The DA elected Mmusi Maimane as leader in May 2015. He succeeded Helen Zille. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Buried between columns 8206 and 8213 of the 44th volume of Hansard of June 1973 is a parliamentary speech – neither memorable nor especially remarkable – which reminds us all these years later of the great distance we have travelled as a society.

No more, as parliamentarians did on that distant winter afternoon, are we compelled even to contemplate the desolating bureaucratic nihilism of uprooting 320 000 people from their accustomed hills and fields and trucking them elsewhere – ‘without any consideration for what this is going to mean in human terms’ – to shacks dotted across bare ground with ‘no schools and no shops and no clinics or anything else’.

The measured oppositional voice in these few quoted lines is Helen Suzman’s. Now, in June 1973, nearing the end of her 13 solo years in Parliament as the lone representative of the Progressive Party. 

Enlightened voters in the election 10 months later sent five new MPs to join her, resuscitating a liberal tradition that has strengthened and broadened since.

Suzman’s speech on the Black Laws Amendment Act (enabling a ‘removal order’ to be served on a ‘Bantu Community as well as on a tribe or portion thereof’) contains a characteristically plain explanation of the liberal mission in a passage which, in 2019, is also arrested for being disconcertingly familiar. 

It cuts to the heart of the furious argument the Institute of Race Relations has triggered in the liberal community, and it expresses the essence of the IRR’s convictions.

South Africa was an indivisible society, Suzman told the House, ‘but the government thinks only in terms of colour, and this is what worries me. [They] cannot think of this country as a country with a population of 22 million people, living together and sharing the responsibilities … and also sharing the privileges and the many advantages that this country has to offer; it is as simple as that.’

And, of course, it is still as simple as that. 

But if this plain liberal vision is as vividly authentic in 2019 as it was four decades ago, it will not thrive as it deserves to – and as South Africa deserves it to – if liberals themselves waver in their commitment to it, to liberty as an indivisible condition of national life. 

Much has changed since apartheid’s 1970s inflicted forced removals on people it did not even recognise as citizens – and worse followed. The bitterest years of repressive minority rule have been superseded by a constitutional state that acknowledges and dignifies every individual. We have a parliamentary democracy through which we can choose how we are governed. 

One thing that has not changed is almost achingly obvious from Suzman’s long-forgotten contribution to the Black Laws Amendment Act debate, and it is not just that we contend today with a government as obsessed with race as the one Suzman confronted in 1973, but that her ‘simple’ idea of a free society, at liberty to live in and to share the country, has been chronically weakened by a failure of courage, a failure, if you like, to see the liberation through and to defeat the germ of division, discrimination, distrust and deprivation: race nationalism. 

The consequences are telling. Though the democratic dividend is, beyond question, immense – conceivably greater than many South Africans appreciate – we are not yet by far the ‘liberated’ society of our joyous imagining in 1994. 

It is in this context that the argument for a free, fair and prospering society must be compelling, and it is the context of the IRR’s #SaveTheOpposition campaign. It is not about personalities, factions or leadership contests – the particulars of whom or which are relevant only to the extent that the Official Opposition grasps what, in our view, is at stake. 

And the IRR’s own research shows the scale of it. If the democratic era has delivered an immeasurably better-off and fairer society, millions labour still under inherited burdens which too many post-1994 policy choices have tragically failed to ease. 

This much is obvious from the Quality of Life Index crafted by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the IRR a few years to measure South Africans’ quality of life against ten key indicators (on a score of 0 to 10); the matric pass rate; unemployment (based on the expanded definition); monthly expenditure levels of R10 000 or more; household tenure status (houses owned but not yet paid off to a bank); household access to piped water; access to electricity for cooking; access to a basic sanitation facility; irregular or no waste removal; medical aid coverage; and the murder rate. 

White South Africans have the highest standard of living, with a final index score of 8.0 (excluding the murder rate) or, including the murder rate, 7.8 – both of which are far above the national averages. Whites had the best outcomes in the matric pass rate; unemployment; expenditure exceeding R10 000 per month; mortgaged houses; waste removal; medical aid coverage and access to basic sanitation. Black people had the worst outcomes on all indicators. 

These outcomes are not the consequence of choices by the poorest South Africans, but of the signal failure of race-based policy over the past 25 years to confront the lasting and stubborn effects of our racially abusive history. Where actual disadvantage is ignored – and race mistaken, again, as a meaningful indicator – it is not only the burdens of the poor, but the prospects for the country as a whole, that worsen.

We have written of IRR research showing that while millions more enjoy access to education today than in 1994, the effects of dysfunctional public schooling include the fact that just under half of children who enrol in Grade one will make it to Grade 12; just 28% of people aged 20 or older have completed high school; and that the black higher education participation rate is just 15,6% while that for Indian and white people (aged 20–24) is 49,3% and 52,8%.

It is therefore no surprise that, by our calculations, of South Africa’s nearly 10 million unemployed people, more than 8 million are black, and that the unemployment rate for black people is between 4 to 5 times higher than that of white people.

At the centre of all these pressing challenges is the inescapable truth that black and white South Africans have the same interests, and thus can only succeed – or fail – collectively.

The wasteful divisiveness of racial nationalism failed once before to corrupt this essential truth – but failed at great cost, for it endured and defended itself cruelly. That should not be allowed to happen again. It must be opposed effectively from the liberal corner.

In our view, the argument for liberty – freedom for people as individuals, whoever they are, a free market, free speech and the rule of law – best serves our common interest in defeating poverty and defying tyranny. 

By virtue of its courageous antecedence, and its own credible record, the DA has a critical role to play.

On this, there can be no apology for stimulating a vigorous debate, for here are the foundational principles. 

As Helen Suzman herself once advised: ‘If you don't know what to do, go and look for the principle.’

* Michael Morris is the head of media at the Institute of Race Relations

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media