IN the apartheid era  they were called Communists and told to pack for Moscow. In post-liberation South Africa they are abused as racists. Liberals have never had an easy ride, but adherents of a political philosophy based on principles know that they cannot expect such luxuries.

Liberals have seldom been popular in South Africa and the current onslaught comes from the Africanists. Their views are uncomplimentary in the extreme and found, for example, in an article entitled ‘Our reality, Whiteman, is black’, written it so happens by a recent visitor to the city, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba. Liberal philosophy, it is argued, is Eurocentric, antagonist to the African Renaissance and fundamentally racist. Being truly African apparently requires a commitment to ‘a mindset, certain values, culture, thought processes, interpretation, world view and particular responses to external values’ (this writer’s italics).

The most chilling implication of this article is that Africanism, in a fashion typical of all controlling ideologies, apparently requires specified behaviour of individual minds. What Makgoba rather offensively describes as ‘Whiteman’ is scheduled for ‘imminent social and political extinction … unless he Africanises at the deeper levels of consciousness’. Although Makgoba is, to his credit, at pains to explain that being African has nothing to do with physical appearance, his demands are reminiscent of inter-war totalitarianism and would not have been out of place in 1930s Berlin and Moscow in the search for the perfect Aryan National Socialist or Soviet Man.

In the absence of any further explanation we can conclude that this attack on liberal values is just another recipe for elitist authoritarianism and the wagging, prescriptive finger that seems an inescapable part of the culture of the South African ruling class regardless of its complexion. It is implicit in the fashionable and politically correct idea that virtually any critical comment that emerges from business, universities or the media must represent the racist views of liberals.

What South Africa (and Africa for that matter) needs above all in an era of growing democracy is not this latest brand of neo-fascism but precisely those principles for which liberals stand. Certain phrases and ideas recur in liberal discourse: the accountability of government and its civil servants, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, freedom of speech and association, and the right to individual privacy are just a few. No liberal government has ever detained its citizens without trial or tortured them, firebombed opposition newspapers or broadcasting stations, nor used the civil authority as a party political police force. What must be most galling of all to authoritarians of all types is the fact that South Africa’s Constitution is a monument to and a triumph for liberal values.

Liberalism is the very antithesis of the visionary and the messianic who by mobilising masses of people around slogans and rhetoric brought so much grief, destruction and death in the twentieth century. Ultimately, visions and utopias require enforcers when the inevitable happens and the doubters begin to step out of line. The legitimate concern of the State, in liberal terms in peace time, is not the salvation of its people but their civic rights and liberty. The State becomes, in a literal sense, a liberator guaranteeing intellectual plurality and freedom from various brands of intolerance. But liberals, unlike neo-conservatives, also believe in community and our responsibilities and obligations to it as citizens. This introduces the concept of social and economic justice simply because economic activity has social consequences. The nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill gave good liberal advice in this regard when he condoned all activity that did not do direct and assignable harm to others. Ultimately, liberalism presents the greatest of all the personal challenges that each of us faces in the course of our lives: the responsible exercise of that much neglected human characteristic, conscience.

It is easy to see why liberal values are feared by authoritarians. They challenge their assumptions and practices and liberate individuals from the serfdom of conformism and deference. South Africa has seen enough of these: colonialism and apartheid required the masses to kowtow to elites imposing their vision of how society should be run. Acceptance of liberal values would help to release the people of South Africa from the possibility of this ever happening again. But, until we are free of slogans peddled by an aspirant elite searching for power through traditional structures of paternalism and patriarchy, there remains the danger of another authoritarianism imposing its will on our country and of South Africa travelling along the same appalling road as Zimbabwe. We have been privileged to live through the only liberal period in South Africa’s history, but there is no guarantee that it will not prove transitory.

This article was first published in The Witness on 14 May 2002 and entitled ‘Unpopular patriots’.

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).