Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “politicians”

A new history of the Liberal Party?

In a recent article Paul Trewhela calls for a new history of the Liberal Party

There is a major unmet need for a further serious, comprehensive history of the former Liberal Party of South Africa, especially while the younger of its former members (and some of its seniors) are mostly still alive and available for interview. Its neglect is a failing of the historians working on South Africa, and leaves a serious breach in an important and needed tradition. The current major history is Liberals against apartheid: A history of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953-1968 (Macmillan, London/St Martins Press, New York, 1997), written by a former senior leader of the party, Randolph Vigne.

The question that immediately comes to mind is whether a new history could add enough to Vigne’s work to find a market and make a useful contribution to South African history. The Liberal Party was always a small one; it never gathered a large membership, partly because its ideas were not popular, and partly because of repression by the National Party government. What is amazing, however, is that most of the political ideas that the Liberal Party stood for have been embodied in the present South African constitution. That in itself makes its history worth recording, though whether two histories are needed is a moot point.

One of the reasons a new history is needed, according to Trewhela, is the prejudice against the word liberal, which is just as prevalent in the new ANC-ruled South Africa as in the old National Party-ruled one.

It is all the more needed since in present-day South Africa the language of power now replicates the language of power of the apartheid regime, in the violence and uncouthness of its diatribe against the word “liberal”. One need only glance at the language and categories of thought available weekly on the State President’s personal website, ANC Today, to get a measure of this… All the issues of cruelty and obfuscation which gave concern to George Orwell in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language” of 1946, rise up in their sinister unclarity.

And there Trewhela has a point. Ignorance of the meanings of “liberal” and “liberalism” is rife. One only has to look at recent blog and general web postings to find examples. Take, for example, a blog post by Mpush a few months ago, entitled Liberal equivocations:

Liberal politics in South Africa, on top of their bankrupt political vision, have an uncanny habit of working themselves into tight a corner. First it was the DP (Democratic Party) ‘Fight Back’ campaign during the 1994 South African democratic election whose cynical tone rubbed most black South Africans the wrong way. Then in 1999, the DP merged with NNP (New National Party) to become DA (Democratic Alliance), and could only come up with a bland ‘South Africa Deserves Better’ slogan to fight elections with much success.

This embodies many of the current misconceptions, misperceptions and misinformation about South African political history. First of all, it is debateable whether the Democratic Party could accurately be described as “liberal”. The “fight back” campaign (which was in 1999, not 1994) was a blatant attempt to woo the white right with “swart gevaar” tactics. The message was clearly that people who were “gatvol” after five years of democracy should “fight back” against it by voting for the Democratic Party, which, it implied, would restore the status quo ante. There is no way that this kind of behaviour could be described as political liberalism. And shortly after the election, the Democratic Party united with the rump of the National Party to form the Democratic Alliance, and was responsible for introducing the abomination of floor crossing into our political system, which is very far indeed from being liberal. The Liberal Party stood for “one man, one vote” when it was unfashionable and dangerous to do so. The crosstitutes stand for “one politician, one vote” and to hell with the electorate.

Similar misconceptions and wrong information are found in the following, posted on a “white right” blog: ZAR: How the CIA defeated Apartheid & placed the ANC

The NP probably got a higher percentage of the black vote than did the Pan Africanist Congress, a relic of Cold War history, which received scant support in the election. Also disappearing into oblivion was the Democratic Party (DP),which was nothing more than the reconstituted old Liberal Party that Allard Lowenstein had backed. Once banned by the primitive white racist South African government, and later reinvented as the Progressive Party with the help of Harry Oppenheimer, the DP was basically the personal vehicle of Helen Suzman, who spent as much effort fighting the ANC as she did apartheid.

Faced with such monumental ignorance, perhaps a new history of the Liberal Party is needed — but would the people who write such rubbish bother to dispel their ignorance by reading it? If they haven’t learned it from Vigne’s book, it is unlikely that they would learn anything from a new history.

So let’s turn to people who might be expected to be better informed, like Barney Pityana, the principal of the biggest university in the country, in his recent Steve Biko memorial lecture:

The white liberal establishment, including white opposition parties in the apartheid parliament, the media, and institutions like the SAIRR [South African Institute of Race Relations], as well as NUSAS could not be entrusted with the task of liberation. They too were part of the movement that imprisoned the mind of the black people and created false hopes about what they might accomplish while at the same time participating in and enjoying the fruits of an evil system.

Their vision of South Africa was based on exploitative values, and the integration they espoused would entrench inequalities. There was also a connivance between all these forces: the apartheid regime and their Bantustan collaborators, and the liberal establishment, all had one thing in common: they applied and derived comfort and sustenance from a system of racial oppression, then they dared to believe that self-respecting black people would wish to be co-opted to their grand design, and finally to have their response to the condition of oppression programmed. That had to be rejected.

