Progressive Party

While the Liberal Party was multi-racial, with most members black (Hughes 1994, 38), the Progressive Party consciously decided to direct its attention at the white electorate where political power legally resided, in order to convince that electorate to shun prejudice and embrace individual freedom (Swart 1991, 11). The Progressive Party was formally launched on 13–14 November 1959 at the Cranbrook Hotel in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. The inaugural congress attracted 300 delegates. Jan Steytler was elected unanimously as the party leader, and former UP stalwart Harry Lawrence became the national chairman (ibid., 75–76, 79–80). The party’s basic principles were:

  • 1. The maintenance and extension of the values of Western Civilisation, the protection of fundamental human rights and the safeguard of the dignity and worth of the human person, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
  • 2. The assurance that no citizen of the Union of South Africa shall be debarred on grounds of race, religion, language or sex, from making the contribution to our national life of which he or she may be capable.
  • 3. The recognition that in the Union of South Africa there is one nation which embraces various groups differing in race, religions, language and traditions; that each such group is entitled to the protection of these things and to participate in the government of the nation; and that understanding, tolerance and goodwill between the different groups must be fostered.
  • 4. The maintenance inviolate of the Rule of Law.
  • 5. The promotion of social progress and the improvement of living standards through the energetic development of a modern economy based on free enterprise, whereby the national resources of men and materials can be fully utilised. 6. The promotion of friendly relations with other nations, more particularly the members of the Commonwealth and those who share with us the heritage of Western Civilisation. (Kruger 1960, 105)

It was also decided at the inaugural congress that a commission would be established that would draw up proposals for a new constitution for South Africa. This constitution would bring about non-racialism in governance and entrench individual rights, which were absent from the 1910 Constitution (Swart 1991, 77–78). Donald Molteno was a constitutional lawyer and civil rights champion at the time of the founding of the Progressive Party and joined the party to chair its constitutional policy commission. (Other commissioners on the party’s constitutional commission included the former chief justice of South Africa, Albert Centlivres, native representative Edgar Brookes, judge Leslie Blackwell, businessman Harry Oppenheimer, Selby Ngcobo, Richard van der Ross, Eugene Marais, former UP leader Koos Strauss, and Kenneth Heard [Swart 1991, 80].) He was previously a native representative in the House of Assembly. Molteno grew up in Cape Town with a tradition of liberalism in his family (Lewsen 1987, 101).

The Progressive Party’s parliamentary delegation in 1960. Front (left to right): Walter Stanford, Harry Lawrence, Boris Wilson, Jan Steytler, Helen Suzman, Colin Eglin, Owen Williams. Back: Ray Swart, Clive van Ryneveld, John Cope, Zach de Beer, Ronald Butcher.

Douglas Mitchell, a conservative United Party frontbencher considered to have been a leading figure in the breakaway of the Progressives, had this to say about the split in the UP:

“No, I don’t take the blame for kicking out the Progressives. I take the credit. We must always have a political rubbish bin on our left in South Africa into which all the curious people with their curious political ideas can be safely packed together. Indeed, I go further and say that if there was no such a thing called the Progressive Party it would have paid us in the United Party to have manufactured such a political creature to have on our left otherwise we would become the party of the left.” (quoted in Barnard and Marais 1982, 135)

Despite Mitchell’s elation, S. L. Barnard and A. H. Marais opine that the liberal rebellion was one of the worst setbacks the UP experienced during its existence. There were liberals who remained in the UP, however, who did not want to give the conservatives the pleasure of thinking they had scored a victory over the progressive cause. This group of liberals—known as the “Young Turks”—would be relevant again in the 1970s, when they joined the Progressives after a brief period as the independent Reform Party (Barnard and Marais 1982, 136).

Disaster for South Africa and the Progressives in the 1960s

On 21 March 1960, there was protest throughout the country against the so-called pass and influx control laws, which excluded blacks from so-called white areas unless they possessed a pass book with the necessary stamps and permits from employers and government officials. Thousands were arrested across the country, but the black township of Sharpeville was where the unrest came to a head: the South African Police shot and killed 68 people in Sharpeville.

