Rebirth of the liberal tradition on campus – PoliticsWeb, 16 March 2015

Speech by John Kane-Berman at the launch of African Students for Liberty, University of Pretoria, March 16 2015: Rebirth of the liberal tradition on the campuses of South Africa's universities.

Liberalism in South Africa goes back some 200 years with the establishment of a free press and an independent judiciary in the 1820s and the abolition of slavery in the 1830s (before they got round to it in the US and without a civil war). In the negotiations which led to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, Cape liberals tried to protect their limited non-racial franchise, but in the end they reluctantly agreed that only whites could sit in Parliament. This was the price to be paid for entering the union. The union, so to speak, was thus born in racial sin. And that of course was the beginning of a long and terrible story. But part of our 20th-century history is also the story of white opposition to apartheid, so much so that liberalism and white opposition to apartheid were almost synonymous.

Alfred Hoernlé, a one-time president of the Institute, pointed out in a book in 1939 that for most whites the term "race relations" meant sorting out the animosities between Boer and Brit after the Boer War. Blacks didn't feature in their arguments. Whites who argued that blacks should be better treated were dismissed as "kaffirboeties", or - according to Professor Hoernlé - the "most scathing" term of all, "liberals", who were also regarded as "traitors" to the white group.

Hoernlé was German born, and many of the famous names in South African liberalism were Afrikaans rather than English or black. But liberalism came from a rich British intellectual tradition and political practice, which included English constitutional and common law, belief in human rights, curbs on power, the rule of law, and executive accountability to Parliament. "To no man shalt thou sell, to no man delay, to no man deny, justice or right", are among the words in Magna Carta, the great charter of rights which the English barons forced King John to sign in 1265.

When I was in my first year at Wits the Great Hall was packed for a lecture commemorating the 700th anniversary of the signature of Magna Carta. One of the speakers was an inspiring British liberal by the name of Robert Birley. Sir Robert always used to amuse South African audiences by recalling how deeply British liberals were divided over the Boer War, with many of them strongly against the British liberal imperialists such as Lord Milner and Joseph Chamberlain and strongly in support of the Boers in their liberation struggle. 

One of the ironies of history is that it was a British Liberal government that enacted our 1910 constitution, and so handed over South Africa to the whites under the apartheid constitution, despite all the objections of black South Africans who went to London to argue against this. In tracing the origins of liberal thought in South Africa, Hoernlé observes that the classical doctrine of liberalism did not contemplate how it would work in a multiracial society such as ours. The classical thinkers had no first-hand experience of such a society. Hoernlé therefore had to do some pioneering intellectual work. Moreover, let us not forget that in 1910 whites already comprised only a fifth of the country's population of almost six million.

Liberals tried to deal with their demographic fears by placing education and property qualifications on franchise rights. Some experimented intellectually with parallelism or total separation. Others knew that this was economically impossible. The Liberal Party, founded in 1953, never mind the Progressive Party, founded in 1959, favoured a qualified franchise. Even that, however, was difficult to sell to a white electorate which contained enough liberals to send only a single MP Parliament until half a dozen other Progs joined Helen Suzman in 1974.

Alone in Parliament as the sole liberal MP for 13 years, she was not alone in other respects. People such as Harry Oppenheimer backed her. Liberal newspapers such as the Rand Daily Mail and the Financial Mail ran their own crusades against apartheid. So did the Institute and other liberal organisations. What we all had in common in the first place was opposition to apartheid in all its manifestations. These included not only denial of civil liberties but also grievous restrictions on economic opportunity. Secondly, we all opposed transgressions of the rule of law, including bannings and detention without trial.

South African liberalism thus emerged not from any ideological position but as a natural human reaction against racial injustice. This was for many years its defining characteristic.

If you visit the Institute you will see on our walls the framed covers of some of the several hundred publications we put out exposing every aspect of political and economic apartheid and the security legislation designed to prop it up. There were in fact few aspects of anything the National Party government did that liberals did not expose to the scrutiny of the South African public as well as to the wider international community.

Even when detainees died while held incommunicado by the security police, newspapers and liberal lawyers made sure all the details were exposed to the light of day in public inquest proceedings. In due course, the lead set by the liberals was followed by NP-supporting newspapers and a growing number of intellectuals on Afrikaans campuses, in the churches, and even in the Broederbond. Business began to follow our lead as well. All of this played a role in the crumbling of apartheid.

