticizes the left and the right for both assuming that the government, instead, has a duty to engage in social engineering: in essence, to reshape man. Liberals are skeptical of granting government this kind of power, for fear of the abuses and potentially tyrannical consequences. Indeed, governments in practice tend to promote only the interests of specific lobbies or interest groups, rather than the so-called common good. Thus, liberals prefer man to be free even though highly imperfect.

The political belief that there should be free trade, that people should be allowed more personal freedom, and that changes in society should be made gradually.
Cambridge Dictionary

It is sufficient, writes Kane-Berman, for people to be protected from harming one another in their own divergent pursuits. Individuals are better judges of their own interests. Freedom promotes the taking of responsibility rather than the outsourcing of that responsibility to others. This, argues Kane-Berman, was partly how the Apartheid system was defeated: with ordinary South Africans of all races pursuing their economic interests, many Apartheid laws were undermined to the extent that the system collapsed.

The dignity of the individual, freedom of expression, freedom of association, equality before the law, an independent judiciary, supreme constitutions and the rule of law, the right to participate in governance, and a free press are considered by Kane-Berman to be “vital components of the package of rights and freedoms characteristic of the liberal state.” He hastens to add that it is arbitrary to distinguish between these aforementioned rights and freedoms, and rights of an economic nature:

“the liberal view is that . . . freedom of contract, freedom to trade, and freedom to engage in economic activity are logical extensions of individual liberty, as are property rights.”

According to Kane-Berman, the market system is what logically follows from freedom of choice. Markets are where producers meet consumers. A free market is more democratic than the political ‘market’ because in politics the voting age is restricted and participation in governance, like voting, happens only occasionally, whereas in a market one votes continuously with one’s resources.

Liberalism, today often called classical liberalism, is based on the conception of civil society as by and large self-regulating when its members are free to act within the very wide bounds of their individual rights. Among these, the right to private property, including freedom of contract and exchange and the free disposition of one’s own labor, is given a high priority. Historically, liberalism has manifested a hostility to state action, which, it insists, should be reduced to a minimum.
Ralph Raico

But, to Kane-Berman, liberalism is not akin to anarchism. The government has a role to play in protecting the vulnerable from abuse: keeping inflation stable and low and ensuring big businesses do not succeed in “manipulating markets to the detriment of consumers.” Unlike socialists and interventionists who see intervention as a desirable foregone conclusion, liberals regard intervention as justified only where it is absolutely necessary and where a thorough cost-benefit analysis has been conducted. Taxes within a liberal regime should be low, and used only to allow government to perform its limited role. Tax monies are “held in trust on behalf of the nation.”

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