The government imposed press censorship around these events, but it could not censor Parliament, where freedom of expression was absolute. The Progressives thus used their parliamentary podium to keep the public informed about what was going on, while calling for restraint on the part of the police. The Progressives had opposed the pass law system as “an unjustifiable invasion of personal liberty” (Swart 1991, 84–85).

Days after the Sharpeville massacre, the government introduced the Unlawful Organisations Act, which banned the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, which were behind the demonstrations. The Progressives opposed this legislation as well. Steytler said in Parliament that the law would simply drive the ANC and PAC underground and lead to violent fanaticism—something that proved to be true as the years went on (Swart 1991, 86).

After South Africa became a republic in 1961, independent of the British Commonwealth, it became “more important than ever” for the Progressives to mobilize white liberals in opposition to the Nationalists’ racial Apartheid platform (Swart 1991, 90). The National Party resolved in 1941 that only the approval of the white population should be necessary for South Africa to become a republic without a British connection. Prior to 1941, the party’s platform said it would only take South Africa to republican status under a Nationalist government if it was the “people’s will” (Malan 1964, 292).

It was around the 1960s that the UP finally abandoned any pretense of liberalism, joining the National Party in condemning those foreign countries that criticized domestic South African political arrangements (Robertson 1971, 42). But while the Progressives did operate exclusively within formal white electoral politics, the party engaged in cross-racial dialogues from its overriding commitment to creating a non-racial society (Swart 1991, 73–74).

The general election of 1961, however, spelled disaster for the Progressives, who retained only one seat in Parliament, down from ten (Swart 1991, 97). This seat was held by Helen Suzman, who would be the lone Progressive member of Parliament for the next thirteen years. Swart (ibid., 102) provides highlights of what Suzman stood for as the sole representative of South African liberalism in Parliament:

  • Abolition of detention without trial
  • Abolition of pass laws and influx control
  • Abolition of job reservations on the basis of race
  • Recognition of trade unions with mixed racial profiles
  • Abolition of separate amenities and the Group Areas laws
  • Abolition of the forced removals system
  • Better wages and working conditions for the poor.

Suzman’s performance in Parliament won her admiration from the coloured community, which was entitled to political representation in the Provincial Council of the Cape Province and to four seats—represented by whites—in Parliament. Coloureds were placed on a separate voters’ roll from whites after being disenfranchised during the constitutional crisis of the 1950s, and as such had to be politically represented by whites.

In the 1964 provincial elections, two Progressives were elected to the Cape Provincial Council representing the coloureds, and it was likely that the Progressives would also receive the four seats contested on the coloureds’ voters’ roll in Parliament in the 1966 election. The Progressives had not contested those seats because of their opposition to the separate representation system, but it appeared that the coloured community desired representation. With the potential of having to deal with a renewed Progressive caucus in Parliament joining Suzman, however, the National Party introduced legislation that prohibited political parties from having mixed racial constituencies, and also abolished the coloureds’ representation in Parliament in favor of a separate Coloured Representative Council (Swart 1991, 109–110).

In 1970, Swart became chairman of the National Executive of the Progressive Party, and Colin Eglin became the party leader (Swart 1991, 112). In 1973, the Progressive Party hosted the Bulugha Conference in the Ciskei homeland with leaders of all the major non-banned black, Indian, and coloureds groups, with liberal whites. The result of the conference was a declaration in favor of a non-racial federal system with a bill of rights that protects individual rights and outlaws discrimination (ibid., 117).

Shortly thereafter, the government set up a commission to investigate various liberal civil society organizations, specifically the National Union of South African Students, the Christian Institute, the Institute of Race Relations, and the University Christian Movement. The United Party, to the condemnation of the English press, liberals around the country, and those few liberals among their own ranks, participated in this commission’s proceedings (Barnard and Marais 1982, 220). Swart considered the work of this commission to be a witch hunt against those who opposed Apartheid, and the press at the time likened it to McCarthyism. The UP’s participation in the commission further evidenced its abandonment of liberalism, and this close cooperation with the National Party likely contributed to the UP’s demise (Swart 1991, 120).

