Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA)

Liberal Party founder, Alan Paton Image source

The ascendancy of the apartheid government in 1948 signalled a descent into institutionalized racism unseen in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. Under the leadership of Dr DF Malan, the National Party (NP) supported by strong Afrikaner nationalist sentiment was swept into power defeating General Jan Smuts and his United Party (UP).

Subsequent to this, the NP began enacting and implementing racially divisive legislation. This was met by strong opposition from the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the South African Coloured People's Organisation (SACPO) and the Congress of Democrats (COD).

Formation of the LPSA

In 1951, a number of people met in Pietermaritzburg to discuss a response to the increasing entrenchment of apartheid by the government. Amongst them were Alan Paton, Peter Brown and Henry Selby Msimang. Sometime in 1953, this group developed formed an organisation known as the Liberal Association which brought together a number of liberal groups.

Among its founding members were Alan Paton, Leo Marquard, Margaret Ballinger and Edgar Brookes who all became its four vice presidents. Subsequently, branches were set up in various parts of the country including the Cape Town, Johannesburg, the Free State and the Natal Midlands.

On 15 April 1953, the NP held a second general election and was returned to power. The Liberal Association convened a meeting in Cape Town to discuss what their next move would be in the light of the NP’s victory. On 9 May 1953, the LA formally constituted itself as the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA) when delegates voted to transform the LA into political party.

Margaret Ballinger became its first president while Alan Paton and Leo Marquard became vice presidents. In addition, Oscar Wollheim became the party’s chairperson and Leslie Rubin vice-chairperson. Peter Brown and Selby Msimang represented Natal. The latter is credited with building a network of LPSA branches in Natal recruiting Black people to its ranks.

Alan Paton president of the LPSA addresses a crowd in Fordsburg, 28 July 1957, Collection: Museum Africa, Permission: Africamediaonline.

After its formation the LPSA, pushed for the franchise to be ‘extended gradually on the common roll to all adult persons, without any literacy, income or other qualifications. Later the party changed its position to a universal suffrage. The LPSA was opposed to political participation based on race. Among other demands that the LPSA made to the NP led government was a constitution which would contain a bill of rights, making education available for all, freedom of association whether in political or trade union activities. The party’s position on other issues such as land and the economy were set in the party’s policy document.

Although the party had a predominantly white membership after its formation, this changed over time as more Black people joined and swelled its ranks. Perhaps, it was its non racial policy that gave oppressed people a voice of defiance that irked the apartheid government.  Among them were Henry Selby Msimang, Elliott Mngadi and Chris Shabalala. Initially the LPSA was against violence, and wished to use only constitutional and democratic means to achieve its objects. As a way of propagating its message, the party established Contact as its official publication which ran from 1954 until 1967.

The LPSA relationship with other political formations

At the time of its formation, there were other anti apartheid political parties or formations such as the ANC, SACP, SAIC, COD and SACPO that had been fighting against apartheid. Firstly, the LPSA had to find its own programme of action that would distinguish it from other political formations and secondly, it needed to define its relationship to these formations.

Peter Brown noted that the relationship between the LPSA and the Congress Movement, a coalition of the ANC, SACP, COD and SACPO.  For instance, in Natal the two worked together particularly in fighting against forced removals brought about by the imposition of the Group Areas Act and the destruction of the so-called ‘Black spots’. This was a term used to describe an area held in freehold by a black individual or a black community. On 7 December 1959, leaders of the ANC, SAIC and LPSA issued a joint appeal to the British public to boycott South African produce.

The LPSA’s disapproval of communists in the Congress Movement also created antagonism in the relationship between the two organisations. One of the issues that the LPSA was at pains to repeatedly point out when its members were banned under the Suppression of Communism Act was that their members were not communists. This perhaps contributed to closer relationship between the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the LPSA. Brown notes that the relationship between the two parties “was good, certainly better than anyone else's.” The COD in particular also had confrontational relationship with the LPSA. Selby Msimang was perhaps one person who reflected the contradictory and fluid relational positions of the Congress Movement and the LPSA. He was member of the ANC and LPSA.

In 1959 the Progressive Party (PP) was formed and it propagated a qualified franchise. Some members of LPSA left the party and joined the PP. This may have compelled a policy change within the LPSA to push for universal suffrage as opposed to a gradual extension of the franchise that the party had initially proposed. In Cape Town the party also developed a close relationship with the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO).

Persecution by the State

The government responded to the LPSA and its policies by persecuting its members as it viewed the party’s policies as a threat to its apartheid policy. This was because the party had both black and white members in its ranks. Several members of the party were banned, disallowed to hold gatherings and harassed by the security police. In Northern Natal, the police interrupted the funeral of a LPSA member. In 1962, BJ Vorster accused the party of being nothing more than a communist tool and of involvement in violence in the Transkei.