Universities were a key part of the liberal constituency. So was the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), to which the students' representative councils (SRCs) on all the English-language campuses were affiliated. On the black and Afrikaans campuses, however, Nusas branches often had to operate clandestinely. Among other things, we were determined to get the universities reopened to blacks, after the government had imposed apartheid on them in 1959. Apartheid was then being extended into every nook and cranny of national life, including the prohibition of multiracial political parties.

Various attempts were made to counter Nusas by setting up a rival whites-only organisation of English and Afrikaans campuses from which the black campuses would be excluded. All of these we resisted. Once, in 1968, when I was president of the Wits SRC, the government put the vice chancellor of the University of Natal up to hosting a meeting of Afrikaans and English SRC presidents.

When I marched into the meeting with one of the black presidents whose invitation had somehow never reached him, some of the Afrikaners walked out, ending that vice chancellor's little scheme. (He was later rewarded with a cabinet job.) We were happy to establish contact with Afrikaans students, but, unlike the Cape liberals in 1910, there was no way we would sacrifice our contacts with black students if that was the price. 

Both as justice minister and later as prime minister, John Vorster seemed to have a personal loathing of Nusas and of the "unbridled liberalism" on the campuses. So did the Afrikaans press, which labelled us "broeiplekke van liberalisme" trying to emulate Oxford and Harvard, nogal. This led the Wits vice chancellor to have those words superimposed on a huge photograph of the neo-classical façade of the university's central block which he then hung proudly behind his desk.

"Broeiplek van liberalisme" was spot on. Nusas was a kind of kindergarten for liberals. The student leaders of the 1960s were essentially liberals rather than radicals. This was an ideological position but one that also enabled us to retain solid campus support - essential when we were under government attack. But things changed in the 1970s. By then Steve Biko had led a black walkout because of the continued domination of Nusas by whites. Nusas embraced socialism and denounced liberalism, angering such people as Helen Suzman and Alan Paton, the latter of whom said it had alienated itself from the campuses.

The government intensified its pressure against the organisation, with bannings and prosecutions. In 1991, following the lifting of the bans on the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and other organisations, Nusas dissolved itself. 

The end of Nusas was a tragedy for liberalism. The country has never recovered from the loss, for there is no longer an organised liberal voice on our campuses. The reason I'm here this evening is to encourage you to rebuild it. That you succeed is vital to the future of this country - for the simple reason that we are heading in the direction of more and more state control as the ruling alliance of the ANC and SACP pursue their national democratic revolution. This is a blueprint for socialism and nationalism, and possibly worse. 

After the ANC came to power, some people suggested that the Institute's work was done and that we should dissolve. Not so fast, we told them. Had they forgotten that the price of liberty was eternal vigilance? Every day that passes underlines the need for more vigilance to defend political and economic freedom from an increasingly corrupt, callous, and incompetent state. Like us, you have a role to play in that vigilance. And don't forget what the president, in a rare moment of honesty, has told us: the ANC intends to rule until Jesus comes again.

The ANC itself was for many years a powerful liberal voice before it turned to armed struggle and revolutionary violence. In the 1980s this tore the liberal community apart. Many liberals were horrified at the coercion used by the ANC and its allies when they launched the people's war to make the country ungovernable and eliminate black rivals. Others thought whites had no business criticising strategies that oppressed people used to end their oppression. Some simply buried their heads in the sand.

From the safe security of their homes in the suburbs, some clapped their hands with delight at the mayhem in the townships. They applauded the ANC when it used violence to enforce its strategy of "no education before liberation", but they made sure their own children went to school. Many people were bitterly angry at the unique role the Institute played in exposing the horror of revolutionary violence. If you want to pursue the split among liberals, you can read The Liberal Slideaway, which we published in 1995.

Liberals also split, though less acrimoniously, when apartheid ended. Many were in any event social democrats rather than classical liberals. They also bought into the ANC's strategies of "transformation" and "redress", believing that apartheid had inflicted damage on a scale so massive that undoing that damage necessitated another programme of social and racial engineering. The Institute, by contrast, argued that the real alternative to apartheid was not yet another programme of engineering but the opposite: a society which protected economic as much as political freedom.

Although South African liberalism has never been a hard-and-fast ideology, neither is it a kind of smorgasbord from which you can pick and choose what suits you. Pragmatism and compromise are unavoidable in politics, but for liberals there are certain non-negotiables. Torture, press censorship, and detention without trial are always no-no's. But so, in my view, is legislation which discriminates on grounds of race.