Now it is true that in this Barney Pityana does not mention the Liberal Party. It is also true that in its beginnings in 1953 it was mostly white liberals who started the Liberal Party (whether they constituted an “establishment” remains a moot point) and that initially it was largely white people who spoke for blacks, for example Margaret Ballinger, who was a “Natives Representative” in the South African parliament and so was indeed a white person who spoke for blacks. She was, however, elected by black people to speak for them, until even that voice was silenced by the National Party regime when it abolished the “Native Representatives”.

What changed the Liberal Party, however, was the introduction of simultaneous translation equipment at party congresses in the early 1960s. Black members, who had hitherto passively listened to eloquent debates in English, suddenly found their voice, made themselves heard, and had a real influence on party policy, and especially the policy of “one man, one vote”. Some of the more conservative white members left and joined the newly-formed Progressive Party, which adopted a francise policy that was nonracial, but reserved the vote for the rich and educated, effectively moving the criterion from race to class.

Perhaps what is needed is not another party history, but a discussion on what constitutes liberalism. Paul Trewhela’s proposal, however, has the effect of reinforcing what Barney Pityana is talking about, since he seems to be concerned only about the white members of the Liberal Party who formed the African Resistance Movement and turned to violence. That was a purely white-initiated movement, which was marginal to the Liberal Party as such.

What is missing from Vigne’s history, and it would appear, from Trewhela’s proposed history, is the role of black liberals. Why is it that in South African political discourse, the word “liberals” is almost invariably preceded by the epithet “white”? Barney Pityana does it, but so does Paul Trewhela — if it is not stated explicitly, it is understood.

In Vigne’s history black liberals play bit parts. They flit across the pages and disappear off them almost as quickly as they appear.

And yes, I agree with Barney Pityana and Steve Biko that there were (and are) white people who try to speak for black people and thereby suppress the voice of black people (as, of course, I am doing in this article!) I just question whether such white people are necessarily liberals. To characterise the Democratic Party in its “fight back” campaign in 1999 as “liberal” is stretching the word “liberal” way too far.

But we do need, somehow, to clarify the term “liberal” and the idea of liberalism, and to make a distinction between liberals (of any colour) and pseudo-liberals.


Last year, when Yahoo removed my web pages on the Liberal Party, I posted some of this information on my blog at Notes from underground: The Liberal Party of South Africa

Mbeki — world’s worst President?

John Carlin, writing in the Guardian Unlimited, asks “Is Mandela’s heir one of the world’s worst presidents?” and after praising Mandela goes on to say:

Pity, then, about his successor, Thabo Mbeki, who chose the month when Mandela is immortalised in bronze to remind us of just how far short he falls of the best his country has to offer; how strong a candidate he is to rank, with his friend Robert Mugabe, among the worst Presidents in the world.

That’s really something, in a world in which George Bush and Robert Mugabe are still going strong. Of course Tony Blair was a Prime Minister, not a president, though his style seemed to have a lot in common with P.W. Botha’s imperial presidency. Tony Blair participated enthusiastically in not one, not two, but three wars of aggression, and Carlin has the unmitigated gall to ask if Thabo Mbeki is the worst president in the world?

But since Blair has retired, he’s out of the running. Bush and Mugabe are running neck and neck for first place in the race for the title “Worst president in the world”, so let’s leave them out of it.

I look around the world at presidents and prime ministers in various countries, and ask myself, “Would I rather have X as our president than Thabo Mbeki?” And in most cases, my answer is “No”. For all his faults, Thabo Mbeki is much better than many of the heads of government of other countries.

Who would I rather have?

Gordon Brown? John Howard? Vladimir Putin? Hugo Chavez? Nouri al-Maliki? Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir? Kostas Karamanlis? Angela Merkel? Levy Mwanawasa? Joseph Kabila? Romano Prodi? Guillaume Soro? Alexander Lukashenko? Ali Khamenei? Pervez Musharraf? Ehud Olmert?

I don’t think so!

Does Carlin seriously suggest that Mbeki is worse than all of those?

Mbeki has many faults, most notably his “see no evil” approach to Zimbabwe and his vacillating Aids policy, but he hasn’t yet started any wars of aggression, like Bush, or tried to suppress the opposition by force, like Mugabe.

But I’ve noticed this morning that Sky News is also trying to do a hatchet job on Mbeki, implying that he is urging people to put their faith in quack remedies rather than antiretroviral drugs. What I find interesting is that they don’t provide any evidence of their allegations — if they had a sound bite or a video clip of Thabo Mbeki saying this, it might be more convincing than the unsupported assertions that they have been making.

So I wonder — why do the Brit media suddenly have it in for Thabo Mbeki?

Thanks to Leo Africanus for the tip, though unfortunately he has disabled “Link to this post”.

What has floor-crossing achieved?

They are asking this question on the After 8 debate on SAFM this morning: what has the floor-crossing archieved?

