Liberalism and old liberals revisited
Yesterday, while on holiday in Pietermaritzburg, we visited old friends Colin and Mary Gardner, whom we had not seen for a long time, and one of the things we talked about was a proposal by Paul Trewhela for a new history of the Liberal Party of South Africa, and also Paul Trewhela’s notion that the Liberal Party ought to have gone underground in 1968, instead of disbanding when the Improper Interference Act became law.
(the picture shows Val Hayes, Colin & Mary Gardner)
I’ve blogged about Paul Trewhela’s proposals before, so I won’t repeat everything that I said there, but Colin Gardner came up with a new slant on it. He was a member of the national executive of the Liberal Party at the time the decision was made to disband, and he said that they had considered ignoring the Improper Interference Act (which prohibited multiracial political parties) and just carry on as if nothing had happened, and decided not to. One of the reasons for that, that I had not been aware of, was that some Liberal lawyers, who were in touch with some National Party lawyers, said that that was what the government was expecting, and if it happened, they would declare the Liberal Party a “white” party, and prosecute the black members for contravening the Improper Interference Act. Basing political decisions on what was, in effect, idle gossip over tea at a Law Society meeting, or something similar, may seems strange, but that was one way of gaining intelligence of the intentions of the government.
And as for Paul Trewhela’s idea, which he still seems to be pushing, that the Liberal Party ought to have, or even could have, gone underground, it would have been impossible, for reasons I have already noted (Notes from underground: A liberal underground in South Africa), namely that, having operated openly and publicly for 15 years, all active Liberals were known to the SB (Security Police), and any such activity would have been reported to them immediately by their izimpimpi.
Colin Gardner also remarked that one of the things that followed the passing of the Improper Interference Act, though not necessarily caused by it, was the rise of Black Consciousness. At first the National Party government welcomed BC, because they saw it as their policies bearing fruit, but it didn’t take them long to realise that it was independent of their control, and not at all what they had in mind by “own affairs”. Steve Biko’s declaration of himself as a “non-nonracialist” could initially be mistaken for what the National Party government had in mind when it passed the Improper Interference Act, but eventually they learned that it wasn’t.
Colin also thought that Steve Biko was using “non-nonracialism” as a tactic, and would, if he had lived, become nonracialist, though whether he or his ideals would have survived in the current South African political climate might be questionable.
Steve Biko didn’t have a good word for what he called “white liberals” (which continues to be a swear word in South Africa), but I suspect that what he had in mind when he used the term “liberal” was Nusas (the National Union of South African Students), rather than the Liberal Party. And, as have pointed out in Notes from underground: A new history of the Liberal Party?, the word “liberal” is still misused, and still misunderstood, as much as, if not more than, it was 45-50 years ago.