Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

A liberal underground in South Africa

A recent comment on South African history by Paul Trewhela suggests that if the Liberal Party had gone underground 40 years ago, instead of disbanding under government pressure, it could have strengthened the liberal democratic tradition in South Africa today.

Politicsweb – FEATURES – The battle of ideas in South Africa:

The prime opponent in South Africa of both the European tradition of racist rule, embodied principally but not exclusively in the government of over forty years of the National Party, but also of totalitarian state despotism of the Soviet type (represented by the SACP), was the Liberal Party of South Africa. During the apartheid period, members of this party showed great courage and gave outstanding moral witness. But the Liberal Party existed for only 15 years, between 1953 and 1968, when it dissolved itself.

In another article, Gus Gosling asks whether it would have been possible for the Liberal Party to have gone underground, and gives some reasons why he thought it could not — Politicsweb – FEATURES – Why was there no liberal underground?:

In effect the NCL-ARM was the (premature) act of underground resistance from the Liberal Party. The final, aberrant, tragic act of the NCL-ARM on 24 July 1964, an expanded increasingly paranoid state security apparatus, combined finally with Liberal openness ensured the near impossibility for any second act of underground resistance from Liberals.

By that act of self-extinction, in that most bleak period of despotic rule under the heavy hand of Prime Minister Balthasar John Vorster (former paramilitary leader of the Ossewabrandwag), the Liberal Party discounted itself as a serious contender for the allegiance of black people, deprived of a vote, and handed primacy of position in the argument for the criterion of non-racialism in politics to its rival and enemy, the SACP.

So why, despite all this, do I still think that Paul Trewhela has a point? The Liberal Party’s real failure was that, outside Natal, it was perceived and received as a party of white privilege. (In Natal the Liberal Party had support among rural blacks facing eviction from ‘blackspots’.)

I think that Gus Gosling has got it right there. As I’ve noted elsewhere (Notes from underground: A new history of the Liberal Party?), I have little first-hand knowledge of the Liberal Party outside Natal, but within Natal, I can see no way that the party could have gone underground. The party had operated openly and publicly. Its members and leaders were well-known to the Security Police, who would not have had to be very bright to have noticed underground activity. Their izimpimpi were still active, and long after the Liberal Party had disbanded they continued to report contact between former members of the party to the Security Police.

Liberal Party meeting in rural Natal, 1965.

Liberal Party meeting in rural Natal, 1965. According to the South African Communist Party it was a “white bourgeois party” — note all the white bourgeoisie in the picture.

It was easier for the South African Communist Party to operate underground for reasons noted by Gosling and Trewhela, and also because it saw itself as a vanguard organisation, which the Liberal Party did not. The Liberal Party tried not only to talk about democracy, but to practise it in its own organisation, which meant meeting not as secret cells, but publicly as party branches, and having regional, provincial and national congresses.

So I believe it would have been pretty unrealistic to expect the Liberal Party to go underground.

But there is a related question that is worth asking.

While it would have been almost impossible for the Liberal Party to operate underground, some of its members, including me, were quite interested in the history of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, and we did see the possibility of a confessing church in South Africa. So the question to ask is why nothing came of the idea of a confessing church.

When the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were published in English in the 1960s, they struck a chord with South African readers, who could see many parallels between South Africa in the 1960s and Germany in the 1930s. In 1963 the Christian Institute was formed, and its associated journal Pro Veritate published articles asking if the time had come for a confessing church in South Africa.

I and others have covered this in some detail in a collection of essays Oom Bey for the future: engaging the witness of Beyers Naude edited by Len Hansen and Robert Vosloo (Stellenbosch, SUN Press, 2006: ISBN 1-920109-29-3). One of the things that I was concerned with was that the Christian Institute should try to recruit former members of the Liberal Party (most of whom were Christians belonging to various African independent churches), and, as an interdenominational organisation, provide the basic structure for them to continue to work together.

In the end, for various reasons, this did not happen.

Nevertheless, a Christian “underground” was a far more feasible project than a Liberal Party one, and if it had come off, it could have performed at least some of the functions that Trewhela and Gosling think an underground Liberal Party could have done.

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2 thoughts on “A liberal underground in South Africa

  1. Gus Gosling on said:

    Dear Steve,

    Thank you kindly for this thoughtful post — it is the only evidence I have that anyone read and understood my article!

    You write of izimpimpi. Were they large in number? Were they always motivated by money, or were there any ideologically motivated informers (seems unlikely)?

  2. Steve Hayes on said:


    I don’t know how many pimps they were, and their motivation may have been money or fear. For example, the first and last Christian Institute meeting held at Stepmore, near Himeville, in May 1969, at the home of Enock Mnguni, who had been chairman of the local Liberal Party branch, had a disappointing attendance, though it was addressed by Beyers Naude, the director of CI. The reason for that was that the SB had visited landlords and told them to threaten to evict any tenants who attended the meeting.

    Clearly there were informers who had told the SB about the meeting. In some cases they were schoolkids who did it for pocket money.

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