Do they really have to ask?

We all know what it has achieved:

  • voter apathy
  • the replacement of “the people shall govern” by “the politicians shall govern”
  • government of the people, by the politicians, for the politicians
  • a banana republic

The last is based on the similarity between politicians and a bunch of bananas – they are all yellow, they hang together, and there’s not a straight one among them.

As long as the constitutional court allows crosstitution, South Africa will not be a democracy.

The crosstitutes are at it again

It’s floor-crossing season again, when South Africa abandons democracy and is ruled by a self-elected, self-serving bunch of politicians.

The worst thing about it is not the behaviour of the politicians. Politicians can be expected to be self-serving. The worst thing about it is the behaviour of our constitutional court, which has utterly failed in its duty to protect our democracy by allowing it to be destroyed in this fashion. One must seriously question the integrity of the judges of the Constiutional Court.

The Constitutional Court is supposed to evaluate legislation in the spirit of the constitution, and its fundamental principles. And one of the principles of the Constitution, one of the principles that the liberation struggle was fought for, was “the people shall govern”.

While that may be true for the first 18 months after an election, for the rest of the time the people do not govern, and South Africa is ruled by an unelected oligarchy.

As The Weekender reported, even before it began the floor-crossing window was stained with “allegations of bribery, threats of violence, and offers of sexual favours”.

The crosstitutes bring South Africa into disrepute. The Constitutional Court, by allowing crosstitution, brings South Africa into even more disrepute. Is the Constitutional Court there to protect our democracy, or to preside over a political brothel?

In a constituency system, where candidates are elected in their personal capacity, and their names appear on the ballot paper, floor-crossing is permissible, and may be judged good or bad according to circumstances. In a proportional representation system, however, where the names of candidates do not appear on the ballot paper, but are nominated on party lists, the politicians cease to represent the electorate the moment they leave the party that put them on its list.

What makes it so difficult for our Constiutional Court judges to understand this?

Pipes and politicians

As the urbane pipe-smoking Thabo Mbeki nears the end of his second term as President, people’s thoughts are turning to possible successors. And many people are becoming increasingly nervous about the suitability of Jacob Zuma, the heir-apparent.

There’s a whiff of scandal about Zuma, after his well-publicised connections with crooked businessman Shabir Shaik, and the play-within-a-play rape trial, which looked like a rather clumsy put-up job by people who were also nervous about the prospect of JZ as president.

And one can’t blame them for being nervous.

Whether any of the mud slung at him sticks or not, let’s face it, the man is thick. He’s even thicker than George Bush. I have a growing fear that he might do to South Africa what George Bush has done to the USA.

And some are suggesting that the constitution should be amended to allow Thabo Mbeki to serve a third term. That also makes me a bit nervous. Not that I think a third term of Thabo Mbeki would be a bad thing, but it only puts off the day when a successor needs to be found. And if the successor is someone like Jacob Zuma, or Mad Bob Mugabe, a third term would be horrible.

People are talking about roping in Tokyo Sexwale. Well, he didn’t destroy Gauteng when he was premier, so I rather hope he makes it. Any alternative to JZ seems a good idea. The more I think about the prospect of a JZ presidency, the more I appreciate Thabo Mbeki. When I look around at the political leaders of other countries, or at least the ones I know about, I think how lucky we are to have Mbeki. I’d much rather have him than someone like Bush, Blair, Putin or Mugabe.

And then I realise that I can’t actually name any others. When I was younger I used to take more interest in practical politics and could name the Presidents or Prime Ministers of a couple of dozen countries, and suddenly I realise that I no longer know most of them. Who ruled Zambia after Kaunda, or Tanzania after Nyerere? The only recent ones I remember are the ones who made wars, like Bush, Blair, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic and Olmert. The names of the present rulers of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia escape me. As Shakespeare said, the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. That’s rather sad.

But back to Thabo Mbeki… In spite of his making some questionable decisions, I’d still rather have him than most of the others. But come to think of it, his pipe hasn’t been much in evidence lately. Has the anti-spoking lobby got to him? Has he given up smoking it? Or has he just given it up in public, as bad for his public image? Does he go out into the garden and only smke it when x metres away from a building, and preferably downwind of it?

How long will it be before the anti-smoking lobby excise all references to “pipe-weed” from Lord of the Rings, I wonder? And what would the Inklings make of the anti-smoking lobby?

The other pipe-smoking politician I remember is Harold Wilson, and I sometimes wonder if Thabo Mbeki hasn’t modelled himself on Wilson, at least to some extent. He’s probably a bit brighter than Wislon (as the Grauniad might have referred to him), but they have one thing in common. Wilson had great problems with Rhodesia and Smith, and Mbeki has great problems with Zimbabwe and Mugabe. Mbeki’s problems are a bit more serious, though. I don’t think 3 million Rhodesian refugees went to Britain.

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