‘I was brought up a Marxist. Nowdays that isn’t much of a boast.’ This is how Tony Judt, one of the great liberals of the last fifty years, began his essay on Louis Althusser, which is an interesting and amusing take down of the French Marxist thinker. I, unlike Judt, was brought up a liberal. And certainly in South Africa it seems to have no bragging rights. My father, who was amongst other things a professor of jurisprudence, filled the house with the books by liberals. And as I began to read more and more it was his taste in Tolstoy, Orwell, Camus, Berlin, Koestler, Popper, Paton, Schreiner, Kafka, Arendt, Williams and Hart that began to shape my thinking. Of course being liberal there were writers’ books in the house who were not necessarily of a left liberal leaning. There was Anthony Powell who was in a sense a kind of apolitical conservative. There were also the works of the likes of Gramsci, Marx, Kolakowski and Marcuse, as well as the books of a man who had been brought up Catholic (something he could never quite shake despite his atheism) and who was drawn to the fictions of Waugh, Greene and Chesterton. But that is, I hope, the liberal mind. It is one not afraid of empathising with the positions and thoughts that are not one’s own, in fact this may be its defining characteristic.
One thing that I can say though is that it is not a pleasant thing, in South Africa, to have to admit to. There is always a sense of apology about it when the word leaks into conversation. ‘Well, actually, I well am a, ha ah, I am a libe….l’.
‘A liberal. Yes, sorry about that.’
If there was a penny for all the times that that party-stopper has come out over the last 25 years, to the clucking of tongues and shaking of heads, I would certainly be rich with the rand in its current state. Of course the meaning of liberal within the South African context is something different from the writers identified above. It is, I guess, something along the lines of an apartheid-era ‘fellow traveller’. Or a white English speaking racist who could never entirely stomach the brutality of apartheid but didn’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment. A white English person who shrugged their shoulders, voted PFP and got on with the task of abusing the people who worked for them.
But this is certainly no liberalism – not in any shape nor form. Nor is liberalism necessarily attached to capitalism as most people seem to claim. Let me just name a few more people who, some might be shocked to discover, were liberals in every sense of the word. Within South Africa the ANC has, up until recently, been a liberal socialist movement and as such Sol Plaaje, ZK Matthews, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela were all liberals, some perhaps a little more left leaning than others, but liberals nevertheless. There are even the vestiges of this when someone like Cyril Ramaphosa said the other day that food parcels must not be part of the ANC’s election campaign. What we should also remember is what we acquired on the 4 February 1997 was a liberal constitution and, as Julius Malema has argued, it is still the document that EFF wishes to uphold as the blue print for a future South Africa. I could mention two other liberals from around the world to finish off the thought: Edward Said and, the person I started the piece with, Tony Judt. Both Judt and Said passionately argued for a one state solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict – how the world misses both of their distinctive voices.
If all of these people mentioned above were liberals, then they were so because they all believed in multiculturalism, in negotiation, in deliberated compromise, plurality, as well as the universalism of the human condition. What is more they believed in other liberal values like the social state and a mixed economy. But perhaps the one feature that has marked them all as liberals is a steadfast belief in standing up and speaking the truth to power, while at the same time shunning the pull of divisive popularity and partisanship. As Judt wrote: ‘It is the liberals, then, who count. They are, as it might be, the canaries in the sulphurous mineshaft of modern democracy…They should be engaged in disturbing the peace – their own above all.’
Strangely the word liberal, within the South African white context, was relocated from Judt’s sulphorous mine to the heavy and indifferent band of cloud stretching from Hyde Park to Bishops Court. What is needed, I feel, more so than anything else at the moment in South Africa is for there to be some canaries among these clouds. But liberalism’s great defeat is something we witness every day in the weird distorted monster that has become the ANC. However, as upsetting is the factionalising of the voices within the opinion led media and many writers’ recalcitrant attitudes towards others. This is certainly not liberalism and certainly does not bode well for a future co-existance.
Photograph: Albert Luthuli at home in Groutville, 1958. Ranjith Kally