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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

The need for liberalism

Jameson Maluleke - 2009-07-22

Before I begin, allow me to make my own public confession.

I am a liberal, not because I am "an Anglophile and a hater of my own", 1 but because liberalism is my opium.

I am a liberal, not because I have been motivated by my own selfishness, but “because I can’t find it in me to call myself anything else". 2

I am a liberal because the spirit of Ubuntu and humanism are intertwined with my conscience to be a tolerant and a patriotic South African.

I am a liberal, not because I am white and wealthy, but because I am a poor African and a proud resident of a squatter camp.

I am a liberal as Paton and John Stuart Mills were in their lifetime.

I am a liberal not because I am agnostic or overzealous, but because I believe in the liberal creed, viz:

Jy krap my rug, ek krap joune.

Xandla famba xandla vuya.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Motho ke motho ka batho.

Izandla zi ya gezana.

Asibe munye.

We are all in this together!

Shalom – peace be with you.


One of Paton’s countless legacies is this annual lecture in his honour at the University of KwaZulu-Natal here in Pietermaritzburg which seeks to immortalise his name as one of the world’s literary giants, teacher, philosopher and politician. The annual lecture also appeals to me as the fortification that keeps the candlelight of liberalism burning in the hurricane of a fierce, ideological competition and perpetual animosity from its adversaries.

This year’s annual lecture will prove to be a watershed in the history of South African liberalism in that as the 20th Anniversary Conference, it presents itself as an invigorating spirit, a renewal for both dedicated and nominal liberals in their tough but sacred duty to uphold liberal norms and values.

The need for liberalism

Liberalism is a tested and well-suited system that can play a crucial role in solving Africa’s social problems if it is properly implemented.

Downer says: 4 “It is an imperfect system. However, where it has been applied, I believe that true liberalism has led to the greatest growth and democratisation of wealth and personal freedom we have yet seen. Liberalism remains the leading world force for advancement, renewal and peace.”

Millions of lives are being lost every day up in Africa and elsewhere around the world as a result of social disorganisations such as tribal wars, self-genocide, enlisting of child soldiers, forced migration, religious fanaticism, not to mention dire poverty and the Aids pandemic. Illiberal states in these parts of the world are on the verge of plunging into the Hobbesian State of Nature as they have no proper governments or democratic rulers. These countries are sadly groping through the darkest night of tyranny and inhumanity. Liberalism remains a beacon - the star of hope that is competent to guide tyrants and their oppressed countries into the light of democracy and socio-economic maturity.

We in South Africa need a liberal conscience which Paton and his ilk had striven and prayed for – a racism-free liberalism with the capacity to meet our people’s socio-economic expectations.

We in South Africa long for a liberalism that is capable of maintaining and monitoring good governance, a liberal system that can guard against the abuse of Constitution.

We need a liberalism that can provide relief from starvation, unemployment and abject poverty.

South Africans need liberal ethics that can enhance transformation and nation-building in our country.

Perhaps we should find out more about the South African version of liberalism before we can proceed with our discourse.

A generosity of spirit

Let me not abuse your precious time explaining what liberalism is and what is not. Ancient and modern thinkers have produced a great deal of literature which provides us with conceptual and empirical interpretations of liberalism. However, what I call the South African version of liberalism is contained in Paton’s beautifully crafted article, which eloquently and generously offers us a cheerful picture of liberalism:

By liberalism I don’t mean the creed or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance for authoritarianism and a love of freedom. 5

As a social theory, liberalism is perennial and universal like Homer’s epic, the Iliad. It is liberalism to feed, clothe and shelter the needy without turning them into dependants. Liberalism teaches a person how to catch fish, rather than to carve him/her into a greedy consumer and ultimately a downright beggar.

To paraphrase George Orwell, 6 the liberal field is fertile, its climate is good, it is capable of producing rich and nourishing principles in abundance to feed an enormously growing number of brains worldwide.

It is for these reasons that I am convinced that our own South African liberalism can solve a good number of social ills if we liberals are truly committed to our cause.

The sixty-four dollar question

If liberalism boasts of canonical wealth, consistency and worldwide usage, why is it shunned and misunderstood even by those masquerading as its exponents? If liberalism is a system of lofty ideas such as the noble passion for tolerance, openness and egalitarianism, why, then, does the sheer mention of liberalism evokes racism, hypocrisy, cowardice and non-commitment? Why do people avoid associating themselves with all that is liberalism? Why do liberals crawl into their shells whenever liberalism is mentioned? Why are liberals ashamed of celebrating their unlimited contributions to nation-building in this country? Is liberalism really a dirty or a swear word?

I have neither the courage nor the brains to disentangle the web above. I would hand over the task to my responsive audience who would gladly deal with it in their spare time.


Liberalism is not and never has been racist. It is far rather an ideal social system that appeals to every human being on earth. However, racists in a liberal skin have successfully crafted it into a racist creed. The tightness in which liberalism has been harmonised with racism is such a humiliating and an embarrassing experience even to the racist practitioners themselves. For this reason, these racists vehemently detest being referred to as liberals. Some have even adopted a false identity to protect themselves from being derided by the society they claim to serve. Makgoba 7 says:

One of the rudest things today is to call a South African, in particular a white South African, a liberal; the same applies to white Americans. This is because the word liberal has become associated with negative connotations such as racism, someone spineless, unprincipled, and vague, a hypocrite, a person unable to take a strong stand or position except their own agenda or interests, a weather cork, and someone loose.

