The United South African National Party, known as the United Party (UP), had traditionally been the political home of English-speaking South Africans, and, as a result that of liberal South Africans, as the bulk of liberals had been English. While it did falter substantively and often on the question of race relations—which perhaps did not have a simple solution, since immediate and unqualified universal suffrage might have destroyed liberal democracy—the UP did have notable liberal characteristics. It sought a limited government that did not infringe too wantonly on individual liberty and maintained the rule of law and constitutionalism (Robertson 1971, 15–16). Chiefly, it sought the protection of existing rights, and did so admirably during the 1950s constitutional crisis (Robertson 1971, 42). The rule of law “is fundamental to freedom, and freedom is fundamental to the good life,” wrote Brookes and MacAulay. It was undermined during the Apartheid era because the destinies of millions of South Africans were placed in the hands of a “thousand petty tyrants”—ordinary officials with virtually unlimited discretion—without effective control by the courts (Brookes and MacAulay 1958, 26).
In the late 1930s, the UP increased state benefits for many blacks: a housing and pension scheme, grants for education and welfare, an agreement by Jan Smuts to recognize black trade unions, and higher wages for blacks working on the railways. In 1942, the minister of native affairs, Deneys Reitz, attacked the pass law system, hinting at its potential future abolition (Lewsen 1987, 104–105).
The United Party’s Cabinet in 1939. Minister Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr and Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts are seated at the far left in the front row.
The tumultuous history of the United Party and the Progressive Party’s attempt to advocate liberalism in white politics is well chronicled by Ray Swart in his 1991 book Progressive Odyssey. Swart was a rebel member of the United Party, and his book reflects close familiarity with its past. As we will see, the Progressive Party broke away from the United Party in 1959, became the Progressive Reform Party in 1975, then the Progressive Federal Party in 1977, and, finally, in 1989, the Democratic Party. The modern Democratic Alliance, established in 2000, was based on the Democratic Party plus two other parties.
The United Party was for many years, before 1948, the governing party of South Africa, and for many years thereafter the official opposition. It would be incorrect, however, to consider the UP as the liberal alternative to the racist National Party. The UP, instead, was a big-tent organization (Swart 1991, 23), with a run-of-the-mill, generally Afrikaner wing that agreed, in principle, with legalized and systematic racial discrimination. Indeed, Swart, a new young parliamentarian in the UP in the late 1950s, relates how a senior UP official admonished him for waving a greeting to black children (ibid., 13).
Lewsen (1987, 110) writes that conservative segregationists made up the majority of the rank-and-file of the United Party, even though it had notable liberal-spirited leaders and representatives. The UP also broadly supported the intentions of various pieces of Apartheid legislation, but opposed the means they sought to employ. On the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, for instance, Robertson relates how many in the UP were opposed to mixed marriages but felt that legislation was not needed. Robertson attributes this to the UP’s support for the rule of law—i.e., the notion that government officials must not have broadly defined discretions stated in vague legislation. The UP opposed the Suppression of Communism Act not because the UP welcomed communists, but because the law assigned sweeping powers of political suppression to the minister of the interior (Robertson 1971, 45–47).
The UP also had a center faction that consisted primarily of English South Africans who simply feared living under a system of Afrikaner nationalism outside the British Commonwealth, and a small wing that was liberal on questions of race (Spence 1965, 61). Because of the performances of both the conservatives and the liberals of the UP in parliamentary debates, the party was often accused of speaking with two voices (Swart 1991, 28). Because of its lack of a coherent, direction-giving philosophy, the UP would during the 1960s and 1970s lose its right wing to the National Party. And earlier, in 1959, Swart and others in the center and left factions broke away from the UP to form the Progressive Party, which had as a core policy pillar the rejection of racial discrimination and an insistence on equal opportunities and a common franchise (ibid., 9). What had united the United Party was opposition, for different reasons, to the National Party (ibid., 14).
So the UP was not entirely illiberal. In fact, Jan Smuts, as prime minister, addressed the staunchly liberal Institute of Race Relations in February 1942 and acknowledged that segregation had failed because of economic reasons. Many liberals believed that gradually the UP would adopt a more racially inclusive policy, especially in light of the fact that its racial policy at the time was already far more inclusive than that of the National Party (Robertson 1971, 24).
