In new South Africa, 'liberal' is a dirty word

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Liberals and liberalism in South Africa are, as they've always been, the buffer between white Afrikaner nationalism and black African nationalism.

But now, in a cruel twist of history, liberals who were once at the mercy of the white, right-wing apartheid regime find themselves the scapegoats of the new black left-wing regime, the African National Congress.

Ironically, the apartheid government (1948-1994) warned white liberals that this would happen - that if their wish for black equality became a reality, they would find themselves on the receiving end of the anger of triumphant black nationalists.

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And - in a dangerous trend of intolerance from the black left - that's just what has happened. Today "white liberal" is a dirty word in South Africa.

The Democratic Party - the largest opposition party in the legislature and the most liberal of all political parties - is often characterized as a white racist party, as "neo-Nazi." And yet its leader is Jewish and its membership includes blacks. While some former supporters of the apartheid government belong to the DP, many other parties, too - including the ANC - have members who were former apartheid supporters.

Not even true white right-wing parties, such as the purely apartheid, neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement and the conservative Freedom Front, receive such abuse as the "white liberals" of the Democratic Party.

Even the Institute of Race Relations, which I head, is a target. The think tank, with a multi-racial membership of scholars, businesspeople, nonprofit organizations, and overseas institutions and individuals, was founded in 1929 and is credited with exposing many of the injustices of apartheid. It has spent millions of dollars on scholarships for black South Africans, including former President Nelson Mandela and many of the black journalists who have now turned against it for being a "white liberal" institution.

Why have white liberals become targets? First, the reality of South African politics - whether under the white apartheid government or the black ANC - is that there always has to be an enemy, a scapegoat.

The white right wing was easily demobilized and has been electorally defeated since 1994. Without this white right-wing enemy, a black left-wing government that pursues a conservative economic policy - as the ANC does - would find it hard to justify its policies. Hence the need to distort the political compass so that liberal whites now become the white right-wing "enemy."

Second, the party of power is intolerant of both criticism and the normal push- and-pull of democracy.

Both the Democratic Party and the Institute of Race Relations have opposed some ANC legislation, such as race-based affirmative action. Their opposition to this has been characterized - incorrectly - as a liberal design to block the transformation of South African society being engineered by the ANC.

Third, South African liberals shun the dominance of the state over the individual. But the ruling ANC socialists - like their apartheid predecessors - support group rights over individual rights.

Fourth, it is convenient for black leaders to construe white liberal criticism as an antiblack attitude.

The hurt experienced by blacks during the days of apartheid racism has left a bitter legacy. Though genuine political criticism and debate should be part of a democratic system, for a white-led party to criticize a black majority party invokes the problem of race in South Africa.

Consciously or unconsciously, most blacks associate being white with racism - and more so when whites adopt an ideology that is being projected - even if unfairly - as antiblack by black politicians in the ANC government.

Fifth, race politics still govern political consciousness in South Africa. This isn't just a legacy of apartheid racism but of black power and black consciousness politics of the US in the 1960s and '70s, when figures such as Jesse Jackson questioned the "racial assumptions of white liberal institutions and churches in the United States."

This anti-liberal bandwagon came to South Africa in the form of the South African Black Consciousness Movement, which was founded by Steve Biko, the activist murdered in the custody of South African police. Members of this movement are now influential in circles of power and the antiliberal stance has resonance across the black social spectrum.

Sixth, white liberals are the only whites outside the ANC fold who have legitimate anti-apartheid credentials. This rankles ANC leaders - hence the demonization of white liberals outside the ANC sphere.

We should challenge the intolerance and authoritarianism that is coming. Opposition parties - indeed, individual citizens, too - should not have to keep quiet.

A civil challenge to the government is part of a democratic process. And the political intolerance growing under the new black rule in South Africa is a danger - as we've seen elsewhere in Africa.

Themba Sono is a professor at the University of Pretoria graduate school of management, in South Africa. He is also president of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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