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As former DA MP and author Michael Cardo once presciently observed: “The biggest challenge for liberals in our plural and unequal society is to find ways of accommodating diversity and addressing poverty while gaining the momentum of political support. This task requires liberals to meet majority aspirations and quell minority fears ... [it] needs to be done if the liberal project is to succeed.” 

The tragedy for liberalism in SA is that the DA, which lays claim to the liberal mantle, has manifestly failed to rise to this challenge. The requirement for liberals to “meet majority aspirations and quell minority fears” is more than key; it means capturing the soul of the country and delivering a new and inclusive liberation.

Yes, the imperative to “rescue” SA, grow the economy, dent joblessness, foster a healthy and decently educated population, and keep the lights on and clean water flowing is important, particularly given the ANC’s dire neglect in this regard — but more than “rescue”, it is about reinvention, the absence of which speaks to the poverty of politics in our society. 

Great leaders are those who are able to capture the soul of a people and set them free. It has been said that deliverance is release from the oppressor, but freedom is deliverance from oppression. While the ANC contributed to the former, no-one — bar a wild stab by Julius Malema — has particularly addressed the latter.

Make no mistake, Malema is a dangerous demagogue and the EFF, with its contentious rhetoric that seeks to challenge traditional political norms and advocates for radical socioeconomic transformation, sparking controversy and debate about the boundaries of democratic expression, is far removed from the liberal tradition. 

As Alan Paton, author of Cry the Beloved Country and founding co-president of the Liberal Party, said: “By liberalism I don’t mean the creed of any party 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” — a far cry from the championing of individualism. 

Cardo quotes Peter Brown, national chair of the Liberal Party of SA between 1958 and 1964: “There may come a time when the ANC starts to disintegrate or to produce factions ... There will be an opportunity to form a fully nonracial Liberal Party again. Something which will absorb the DP [now the DA] and elements from other political organisations.”

What Brown didn’t envisage was a multiparty charter comprising white and black tribalists, Christian fundamentalists, right-wing libertarian demagogues and a successor to the liberal tradition that has jettisoned the aspirations of the majority in favour of championing minority interests. 

Does this mean the death of the liberal tradition in SA, given the absence of any party even remotely able to  take the mantle of Paton and Brown and fuse it with the legacy of three Nobel laureates — Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela — informed by the Gandhian tradition of the Indian Congresses? While this appears to be the case in the run-up to these elections, is it not time to lay the foundation of a resurgence; of a resurrection and a deliverance for 2029?

Whatever the current posturing, the jockeying and narrow interests of many, there remains a nobler path — hard and destined to be pitted against the collective usurpers of the liberal tradition, those who sullied and besmirched liberation, the flotsam and jetsam of discrete and divisive interests and the rash extremists punting a revolution of sorts.

In his seminal book In Defence of Politics, Bernard Crick argues for the importance of politics as a noble and necessary activity for managing conflicting interests in society, promoting compromise and maintaining stability, emphasising that despite its flaws, politics remains the best means for achieving collective goals and resolving disputes within a democratic framework.

It is the liberal tradition that lies at the heart of this. 

• Cachalia is a former DA MP and public enterprises spokesperson.

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