NINETEEN streets were renamed in Pietermaritzburg a few years ago and three of them commemorate members of the Liberal Party (LP): Selby Msimang, Peter Brown and Alan Paton. It’s a surprising record for adherents of a political tendency that has consistently been at odds with the nation’s establishment, whether colonial, apartheid or post-liberation. Brown and Paton feature in a photograph taken at a workshop of former party members held in Grahamstown in 1985 together with Patrick McKenzie, Norman Bromberger, Phoebe Brown, Marie Dyer, John Aitchison and Tony Mathews, all with city connections. Other prominent Pietermaritzburg party members were Edgar Brookes, Mamie Corrigall and Deneys Schreiner; while Elliot Mngadi, Roy Coventry, Mike Ndlovu and Neil Alcock came from the rural areas of the Midlands and northern Natal. When the final meeting of the national LP was held in Johannesburg in March 1968, a couple of months before racially mixed political parties were outlawed by the Prohibition of Political Interference Act, Colin Gardner was in the chair.

The party had lasted nearly 15 years. Liberal groups had sprung up in each major South African centre in response to the assault on the rule of law by the National Party (NP). The opposition United Party (UP) offered nothing more than compromise with apartheid and the Torch Commando had failed to live up to its post-war promise; but the Defiance Campaign provided added inspiration and a glimpse of a new political landscape. By March 1953 the Pietermaritzburg and Durban liberal groups had become the Natal region of the South African Liberal Association with Paton as chair and Peter Brown as secretary, the beginning of a long, famous and productive political association.

On 9 May 1953 the national Liberal Party was formed after the April general election win by the NP. It was, after the already banned Communist Party (CPSA), the second non-racial political movement in South Africa; and the only legal one until the 1980s with the founding of the United Democratic Front (1983) and final opening up of the ANC (1985). The ANC permitted dual membership with the CPSA and Msimang supported a similar arrangement with the LP, confirming that its policies were non-racial and consistent with black liberation. Historian Randolph Vigne makes the significant point that the party’s programme basically embraced all the demands of the Freedom Charter except, unsurprisingly, state ownership.

The inaugural Pietermaritzburg meeting of the LP was addressed by Msimang, Paton and B.A. Maharaj on the franchise amongst other matters. Natal LP members tended to be on the left wing of the party, at odds with the qualified franchise tendencies of Cape liberalism, and refused to be distracted by anti-communism. In Pietermaritzburg there was a strong LP presence at the local university and Aitchison recalls that in 1964 a majority on the Student Representative Council were LP members, making it the most radical campus amongst the four open universities.

Most significant was the bond forged with a large African rural membership over the issue of forced removal from black freehold areas (there were 250 such settlements in Natal), which made the LP a truly non-racial organisation. In alliance with the ANC, which had a poorly developed rural strategy, it opposed forced removals strenuously. After the ANC’s banning in 1960 the LP carried on alone. With limited resources and tiny budgets it located target populations, alerted them to the danger, and tried to delay these acts of ethnic cleansing through legal and other means. It also tried to sway white public opinion. Perhaps the most famous example was Roosboom near Ladysmith where LP member Elliot Mngadi, a court messenger, became campaign organiser against removals out of which grew the Northern Natal Landowners Association, bringing together farmers, owners and tenants. This was part of the resistance to the government’s reassertion of tribal authority and development of bantustan policy. Black LP members from places like Roosboom brought the party into the mainstream of anti-apartheid activism. It participated in a 1956 march in Pietermaritzburg in protest at the extension of passes to African women and members Violaine Junod and Ruth Lundie were arrested. Fundamental to all LP campaigns were questions about the use, and abuse, of political power.

There was an LP branch in Edendale and members were to be found in far-flung rural areas. In 1954 the national headquarters had been moved to 268 Longmarket Street with Paton and Brown as chairperson and deputy. Despite the party’s decision not to attend the Congress of the People in 1955, relations with the ANC remained cordial and Albert Luthuli, president-general, addressed the 1958 Natal congress. Throughout the Natal Midlands there were well-attended non-racial meetings with Msimang, Luthuli and Jordan Ngubane as speakers, always closely monitored by the police security branch. When Luthuli was banned in 1960, protests organised by the LP in Pietermaritzburg and Durban each attracted 2 000 people.

The March 1960 strike called by the ANC was supported by liberals in Pietermaritzburg: Brown was distributing leaflets the day before he, Hans Meidner, Derick Marsh, Mngadi and LP members from Bergville were detained under the first State of Emergency. Brown’s refusal to accept early conditional release was highly symbolic and made a significant, national impression. An anti-government rally at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall in November, chaired by Jack Spence and addressed by ex-detainees, was supported by a multi-racial audience of over one thousand people and Brookes highlighted their common purpose: to share a future as fellow citizens.

The LP was killed off by legislation, but during the mid-1960s it was already suffering a steady stream of bannings, about 70 nationwide: Mngadi and Brown were banned within three months in 1964; while Heather Morkill, with her close links to branches in African areas, was similarly restricted in April 1966. Harassment and intimidation were widespread in what Paton described at the July 1965 conference in Pietermaritzburg as a ‘fear-ridden land’. The government was indeed paranoid about liberal ideas: Colin Gardner tells the story that when Paton was first raided a policeman walked into his study and exclaimed, ‘God, die boeke!’ After the party went into liquidation, Jacques Berthoud wrote in The Times (London) that its main characteristic was its humanity; while Derek Ingram of The Guardian (Manchester) noted that it ‘died with dignity’. Many members favoured defiance to political suicide, but Gardner remembers that the decision to disband was based on the knowledge that the government was planning to prosecute the LP’s black members. Aitchison recalls his LP credentials with pride: the party ‘was principled, did the right thing against incredible odds, and its members, white and black, were heroes.’

In its closing message, ambitiously termed a temporary farewell, the LP predicted that apartheid could not last and appealed to individuals to continue fighting for ‘freedom and equal opportunity … for every South African and [a] non-racial society’.

This was doubly perceptive. The party had made only a limited impression on mainstream South African politics, but many individual members were eminent and influential. For example, work with rural communities carried on through AFRA (Association for Rural Advancement) flourishes to this day. And the reach of liberal ideas over the next two decades had a significant impact on the framing of our post-liberation constitution. Peter Brown’s biographer, Michael Cardo, points out that all the major planks of LP policy – universal suffrage, the rule of law, basic human rights and social justice – are well embedded in post-liberation political culture. At a meeting to protest at Mngadi’s banning in 1964, Brown had pointed out that Liberals counted on the ‘certainty of victory one day.’ Indeed, this turned out to be more realistic than he could ever have hoped at the time.

This article was first published in The Witness on 8 May 2013 and entitled ‘SA politics’ pocket Hercules’.

Further reading: Milton Shain, Opposing Voices: Liberalism and Opposition in South Africa Today (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006); Randolph Vigne, Liberals Against Apartheid: A History of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953−68 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).