The Young Turks and the 1974 election

At the same time, a liberal coup was staged in the UP’s Transvaal Province branch by the so-called “Young Turks” of the party, led by Harry Schwarz. The individualist Young Turks ousted the conservative Transvaal leader of the UP, Marais Steyn, at the party’s 1973 provincial congress. Schwarz was not on good terms with the Progressive Party, but they did share common views on matters of racial policy. A year later, for instance, Schwarz and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland and today leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, co-signed the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith, in which they resolved that South Africa should adopt a federal constitution that guaranteed equal rights and limited government (Swart 1991, 120–121; Dhlamini 2017).

While the Schwarz faction and the Progressive Party were in talks, the 1974 general election was announced. The Progressives’ financial and human resources situation had greatly improved from 1970, and the electoral climate was also more favorable. Against even the most optimistic expectations, the Progressive Party attained six seats in total. A seventh Progressive was added to Parliament in a by-election shortly after the general election (Swart 1991, 123, 127).

Schwarz and the Young Turks founded the Reform Party in February 1975 after breaking away from the United Party. Because they already controlled the Transvaal branch of the UP, the Reform Party became the official opposition in the Transvaal Provincial Council as all ten UP members became Reformists. The Reform Party was always intended to be a mechanism through which the Young Turks could enter into talks with the Progressive Party with a view toward amalgamation. In the lead-up to such talks, Swart notes one attitude within the Progressive Party at the time:

“There was a deep concern within our ranks that in our attempts to broaden our base by forging links with others who had opposed us through the years, in hope of winning more support from amongst the white electorate, our political thrust as a tough-principled anti-racist group might become diluted and that we would fall to temptations of political expediency.” (Swart 1991, 129)

It is today believed by some that the Democratic Alliance—the Progressive Party’s descendant—has in fact been so tempted by political expediency and has largely abandoned its classical liberal roots in its attempts to appeal to the black electorate (Van der Westhuizen 2018).

Progressive Reform Party (1975–1977)

Although the Progressive Party endorsed the qualified franchise, many members acknowledged that the principle of universal franchise would need to be adopted sooner rather than later, within the framework, they hoped, of a constitution that protected individual rights and barred racial discrimination. The Reform Party also supported universal franchise, and the two parties looked to merge. There was also some quibbling over what the name of the newly merged party would be (Swart 1991, 129–130).

The two parties congressed simultaneously in Johannesburg in 1975. It was agreed that should each party’s congress adopt the details of the proposed merger, the congresses would merge into one inaugural congress of the new Progressive Reform Party (PRP), which indeed transpired. Eglin would remain party leader, Swart would remain national chairman, and Schwarz would become chairman of the National Executive (Swart 1991, 130–133).

Shortly after the PRP’s establishment, it won its first by-election in Durban North, with Harry Pitman becoming the eighth Progressive to sit in Parliament. This was the Progressives’ first victorious incursion into the UP stronghold of the Natal Province. As Swart notes pertinently, however, the liberals’ political success was of “symbolic rather than practical” significance to the black majority, who were still locked out of South African politics. The Progressives were only making progress against the weak UP opposition rather than the relatively strong National Party government (Swart 1991, 137–138).

Progressive Federal Party (1977–1989)

In 1977, the UP finally met its end after merging with the small Democratic Party and forming the New Republic Party (NRP). Many sitting United Party members, among them Japie Basson, Nic Olivier, Derek de Villiers, and Gavin McIntosh, were unhappy with this decision and instead decided to join the Progressive Reform Party. It rebranded again, becoming the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), with the controversial political chameleon Basson becoming the deputy national chairman. (Basson began his political career in the National Party, then started his own National Union in 1960, then joined the United Party in 1961, then the Progressive Federal Party in 1977, and finally rejoined the National Party in the mid-1980s.) The party’s position on the franchise was then subjected to a review commission chaired by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. In September 1978, the commission made its proposals, and the PFP adopted them. The Progressive policy was now one of non-racial universal franchise within a strong federal system, thereby abandoning the qualified education and property franchise that had characterized the Cape liberal tradition for a century (Swart 1991, 149).

