Liberalism agrees about redress for poverty, inequality - Businesslive

23 January 2022 - Taking active steps to redress SA’s continuing extreme poverty and inequality, still largely along racial lines, is both the right thing to do and an antidote to increasing social unrest.

Michael Morris
Taking active steps to redress SA’s continuing extreme poverty and inequality, still largely along racial lines, is both the right thing to do and an antidote to increasing social unrest.  

I should put these words in quotes, for they aren’t mine but those of Merle Lipton, written last week in response to an ongoing, and important as well as considered, debate about the nature and reach of liberalism in SA (“Can liberals address redress?”, January 20).

That Lipton’s formulation is one that I might have crafted (and captures an essential challenge that I have advanced in this column in the past: the urgent need for measures to overcome the lingering effects of pre-1994 history and the worsening effects of post-1994 policy-making; the acknowledgment of an inescapable alignment of quality of life and race; and the moral as well as practical justification for redress) does not mean, however, that there is no legitimate argument, or that liberals like me are not challenged to explain ourselves better.

While acknowledging the soundness of my criticism of ANC excesses, and of race-based policy that “perpetuates and deepens the racialism and arguably even racism”, Ebrahim Harvey sparked the debate when he wrote that “the biggest failure of Morris and other liberals like him is their inability to provide a strong, attractive and compelling political and policy alternative to the ANC, which will resonate with the socioeconomic needs and interests of the black working-class majority” (“The path forward for liberalism in SA”, January 11).

Harvey is wrong; we do have an alternative. Yet, to be fair, that isn’t quite what he is saying: what he is saying is subtly different, and liberals need to recognise the challenge. I found Harvey’s point almost eerily resonant, in fact.

As recently as October last year, in a Daily Friend piece on Institute of Race Relations (IRR) polling that showed the enduring popularity of the ANC despite its shocking record in local government, and the low ratings of the DA despite its stellar reputation in local government, I argued that “it does seem that voters will go along with things that might well be bad for them, and for long enough for the harm to become perilous — as long as they are uncertain about what a better alternative might be”. I concluded: “It would be wrong, the lesson seems to be, to think [that voters] are foolish for being insufficiently convinced.”

Which is why I think engaging the arguments advanced by Harvey, Lipton and others is essential in stress-testing liberal ideas which, for many, may seem improbable. For some, ideological myopia prevents their seeing that IRR proposals (on everything from land reform to education, healthcare to housing) really are geared to achieving a fairer, more prosperous society — and one that is fair and prospering precisely because it is engaged in relieving itself of the stubborn and considerable burdens of history.

It could be that ideological myopia of sorts is at play in another sense, too. Harvey concludes by warning that “liberalism in SA, in whatever racial and colour forms it comes... will have no political future without a strong social justice policy framework, especially around the provision of basic services in black townships”.   

But isn’t the strength of liberalism precisely that, in placing the individual at the centre? Its fundamental “social justice” offering is that it wholly reimagines society, in the process liberating the black majority from the undeserved constraint of being forever regarded as township dwellers for whom a better life can be more or less reduced to basic services.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.