This week, the DA began distributing a pamphlet that shows Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman embracing, under the caption: “We played our part in opposing apartheid”.
The pamphlet is part of our “Know Your DA” campaign, which I launched last week in Alexandra with a speech on the DA’s “Untold Story”.
Predictably, the ANC has responded to the campaign with a storm of fury and denunciation. But other critics have been more thoughtful.
Some have asked: why now? Surely in 2013, after almost two decades of democracy, people are more interested in the future than in the past?
This is the assumption the DA has always worked on. And we have paid the price for it.
As George Orwell put it: “Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future”.
The ANC from its present position of power, seeks exclusive ownership of history’s moral high ground, in order to control the future. In fact, it is the only tactic the ANC has left.
Wherever I go in South Africa, people who are considering supporting the DA ask me whether we would bring back apartheid if we won an election. A great many people actually believe that Helen Suzman was a member of the ANC!
It is at times like these that I realise the extent to which we have allowed our opponents to define us and impose their version of our history on South Africa’s political narrative. We must take responsibility for changing this. And that is why we are running this campaign now.
The future of our democracy depends on a more nuanced understanding of history, especially among the “Born Free” generation.
Of course, the ANC hates the campaign.
They have accused the DA of ‘stealing’ Mandela. They are still trying to divorce Suzman’s legacy from the DA, despite the fact that she co-founded our predecessor party, the Progressive Party, and was its sole representative in Parliament for thirteen years, between 1961 and 1974, and later became a member of the DA.
Today, we continue to promote and defend the values Helen Suzman stood for half a Century ago. These are the same ideas that underpin our non-racial democracy and its founding compact, our Constitution.
Because the ruling party wants to ‘own’ the history of the struggle against apartheid, it is quick to downplay, deny, and even appropriate the contributions of those outside its fold.
South Africans need to know that the ANC did not always provide the only, or even the most important, opposition to segregation and apartheid. It was eclipsed by the Industrial and Commercial Union in the 1920s; the All African Convention in the mid-1930s; the Pan Africanist Congress in the early 1960s; the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s; and the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s.
Some of the people who once belonged to these organisations – leaders like Patricia de Lille, Joe Seremane and Wilmot James – have come to find their political home in the DA. Last Saturday, I told their story. It is part of the DA’s story. Far too few people know this, and we have to fix this.
They, and many others, are like tributaries to a mighty river; each springing from their own different source, but pulled towards the same endpoint by a powerful current.
In Alexandra, I used another metaphor to recount their story: I said there were many strands to the DA’s history, but that the strongest strand – or golden thread – around which the party’s tapestry has been woven for more than half a century, and whose history has become obscured, is the vision of an open, opportunity society for all.
That is the central thread. That is the powerful current.
I never purported to be telling the whole history, or weaving together the complete tapestry of the DA in Alexandra. I was focusing on some of the less publicized strands that have woven into the open, opportunity society for all.
Most of us know about the enormous contributions of giants like Colin Eglin, Ray Swart and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. They all played a crucial role in building an enduring and sustainable institutional legacy for the open, opportunity society for all through the DA’s predecessor parties.
They occupy a central place in the party’s pantheon, as does Tony Leon, who took the Democratic Party from a ‘desolate shack’, as a Business Day editorial described the party in 1995, with 1.7% of the vote, and grew it into the single most viable opposition force in the country, with 12.3% of the vote in 2004.
Their stories must be documented, honoured, and celebrated. And they are, through a rich vein of historical and biographical material that is well known and widely available in the public domain. Just this week, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Tony Leon’s second memoir.
Less well remembered is the critical role played by the likes of Harry Lawrence and Jan Steytler. Steytler, who is perhaps South Africa’s most overlooked great politician, was the first leader of the Progressives. Back in 1959, he set out the fledgling party’s credo of an open, opportunity society for all. He said: “Colour and colour alone should not be the yardstick by which people are judged. We consider that all South Africans should be given the opportunity to make a contribution to the political and economic life of our country”.
