Illiberal to oppose redress

The Citizen’s editor-at-large Martin Williams says that pompous high priests of liberalism are themselves betraying that philosophy’s generosity of spirit.
“Liberal” is often used as a dirty word. That’s why Sarah Palin has apologised for saying Pope Francis “sounds kind of liberal”.
In SA, African nationalists and Afrikaner nationalists (remember them?) share a dislike for liberals. Yet our lauded Constitution is essentially a liberal democratic document, which is a triumph for a minority outlook in a hostile environment.

The DA traces some, but not all, of its history to the short-lived Liberal Party, formed in 1953. Adopting “one man, one vote” as its franchise policy in the 1960s, the Liberal Party was disbanded in 1968 after the Prohibition of Improper Interference Act outlawed multiracial party membership. Two powerful voices in that movement were Peter Brown and Alan Paton, both of whom I had the good fortune to meet while based in Pietermaritzburg. In the weeks since the DA’s flip-flop on the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, the liberal tradition has loomed large, with accusations that the current leadership is sliding away.

Perhaps the most strident criticism from within liberal circles has come from RW “Bill” Johnson. In two lengthy articles on Politicsweb, Johnson says Helen Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko have betrayed liberalism.

Johnson says it is wrong to seek redress: “It sounds like a good idea, to ‘redress’ the wrongs of apartheid. But in fact this is an absurd notion. Sadly, very sadly, there is no way now of providing redress for most black people who were unjustly treated under apartheid because, mainly, they are dead.”

In addition to other flaws, this view seems to take no account of how disadvantages inflicted by apartheid can be perpetuated.

For example, this week StatsSA showed that black children in general remain worse off than whites. Scrapping apartheid is not by itself enough to uplift them. No one holds the copyright on liberalism. A wide range of views can be included under the banner. And the DA has no obligation to abide by any particular definition.

Personally, I cannot imagine a liberal approach so lacking in compassion that it would fail to appreciate the need to help correct some apartheid wrongs. Paton said: “By liberalism I don’t mean the creed of 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.”

Those who say redress is unnecessary lack this generosity of spirit. It is they who betray liberalism. Let’s put aside for a moment cynical calculations of how to attract the black middle- class vote. Whether you call it a liberal view or anything else, surely anyone’s sense of natural justice must tell them genuine efforts are needed to balance generations of racial injustice.

Where the DA went wrong was in its endorsement of the ANC’s punitive, ratio-based equality laws, under which corruption thrives.

In doing so, and then retracting, the DA may have lost some ground. The party boasts of effective delivery, governing eight of the top 10 municipalities listed in the Municipal IQ Productivity Index. Now the DA needs to apply the same thoroughness in its approach to the problem of redress, without alienating black or white supporters. Non-racial redress for racism, now there’s a conundrum.

First published in The Citizen, 20 November 2013.