Between March 1961 and April 1966, forty-one leading members of the LPSA were banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. This was despite the fact that they were not members of the Communist Party or supported communism. The banning of members of the LPSA was severe between 1963 and 1964. Patrick Duncan was first member of the LPSA to fall foul of the law despite his anti communist stance.  Office bearers such as the National chairman Peter Brown, the deputy national president, national vice-president and the national treasurer were all banned. In the Transvaal the party’s chairperson in the region, David Craighead, who also worked as chairperson of the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) in South Africa was banned in 1965. Barney Zackon, who was chairperson of the Cape branch and an active member of IDAF was issued with a banning order. Lastly, five successive editors of the party’s publication Contact were all banned by 1965. Other members received warnings from magistrates to refrain from participating in what the government termed “communist activities”. For instance, Maritz van den Berg, chairperson of the party in Pretoria, received such a warning.

Both black and white members of the LPSA were targeted for banning. Elliott Mngadi, the Northern Natal regional organiser who worked as court messenger, was banned in 1964. He lost his job and was prevented from preaching in his church. He was succeeded by Mike Ndlovu who was also banned.

Elliott Mngadi a member of the Liberal Party based in Natal. Source:http://khanya.wordpress.com/

Then Chris Shabalala who was the Natal Midlands organizer for the party was banned in 1965. Among the last members of the LPSA to be banned were Mr and Mrs CK Hill of the Durban Christian Community. The bannings forced a number of members to ‘resign’ from the party as they could no longer freely associate with their comrades in carrying out party work and their personal freedom was restricted.

On 13 May 1965, the Rand Daily Mail reported that leaflets were secretly scattered warning African members of the LPSA that they would be banned unless they desisted from participating in political activities of the LPSA. By September 1965, 40 members of the LPSA had been banned and their political activities severely curtailed.

The state continued to harass and intimidate LPSA members. Security branch officers would attend party branch meetings and produce a warrant authorizing them to do so.  The police would visit families of party members and ask them to persuade their relatives to leave the party. This was done to both black and white members of the party including those in rural areas. Alan Paton, the party’s president, was followed by the security branch, his telephone lines were tapped and his house was searched a number of times.

Due to political persecution, some members of the LPSA fled into to exile and became involved in anti apartheid activities abroad. For example, Randolph Vigne was banned in 1963 and his house in Cape Town was fire bombed in an attempt to intimidate him. He left the country and went into exile in London where he worked closely with the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF) and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In 1969 Vigne became a founder member of the Friends of Namibia, later renamed the Namibia Support Committee.

The End of the Liberal Party

The non racial policy of the LPSA precipitated further moves by the government to remove it from the political landscape. Starting in 1960, the Government embarked on a concerted effort to neutralize the party and destroy it. In addition to the banning and harassment of its members, the government began issuing notices restricting certain racial groups from joining those political parties who had members across the racial divide. On 3 September 1965, the government issued a notice declaring that Coloured teachers were prohibited from being members of the Nationalist, United, Progressive and Liberal parties.

In 1966, the NP led government tabled the Prohibition of Improper Interference Bill, which proposed the prevention of interracial political participation. In 1968, the Bill was passed in parliament as the Prevention of Political Interference Act. Two political parties, the Progressive Party (PP) and LPSA with members across racial line were severely affected. The PP chose not to disband but become a white’s only party, while the LPSA chose to disband rather than comply with legislation that went against its defining principle of non racialism. Between April and May 1968, meetings were held in various parts of the country, bringing to end 15 years of anti apartheid struggle by the LPSA.


References:
•  Vigne R, (1997), Liberals against Apartheid: A History of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953”“68, (London)
• Mathews A.S, (1972), Law, order and liberty in South Africa, (University of California Press) p.110-111
• Horrel M, (1966), South African Race Relations Survey, A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa 1965, (Johannesburg), pp.11
• Liberal Party of South Africa, Collection at theUniversity of KwaZulu Natal - Alan Paton And Struggle Centre, [online], Available at www.ukzn.ac.za  [Accessed 10 May 2012]
• The Independent, (2004), Peter Brown Ally of Alan Paton in the Liberal Party of South Africa, from theIndependent, 06 July, [online], Available at www.independent.co.uk[Accessed 10 May 2012]
• Cardo, M (2011), Biography of Peter Brown, South African liberal leader, from Khaya, 10 January, [online], Available at http://khanya.wordpress.com  [Accessed 10 May 2012]
• ALAN STUART PATON: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY (1903-1988), from theUniversity of KwaZulu Natal, [online], Available at www.ukzn.ac.za  [Accessed 10 May 2012]
• Additional Links Interview with Randolph Vigne from African Activist Archive, Video http://africanactivist.msu.edu/video.php?objectid=32-12F-5

Last updated : 08-Nov-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 10-May-2012