Marius Redelinghuys
Marius Redelinghuys

The liberal project and DA discontent

Those interested in the DA or inadvertently exposed to it would be aware of an on-going, often heated, discussion about the ideological underpinnings of the party and its political future. Contributors have included Gareth van Onselen (and again), DA executive communications director Gavin Davis and former party leader Tony Leon.

There were also two pieces by RW Johnson arguing that the DA “must re-discover and re-define its liberal roots, develop a far stronger and more explicit sense of its own history and its placement within the liberal tradition”.

The DA’s formal liberal underpinnings are well-documented in its history as custodian of the tradition in South Africa and, since 1984, as full member of Liberal International, the world federation of liberal and progressive democratic political parties.

The renewed debate about the party’s identity, as custodian of the liberal tradition in South Africa, comes on the back of the party’s incredible growth and increasingly favourable electoral prospects.

It is not surprising that this, and the accompanying change, is unsettling to some. Questions and critical reflections abound about what it means to be a DA member and what such people (should) look and sound like.

The DA is not experiencing a crisis of identity or ideology, but this discussion is critical for the party to avoid the ideological wilderness and inconsistencies experienced in the free-for-all ANC-led tripartite alliance.

More importantly, it is necessary because the party has engulfed political vehicles and swallowed members from the old National Party to the Federal Alliance, and more recently the Independent Democrats and Dr Ziba Jiyane’s Sadeco.

The debate thus far has been characterised by some problematic features I would like to address.

There are four fallacies I believe must be rejected, because they are illiberal and should be discomforting to both liberals and scholars of ideology.

The first, the Arrogance of Hegemony, supposes that an individual or group within the DA possesses a monopoly over or can claim supremacy in defining the liberalism of the party and its political values. The earliest manifestations of liberalism rejected such — and many other forms — of absolutism.

Secondly, the Myth of Stagnation which is the vain belief that liberalism was conceptualised at some point distant by great (classical and bygone) thinkers as unchanging truths applicable across space and time. Early liberal expressions included the revolutionary, even radical, challenge to absolutist monarchy in France and England, also advocating constitutional and representative government and criticising the landed aristocracy’s political and economic privilege. Later liberals were more reformist, and then even reactionary as they sought to prevent rolling back dominant liberal institutions.

Finally, there are the interrelated Delusion of Simplicity and Mistake of Uniformity, the false beliefs that liberalism is reducible to a simple set of clear and coherent political beliefs that are uncontested and universally accepted.

An ideology, like liberalism, “is a more or less coherent set of ideas that provides the basis for organised political action, whether this is intended to preserve, modify or overthrow the existing system of power”. It (a) offers an account of the existing order (b) advances a model of a desired future, a vision of the ”good society” and (c) explains how this political change can and should be brought about.

Ideologies, liberalism included, do not have the clear shape and internal consistency of political philosophies because they are more fluid sets of ideas overlapping with other ideologies and blurring into one another.

Within each ideology, and as observed within the DA, a range of divergent, even rival, traditions and viewpoints are housed. This leads to disputes between adherents of the same ideology, often more passionate and bitter than arguments between supporters of rival ideologies because the true nature of the ideology in question is at stake.

This nurtures ideological development and leads to the emergence of hybrid ideological forms like the seemingly absurd pairings of “liberal conservatism” or “liberal nationalism”.

Liberalism’s lack of simplicity, uniformity and its dynamic nature by no means implies ideological relativism or that everyone is a liberal in some shape or form.

Ideologically liberalism is distinguished from other ideologies in its unwavering commitment to a distinct set of beliefs and values, and is firmly rooted in five important pillars, namely the individual, freedom, reason, justice and toleration and diversity.

However, even in relation to these five core aspects two main divergent and often contradictory liberal strands of thought exist, namely classical and modern liberalism.

The DA finds itself at this intersection. It also has to grapple with the intrusion of paternalistic, even authoritarian conservatism and nationalist tendencies in various forms. At the same time the party is confronted with responding to the challenges of day-to-day government, often with practical considerations divorced of ideological abstractions triumphing.

The manner in which the DA collective confronts and deals with it, if at all, will influence the continued political relevance and electoral success of the party.

In the next piece I will expand on the classical versus modern liberal currents within the DA, the challenge of illiberal values and a liberal trajectory for the DA I believe desirable for the contemporary South African context.

This article first appeared on the ChirpRoom, a South African political group blog for and by young liberals.

Source: Heywood, A. 2005. Political Ideologies: An Introduction. (Third Ed.). Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

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