Swart beat the leader of the newly formed New Republic Party, Radclyffe Cadman, in the Durban Musgrave constituency during the 1977 election. The Progressives replaced the NRP as the largest opposition party in Parliament, winning 17 seats to the NRP’s ten. The National Party increased its majority (Swart 1991, 143–145).

By 1977, however, Nationalist dedication to the Apartheid idea was falling apart due to the policy’s obvious unworkability and the violent protests that had erupted throughout the country against it. The government went about trying to adapt Apartheid while enacting ever more stringent security measures to ensure law and order (Swart 1991, 147). The political establishment’s abandonment of Apartheid as an ideology, in favor of a kind of pragmatism, was becoming increasingly apparent (Kane-Berman 2017, x). Kierin O’Malley writes that the Progressives’ victories in the 1970s flowed principally from the demise of the UP and the breakdown of “monolithic Afrikanerdom” (O’Malley 1994, 32). (Here O’Malley was likely referring to the fact that Afrikaners were no longer only represented by the National Party in national politics, in light of the emergence of the popular Conservative Party of Andries Treurnicht and to a lesser extent the Reconstituted National Party of Albert Hertzog.)

In September 1979, the academic Frederik van Zyl Slabbert became the leader of the Progressive Federal Party, replacing Colin Eglin, who became national chairman in the place of Swart. (Swart was chosen as the leader of the party in the Natal Province in 1980.) Slabbert was a well-credentialed Afrikaner schooled in the conservative far north of the country, with a degree from Stellenbosch University. That he was now the face of “liberal values in white parliamentary politics” led to consternation on the part of his Nationalist opponents (Swart 1991, 156–157). Slabbert’s leadership proved productive, as the PFP increased its representation in Parliament from 17 to 27 in the 1981 general election. The liberals, despite this victory, still feared that it might have been too late for liberalism to gain support among white South Africans, given that the conflict between whites and blacks was reaching a boiling point (ibid., 160).

To make Apartheid seem more acceptable, the Nationalists proposed what would become the Tricameral Parliament in 1984, a legislature consisting of three houses constituted along racial lines: one for whites, one for coloureds, and one for Indians. Blacks were excluded because the Nationalists argued that their political and constitutional activities were sufficiently accommodated in their homelands. The Progressives opposed the idea of a tricameral legislature, dismissing it as a sham in light of the facts that blacks were excluded and that whites would retain political supremacy even if both other houses voted against a measure. In the following white referendum to approve or reject the new constitution, the National Party government used state resources like public broadcasters to promote the new composition of Parliament, putting the opposition at a disadvantage. Sixty-six percent of the white electorate approved the 1984 Constitution, and the Tricameral Parliament was inaugurated (Swart 1991, 161–164).

The Progressives now faced an old liberal dilemma: should they participate in a fundamentally illegitimate system in order to reform it from within, or boycott the system knowing that the void will be filled by others? The PFP decided to continue serving in this flawed Parliament (Swart 1991, 165). To their credit, the Progressives and the anti-Apartheid movement succeeded in convincing the government to repeal measures that banned political race mixing, to relax strict labor laws and regulations, and to abolish pass laws and relax influx control (ibid., 175).

Slabbert’s unhappiness with the effectiveness of opposition within white parliamentary politics wore heavily on him, and the Progressives’ ambivalence toward the 1984 Constitution led to his and Alex Boraine’s resignations in 1986 (O’Malley 1994, 33). They went on to establish the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA), which would play an influential role in the remainder of the struggle against Apartheid (Swart 1991, 181).

The resignation of the popular Slabbert signaled a downturn for liberal politics. In the 1987 election the PFP lost six seats in Parliament, losing its position as official opposition in the process. The New Republic Party, the successor to the once-dominant UP of Jan Smuts, was reduced to having only one seat in Parliament. But these losses for the liberals did not mean the Nationalists gained, for this time the Conservative Party, which thought the National Party itself had become too liberal on the race question, sailed into the slot of official opposition (Swart 1991, 191).

By the end of the 1980s, the situation in South Africa was critical. Large parts of the country had been under an almost continuous state of emergency from July 1985, a state of affairs that only ended in June 1990 (South African History Online 2012b). The tumult combined with international sanctions led many to believe that there would be no return to normalcy (Swart 1991, 197–198).

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