It is often asserted that liberalism in South Africa is an exotic plant, sown by the British in the harsh and inhospitable soil of the mid-19th century Cape Colony. This, indeed, has been the dominant view both of its nationalist enemies (white and black) and of liberals themselves. Confined to a small band of idealistic intellectuals, white and black, liberalism - in this version - was always an alien transplant, unsuited to South Africa's intensely divided history of colonial conquest and dispossession in the 19th century, rapid and brutal industrialisation and urbanisation in the 20th.
How then does one account for the paradox suggested by Randolph Vigne in this political history of the Liberal Party in South Africa that - despite its persecution by the Afrikaner nationalists and its mere 15 years of existence as a political party - many of the liberal principles espoused by its small band of followers in the 1950s and 1960s have arisen "phoenix-like to prevail at last in the first constitution of a new non-racial South Africa"?
Vigne was himself a far-from-minor player in the tale that he unfolds. In the first detailed account of the Liberal Party in these years, he takes us from its troubled inauguration in 1953 to its dissolution in 1968 when the passage of Act No 51 for the "prohibition of political interference" made interracial political activity illegal. He portrays vividly and objectively the internal divisions of the party, and its conflicts with the state and with the African National Congress. As he shows, three issues divided the party itself and distanced it from the ANC and a potential mass black following: its initial reluctance to accept universal adult suffrage; its refusal until 1960 to contemplate non-constitutional opposition; and its hostility to ex-members of the banned Communist party in the Congress of Democrats, many of whom had their own agenda in attempting to exclude Liberals from influence in the ANC.
Despite the party's internal divisions and its failure to reach more than a tiny minority of blacks, Vigne concludes that "the Liberals prepared the forward positions that other South Africans, black and white, have moved up to occupyI Perhaps in the end the Liberal Party can best be seen, with Matthew Arnold, as the 'body by the wall', the warrior fallen in his attack on the Philistine fortI A fit place to leave it for now, until a new generation of liberals may need it to save the victors, and the country, from themselves."
There is an arrogance in this conclusion, which is still rooted in the old conflict between the Liberals and the ANC in the 1950s. The principles that Vigne portrays as quintessentially liberal were held by many in the Congress Alliance, enriched by the profound humanism of African thought. Far from being an exotic and fragile transplant, liberal ideas in South Africa were honed in the interaction between white and black over nearly 200 years; they came to stand above all for the removal of racial discrimination and the rights of the individual in a society that consistently denied blacks common humanity. These goals were hardly unique to liberals; nor were they the only liberal ideals. Whether, despite South Africa's exemplary post-apartheid constitution, notions of individual freedom can survive the legacies of a deeply unequal society remains to be seen.
Shula Marks is professor in the history of Southern Africa, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Liberals against Apartheid: A History of the Liberal Party of South Africa
Author - Randolph Vigne
ISBN - 0 333 71355 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 268