Why? Because the individual and his rights, liberties, and freedoms are central to liberalism.

Magna Carta said that to no man should justice or right be denied. The French revolutionaries drew up a declaration of the rights of man. The American revolutionaries proclaimed that all men were created equal - untrue, of course, except in the sense of equality before the law, a principle enshrined in our own constitution.

All of the rights in our bill of rights are in fact rights that attach to individuals - from dignity, to privacy, to freedom of speech, to the right of every child to a name and nationality. Even the section on affirmative action implicitly recognises this by authorising derogations from the equality principle to achieve certain objectives. But however rationalised, discrimination against an individual on grounds of race violates both his dignity and the principle of equality before the law. As we learned very well during the days of apartheid, laws designed to give privileges to a particular group always have as their victims individual human beings.

Back in 2001, the Black Economic Empowerment Commission headed by Cyril Ramaphosa identified poverty, unemployment, and inequality as major problems confronting South Africa. The commission asserted, without argument, that markets reinforced inequalities, so that empowerment had to be state-driven. The commission contended, again without arguing its case, that South Africa cannot attain sustained levels of economic growth' without 'deliberate measures by the state to include black people in the economy on a massive scale.

Almost 15 years later and after something probably approaching R1 trillion in black economic empowerment deals, labour market participation by Africans has dropped from 59% to 55%, while unemployment among Africans has risen from 5.68 million to 7.35 million. Economic growth is uninspiring, investment anaemic, and we are running out of money to keep on financing the welfare state.

The "deliberate" measures of which Mr Ramaphosa spoke are among the reasons why black exclusion as measured by unemployment has not grown "massively", but actually shrunk. Both poverty and inequality have been reduced, but mainly because of social grants and the provision of free services financed by the tax system. 

What about the rest of the world? The jury on economic freedom is no longer out. It's in. Neil Emerick of the Free Market Foundation has shown that between 1990 and 2010, the "least free" countries experienced growth in GDP per head at an annual average of 1.6%. The "most free" clocked up 3.6% - more than double. As a result of these different growth performances, the least free countries recorded GDP per head in 2010 of $5 200, while the most free recorded almost $38 000 - almost seven times as much. The least free showed life expectancy in 2010 at 62 years, the most free at 80. So people in the richest and fastest-growing countries live almost 20 years longer than in the poorest.

Moreover, the average per capita income of the poorest 10% of the population in the least free countries was $1 200, whereas in the most free it was nearly $12 000 - almost ten times as much. Poor people are better off in rich than in poor countries. Poor countries must therefore make themselves rich. It's as simple as that. And it's an obvious choice: growth-promoting economic freedom, not engineering.

A study produced some years ago for the government showed that if South Africa achieved employment levels equivalent to other countries of our stage of development, we would have another six million people in jobs. Think of all the lost production arising from the fact that they are not working. But think also of the lost human endeavour. This country has become so obsessed with the legacy of the past that it fails to deal with the legacy of current policies, especially those that shut poor people out of labour markets. Such people have little education and no property. Apart from their clothes and their dignity, they have almost nothing to call their own. Their only asset is their willingness to sell their labour to the highest bidder. Yet we deny them the right to do so.

I will tell you why. Our society generally speaking deprecates attempts to rig elections or manipulate ideas through censorship or indoctrination. But we usually tolerate it when people rig or manipulate markets. It happened under apartheid, when white businessmen obtained government protection from black competition. It also happened when white trade unionists got government protection from black workers. It happens now too. The Department of Trade and Industry is busy trying to protect local producers from foreign competition, to the detriment of consumers. Government, big business, and organised labour have long since conspired to rig the labour market to minimise competition from small business and the unemployed. Bargaining councils are the institutions through which they practise this policy of exclusion. A great many of the one million born frees now entering our labour market each year will be among the victims. No liberal can turn a blind eye to this denial of opportunity.

Classical liberalism accordingly necessitates freeing the labour market from control by this unholy alliance, which is as damaging to this country as that between the ANC, the SACP, and what's left of Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). In fact we need two additions to the Bill of Rights. The first would guarantee the right to work - to seek and obtain employment by private voluntary contract free of state or union interference. The second would guarantee the right to earn money. If we are to put the individual at the centre of policy, they must be allowed to join the mainstream economy by putting their foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. For most individuals, holding down a paying job is the essential foundation for upward mobility. Call me a bleeding-heart if you wish, but liberals need to speak up for the rights of these new underdogs just as they spoke up for the rights of underdogs in the apartheid years.  