The liberal backbench of the UP right after the watershed 1953 general election was composed of Jan Steytler, Helen Suzman, Owen Townley Williams, Sakkies Fourie, John Cope, Zach de Beer, and Ray Swart (Swart 1991, 14, 21–22). Another MP, Bernard Friedman, had sympathies with this clique, as did the business mogul and MP Harry Oppenheimer (ibid., 35) (Oppenheimer also contributed funds to the founding of the Free Market Foundation [Louw 2011].). The 1953 election was the election immediately following the National Party’s victory over the United Party in 1948 (the year described as the beginning of Apartheid). The United Party had strong hopes that it would oust the Nationalists in 1953, but this was not to be. UP leaders, after this election was lost, seemed to resign themselves to the fact that the NP would remain in power for some time to come. After the 1958 general election, the liberal backbench was joined by Clive van Ryneveld, Boris Wilson, and Colin Eglin. It was only in the 1958 general election that the National Party secured a majority of votes from the white electorate. In the two previous elections the UP was the largest party, but the majority of votes were split among the opposition parties (ibid., 44).
In the late 1950s these younger, more liberal backbenchers tended to be shunned by the UP’s old guard, even though the party required their energy and talents to be blended with the experience of the senior members if it hoped to be successful (Swart 1991, 32–33). The UP was known in the 1950s for “the equivocation inherent in the party’s approach to matters of principle,” which ultimately led to the formation of the Progressive Party (ibid., 36). Perhaps ironically, the Progressive Party’s big-tent successor in recent times, the Democratic Alliance, is also known among liberals for often being equivocal and having a turbulent relationship with principle (Gon 2019; Berger 2018).
Harry Lawrence, a UP frontbencher from the days of the old South African Party, also counted himself among the liberals’ ranks, and along with Steytler was the most senior liberal in the party. In a June 1959 letter to the UP leader, Sir De Villiers Graaff, for instance, Lawrence said that time was running out for white South Africans to find a peaceful and equitable way of living with non-whites:
“If my premises are accepted, then Verwoerd’s aims [viz., Apartheid] require the posing of a clear alternative—an alternative, moreover, which must rest on sound moral and ethical grounds, which must not involve permanent discrimination for all time.” (Lawrence, quoted in Barnard and Marais 1982, 110–113)
At the August 1959 UP Union Congress (the annual Union Congress was the UP’s highest decision-making body) in Bloemfontein, the liberals were openly treated as pariahs and hissed as they went to the podium to speak. The leader of the liberal wing, Jan Steytler, was to be the chair of the congress because that office rotated among the provincial leaders of the party. Steytler was the head of the party in the Cape Province. A delegate at the congress objected to this by way of a point of order, asking whether it was appropriate for a liberal to chair the occasion. A large number of delegates applauded the objection, showing the level of contempt in which the liberals were held, but eventually Steytler was allowed to take the chair. While the party formally wished to keep its liberal wing to ensure it sustained its dominance of urban centers, the liberals’ attempts to reform the party from within along more tolerant lines was treated with contempt. Such occurrences at the congress made the liberals believe their future in the UP to be precarious (Swart 1991, 53). The decisions taken at the Union Congress and the UP’s lack of coherent race policy finally sparked the resignation of the liberals from the party, and soon thereafter they resolved to establish a new political party (ibid., 53, 64).
Swart was the first rebel from the UP to address a public meeting, in Eshowe, Natal. Similar meetings were held by the other dissidents in their own locales to explain why they had resigned from the UP but intended to keep their parliamentary seats (Swart 1991, 66–67). At Eshowe and elsewhere motions of confidence in such individual liberal dissidents were passed. Motions of no confidence, on the other hand, were routinely defeated, except when the UP succeeded in packing a meeting in Empangeni and narrowly passed a vote of no confidence in Swart. The UP, however, knew that the liberals had significant support in those constituencies. The English newspaper media, which have historically associated with the UP as opposed to the Afrikaans newspapers, which supported the National Party, proved sympathetic to the liberals, with the popular Rand Daily Mail going as far as outright support (ibid., 67–69, 71).