How is it possible that a compassionate social system which espouses brotherhood of men is forced to bear a load of semantic qualities with a social mishap it seeks to destroy? Liberalism has contributed tremendously to the birth of our democratic, non-racial South Africa. One of the many instances of liberal contributions in this country is our world-acclaimed Constitution, which rivals those of France and the United States. The fathers of South African Liberalism – Paton and likeminded liberals – established the South African Liberal Party in 1953 to hammer Hendrik Verwoerd’s racial policies into extinction. Paton spent most of his adult life as a champion of social reformation, a literary genius and an educator. I have no doubt in my troubled mind that all of us in this momentous conference aspire to be like this pioneer of South African liberalism.

Well, the reason behind associating liberalism with racism in particular should be attributed to our dark history and, to a lesser extent, to our socio-cultural upbringing. In South Africa, racism is not just about colour but is used by various interest groups and other social groupings as a weapon of mass destruction to exclude other people and, if need be, to annihilate them. Many of us here are aware that the PAC’s battle cry, "Kill the Boers", and the Freedom Front Plus’s refusal to open the party’s membership to Africans are two shining examples of how social groupings exploit racism to their own advantage.

Over the years, racists have swelled the rank and file of liberalism, bringing with them racist thinking which shaped the liberal system into a carbon copy of racism. The occupation of the liberal territory by daring racists came to a climax when conservative and verkrampte old National Party loyalists with no political home invaded political parties which uphold liberalism. Using these parties as their haven, they are able to infect every liberal being with racial poison.

Rise to the challenge

We South African liberals need a backbone to rise to the challenges.

Well, what are challenges facing liberals today? one may ask. The most pressing challenge for liberals today is to eliminate racism.

Liberals, according to Seepe, 8 should “broaden the base for liberalism by unshackling it from racial connotation”.

Firstly we need to stand up with one voice and warn racist practitioners that liberalism is not and never will be a monopoly of certain racial groups – and that it is a fallacy for racists to assume that black Africans cannot be liberals as their low social status does not qualify them. Lastly we should stop folding our arms and pose a self-effacing face when racists gleefully spit venom to poison liberal principles. Rather than remain speechless for days on end, we liberals should honestly respond to liberal bashers who spread lies, half-truths and distortions about liberalism.

I would also like to add that violent crime remains one of the soul-destroying challenges in our fast developing society. For instance, I come from a village where a schoolboy of about nine years had his private parts severed by the most unkind cuts of a muti murderer. I am not saying that we must all become policemen and -women or politicians in order to be crime busters or devoted liberals. All I am asking is, rather than wasting our breath, bickering and brawling all day long about whether poor Africans should be liberals or not, let us all commit ourselves to fighting socio-economic injustices wherever they manifest themselves.

Concluding remarks

Pundits remind us that in the rough and tumble of social engagements like competitions, a person is expected to compete until he/she wins rather than to squeal or whine when the going gets tough.

For this reason, adopting a false identity or calling ourselves by misleading names to protect ourselves from our opponents is not the right answer. Wrong and strange names would only alienate people rather than draw them into the loving arms of liberalism.

Churchill instructs us, "Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar."

My appeal to fellow liberals to go out and win the hearts of all South Africans back into liberalism fold is not different from the British War Minister’s call to his soldiers to defend the Union Jack to the last man. We must become fierce competitors and ardently dedicate ourselves to the liberal doctrine as befits authentic and genuine liberals. In our words and deeds, in our dreams and reflections, let us not squander Paton’s legacy. Like Paton, Peter Brown, Donald Woods, Jonathan Paton, and a host of thousands of other liberals before us, we must “devote ourselves, our time, our energy, and our talents, to the service of South Africa." 10

 Thank you for your time.


1. The statement “I am an anglophile and a hater of my own” is an adaptation of Paton’s “I am a negrophile and a hater of my own", p 151, AS Paton Cry The Beloved Country, Penguin Books, Hammondsworth. Middlesex. England.

2. Ibid p 151: “because I can’t find it in me to call myself anything else”.

3. What I call the Liberal's Creed is a mixture of idioms, wise sayings and catch phrases.

4. Alexander Downer speech titled "Liberalism and the Challenges of Building an Open Society" at the 25th Annual Menzies Lecture. Parliament House, Melbourne, 10 October 2002.

5. Paton, AS. 1987, p 255. Save the Beloved Country. Melville, Johannesburg: Hans Strydom Publishers. See also Alan Paton’s biography by Peter Alexander, 1995; Alan Paton’s Autobiography, Journey Continued, published by David Philip, 1988.

6. George Orwell is a master linguist and literary genius. “The liberal field is fertile; its climate is good, it is capable of producing rich and nourishing principles in abundance to feed an enormously growing number of people worldwide.” This line has been adapted from a speech by Snowball in Orwell’s masterpiece, Animal Farm.

7. Makgoba, MW. 1998. Liberalism and African Thought in Ironic Victory. Liberalism in post- liberalism South Africa. Oxford University Press, 1998 by Johnson, RW and David Welsh David (eds), p 266.

8. Seepe, Sipho. Liberalism: Post-1994 Reflections. In Opposing Voices, Liberalism and Opposition in South Africa Today, 2006. Johannesburg. Jonathan Ball.

9. Winston Churchill, Hansard (1940).

10. This line, we must “devote ourselves, our time, our energy, and our talents, to the service of South Africa”, has been adapted from the line, “Therefore I shall devote myself, my time, my energy, my talents, to the service of South Africa, p 151 of Cry, The Beloved Country by AS Paton, 1988, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. Penguin Books Ltd.