They must be enabled to lift themselves out of poverty in the way that most of us avoid it: by earning one's own living. This will enable them to be producers of goods and services and of their own wealth, rather than merely consumers of the wealth of others, courtesy of the state. It will enable them to provide for their own needs and those of their families. They will learn skills on the job and in due course will pay income tax. Nothing will help as much in reducing crime, restoring dignity, promoting self-esteem, and fostering family life.

Liberal economics and liberal democracy go hand in hand. Markets are a logical extension of individual choice: they are the meeting place, whether physical or electronic, which ensures that the free choices made by consumers are satisfied by producers who make free choices to provide consumers with what they desire at an agreed price and in so doing make themselves a profit. Globalisation in the form of electronic technology, lower trade barriers, easier flow of money across borders, cheap air freight, and the advent of the container ship ensures that we now have greater consumer choice than at any time in history.  

Free product markets are in fact more democratic than political markets. The political franchise is confined to those of a certain age and may be exercised only once in a while. But the consumer franchise has no age restriction and is exercised continuously, not only in your own country but across the globe.

The other thing about markets is that they can quickly correct their mistakes. Bureaucrats can't. Most of them are too busy blaming something they like to call "market failure". But if the previous government hadn't rigged the land market with racial restrictions, we would not now be sitting with the land reform problem. If the present government had allowed the market to bring supply and demand for electricity into balance, we would not now be losing trillions in economic growth to the farce that the ANC has made of Eskom.

We have some of the highest broadband costs and lowest speeds in the world because the government controls that market too. But we have a cellphone penetration rate of 135 per 100 people - the same as Switzerland - because the market was able to meet the demand. All over South Africa, in some places 24 hours a day, you can buy food of every description. That's because we don't have a ministry of food - not yet anyway.

I will end by recalling a visit I made to Leningrad in 1989. I was able to buy roubles on the black (that is, the free) market, so I had plenty of money. In the end I had to give it away because there was nothing to buy. I couldn't even get a meal in a restaurant. Worse, I couldn't find any vodka. British friends with access to foreign currency imported everything from lettuce to toothpaste by overnight ferry from Finland. Russian housewives used to walk around with what they called a "perhaps" bag in case they found something they needed to buy. They had a joke as well. A woman queues up for three hours to buy some bread and when she gets to the front of the queue she's told it's the wrong one: "This is the queue for the shop that has run out of meat. The queue for the shop that has no bread is the one across the street."

In 2013 I went back to the same city, now called St Petersburg again. No queues, except at the art galleries. Shops full of goods of every kind and brand. Hawkers with little stalls on the wide pavements. As many takeaways and fast-food joints as in any South African city. That's what happens when the magic of the market takes over from the deadening hand of the bureaucrat.

We've already got too many bureaucrats sticking their deadening, and sometimes grabbing, hands into the market in this country. They are slowly strangling the economy. If they succeed in doing that, they will then have to destroy democracy. We must not let them do either.

Whether you want to blame our present problems on Jan van Riebeeck or on current policies, makes no difference to the reality that only much more rapid economic growth offers a way out, and that only much greater economic freedom will allow much faster growth. That means a lean, efficient, and frugal state, not one that is bloated, profligate, and corrupt.

It also means abandoning revolutionary ideology. The commentariat ignores this ideology, but it's time they took it seriously. Apart from those implemented since 1994, there are a dozen measures in the offing to advance the national democratic revolution this year. Some may be opposed, sometimes rather half-heartedly, by particular interest groups. It's the job of classical liberals to voice principled opposition to the lot because they violate economic freedom.

Liberals also need to engage in the battle of ideas for a fundamental change of policy. The ANC is scared that it may lose the battle of ideas to those they describe as "neo-liberals". No doubt that's why they've put Blade Nzimande in charge of higher education, which he presumably intends to turn into a site of struggle. "Neo-liberal" is intended as a term of abuse. The best way to counter that abuse is to make sure that we win the battle. Remember also that in the end that battle is for a very simple idea, namely that free individuals in a society governed by the rule of law can seek their own happiness and prosperity. But they must be free to do so.

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