In the iron grip of apartheid, this was radical, subversive even, coming from a white South African. He was half a Century ahead of his time when he uttered these prophetic words: “One day South Africa will be governed by our principles because there is no other way it can be governed.”
These are the ideas and values that animate our vision – that constitute our central thread of the open, opportunity society for all. But it is important to remind ourselves that they were not born with the founding of the Progressive Party in 1959. They go much further back. In fact they stretch back almost 200 years and belong to a political tradition older than the ANC’s.
The liberal tradition was rooted in South Africa by the likes of Dr John Philip who championed racial equality at the Cape in the 1820s; the heroic and unsung Cape Attorney-General and constitution-maker, William Porter; and Andries Stockenstrom, who campaigned for representative government at the Cape in the 1850s and lobbied for a non-racial franchise which was granted in 1853.
Adam Tas, John Fairbairn and Thomas Pringle fought for a free press and their legacy lives on today.
The fight for freedom was never the sole preserve of English-speakers. During the National Convention between 1908 and 1909, which laid the groundwork for Union, Afrikaners like J.W Sauer and F.S Malan fought hard (albeit unsuccessfully) alongside John X. Merriman, Walter Stanford and William Schreiner to extend the non-racial franchise beyond the Cape. And Schreiner led a delegation to London to lobby against the passing of the South Africa Act in 1909 on the grounds of its discriminatory franchise provisions.
Another Afrikaner, Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, was the most vocal parliamentary critic of Prime Minister J.B.M Hertzog’s barrage of segregationist legislation in the 1930s.
Outside of Parliament, the Liberal Party of the 1950s and 1960s, whose leading figures were Alan Paton and Peter Brown, championed the values we support today.
And, crucially, these values also have a long, strong and honourable history within the ANC itself. It is instructive to read the work of ANC President from 1952 till 1961 and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Albert Lutuli. Around the time of the birth of the Progressive Party, he expressed exactly the same set of values when he said: “I personally believe, that here in South Africa, with all our diversities of colour and race, we will show the world a new pattern of democracy…We can build a homogenous South Africa on the basis not of colour but of human values”.
This remains our creed to this day. And the DA is the only clear advocate of this vision for the future.
Because this tradition is far wider than a party programme, many great South Africans chose to promote the liberal cause in the universities, in civil society, in the legal profession and through the media. They all deserve mention in history’s roll of honour.
The list is long and diverse. The names are not those of white men alone. Selby Msimang, Jordan Ngubane, Elliot Mngadi and Pat Poovalingam all occupy a distinguished place in this great tradition. All their stories, and all the different strands of liberalism, from wherever they emanated, deserve to be remembered and celebrated.
Their collective contributions to South Africa were manifold. But the two most important were that they resisted and overcame two waves of destructive nationalisms – a jingo-Brit variety followed by Afrikaner nationalism – by rejecting the politics of ethnic mobilisation and imposed racial identities.
Secondly, it offered the tools to end apartheid and begin building an open, opportunity society for all based on a democratic government and the rule of law; a society in which every person has the opportunity and means to improve his or her circumstances.
We still have not finished building that society. The next fifty years will be defined by a battle between two competing visions for South Africa. One is the open, opportunity society for all – the golden thread in our party’s tapestry.
The other has its roots in racial nationalism and the apartheid regime and has been enthusiastically adopted by elements in the ruling party. It is the closed, crony society for some with all the hallmarks of the apartheid state: preferential treatment for the politically connected, the subversion of independent institutions in the service of the ‘national interest’ and the mobilisation of people along racial lines. Today the beneficiaries of this closed system try to pretend they are acting in the interests of “the people”. The truth is their policies are making poor people poorer.
To counter this deception, we must proudly reclaim our history, whatever the critics say. We need to ensure that we never lose sight of the golden thread that connects our past, present and future.
We must know where we come from, not to revel in the past for its own sake, or to aggrandize the contributions of selected individuals, but to understand how best we lead our project into the future.