Liberal Slideaway (1980s-1990s)

In the 1980s, there occurred what Wentzel (1995, vii) referred to as a “liberal slideaway,” the consequences of which South Africa still experiences today. Liberals had warned that the indignity of Apartheid policy would eventually lead to a violent reaction. In 1906 John Xavier Merriman said that the “inferior race” would sooner or later rebel if they were excluded completely from the regime of political rights. Merriman was advancing the cause of a qualified franchise to be applied universally to all men, regardless of race, but which he felt would continue to secure “European political supremacy” for several generations to come. The argument did not catch on, and for most intents and purposes non-whites were denied political rights. The non-racial, qualified approach was still being advocated by the Progressive Party as late as the 1970s (Robertson 1971, 6).

The warnings of violence came true in earnest in the 1980s after the so-called Tricameral Parliament was established, and violence would continue until the dawn of democracy in 1994. This violence in response to the indignity of Apartheid was perpetrated by both black and white South Africans, largely to enforce rent and school boycotts. It was during this period that the influence of liberals was at its highest, especially with the international community. That influence flowed in part from the liberals’ credibility with facts and the avoidance of unnecessary ideological pontification (Wentzel 1995, 1).

A large contingent of people who considered themselves liberals at this stage, however, started supporting the violence or responding with silence. Wentzel said these liberals would not dare to be seen as “‘criticising blacks’ and failing to ‘understand why’ black people were compelled to resort to violence” (1995, 45). It had become “anathema publicly to criticise one’s own side (defined as any individual or group opposed to apartheid)” (ibid., 4–5). Apartheid itself tended to be blamed for the violent means enacted by revolutionary organizations (52). White liberals especially believed “that to show goodwill to black people it was necessary not to criticise the strategies of some of their leaders” (6). There were some liberals who regarded criticizing revolutionaries as taboo, if not treasonous (Kane-Berman 2017, xii). Illiberal leftists used the struggle against Apartheid as a useful tool to attack traditional liberalism (Douglas 1994, 12), because of its preference for peaceful and gradual change.

Wentzel attributes this change in the “liberal” attitude to the “tyranny of ‘political correctness’” which was developing in the United States around the same time the liberal slideaway in South Africa was developing. Many liberals had “lost their pragmatism, their critical faculties and their willingness to court unpopularity in the pursuit of truth, and succumbed instead to the kind of romanticism they had always despised” (Wentzel 1995, 1–2). Bloom criticized the liberal slideaway as “an unwillingness everywhere to firmly challenge the myths of the ‘underdog’ liberation movements,” saying instead that liberals’ humaneness and open-mindedness “must not make us the ‘useful idiots’ of the new tyrannous forces in our society” (Bloom 1994, 8). Peter Coleman later noted that political correctness is what happens when liberalism and leftism come together (Coleman 2000, 6).

A factor and manifestation of the liberal slideaway was that from the 1980s the English universities increasingly lurched leftward, particularly in the social sciences. By 1994, the library at the University of the Western Cape, for example, did not include works by notable liberals like Friedrich von Hayek. The history faculties, too, opted to not teach their students about liberal revolutions throughout history, but instead focused on avowedly socialist revolutions. And the National Union of South African Students, formerly an unashamedly liberal student association, once it fell in with the left-nationalist South African Students Congress, started marginalizing liberals from student governance and channeling funds to socialistic causes (Hughes 1994, 26). The silence of classical liberals on campus during the 1980s was, according to Wentzel, not because classical liberals stopped believing in their ideas “but because they were too timid, guilt-ridden and lacking in confidence to expound them.” The Democratic Party, which Wentzel identified as a holdout against the liberal slideaway in the 1990s (Wentzel 1995, 292), however, won some battles on behalf of liberalism on campuses (Douglas 1994, 15). Meanwhile the National Union of South African Students was at the forefront of fighting against liberalism, despite its own historically liberal character, because they now considered liberalism to be “capitalist” (Welsh 1998, 5).

The early 1990s represented a time when (classical) liberalism enjoyed a slight uptick from the slideaway of the 1980s, with academic leftists fazed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and Afrikaner nationalists losing their powerbase during the democratic transition (Douglas 1994, 16). In the mid to late 1990s South Africa’s democratic transition was completed, and many, perhaps most, liberals believed their mission to be over. As Keirin O’Malley noted during the transition: “Belief in a liberal victory prompts the inappropriate view that all that is now needed is a little more of what was done in the past” (O’Malley 1994, 31).

Where white liberals did propound classical liberal principles, to both the Apartheid regime and to the illiberal forces fighting it, they were often labelled as ‘right-wing.’ Black liberals were labelled ‘sell-outs’ of the revolutionary cause. Such labels carried with them the implication that one was racist or an apologist for the regime. As Wentzel writes: “For liberals [the ‘right-wing’ label] became the psychological equivalent of necklacing, and the fear of it kept many people very quiet at meetings of liberal institutions” (Wentzel 1995, 271–272) (Revolutionary movements in South Africa, particularly the African National Congress, engaged in the “necklacing” of black people who were deemed to be traitors to their cause or informers to the police. This meant a vehicle tire was hung around the alleged traitor’s neck, doused in fuel, and then set afire.).

O’Malley wrote that the so-called “right wing economic liberals”—by which he meant classical liberals—have been better able to withstand the liberal slideaway than the left-liberals, or “left wing economic liberals” (O’Malley 1988, 5). Wentzel lists some liberal groups that did not fall victim to the liberal slideaway: the Free Market Foundation, Groundswell, the Institute of Race Relations, and the Democratic Party (Wentzel 1995, 288–297). In the latter half of the 1980s the Liberal Democratic Association was formed as a non-slideaway organization. It was to oppose government’s tyrannical policies but also oppose violent overthrow of the state, a tendency of many revolutionary organizations. It would cooperate with government reforms away from authoritarianism and also provide its own innovative solutions to the problems facing South Africa (ibid., 288).

Kane-Berman (2019c) summarizes the pronounced schism caused by the slideaway in the following words:

“Classical liberals versus social democrats, liberals who rejected violence versus apologists for revolutionary violence, liberals who believed that apartheid was being peacefully overwhelmed by economic forces versus liberals who refused to believe that that system could be overcome by anything other than revolution (which some of them romanticised), and liberals who opposed economic sanctions on the grounds that they would damage the economy versus liberals who said that that was just too bad and that most blacks supported sanctions anyway.”

The liberal slideaway continues to this day, in modified form, and is often spoken of as relating to ‘political correctness.’ In October 1999, the Institute of Race Relations and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNS) hosted a conference about the problem of political correctness in South Africa. Temba A. Nolutshungu, a director at the Free Market Foundation, noted that the “moral ugliness of apartheid and the very real atrocities that accompanied it are such that a timorous critic of [politically correct] positions can be cowed into silence by the mere suggestion that his or her views represent a disguised defence of the old order and show an insensitivity to the plight of black people.” Nolutshungu mentioned that critics of the Employment Equity Act, a mainstay of post-Apartheid racially discriminatory legislation, are the target of attacks alleging that they are defending Apartheid’s legacy. Whites who embrace politically incorrect positions are considered racist and blacks are considered heretical traitors to the black cause (Nolutshungu 2000, 23–24). As Rainer Erkens of the FNS said, political correctness does not translate into social justice or a prosperous society, but simply stifles freedom of expression which is a precondition for progress (Erkens 2000, 2).

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