Cape liberalism in its terminal phase

Lewsen, Phyllis
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Historians differ widely on the scope and significance of Cape liberalism. The lay public has forgotten it; the tradition did not survive Union either as an effective pressure group or a dispersed but influential body of sentiment. Some habits and institutions lingered on, such as multiracial trams and trains for some decades in the Cape, delays in imposing pass-laws and curfews, and the attenuated survival of the qualified non-racial Cape male franchise (while white men and women had universal franchise). The Cape Native common-roll franchise was abolished by Hertzog in 1936 and replaced by a limited communal franchise: and the Coloured vote disappeared in 1960 after the sordid trickery of a specially enlarged Senate. (In terms of the South Africa Act the Cape franchise was protected or entrenched - it was believed permanently - by the need for a two-thirds majority of both Houses voting together before it could be altered.) Residual influences remained in such bodies as Civil Rights Leagues, the Institute of Race Relations, the now defunct Liberal Party, a portion of the Progressive Party and Nusas. The underlying attitudes are individual and personal: and this too is in line with Cape liberalism. Thus Rene de Villiers wrote recently in his obituary of Margaret Ballinger, Cape Native Representative, a founder and leader of the Liberal Party, and a speaker on innumerable Civil Rights and Race Relations platforms, that she was ‘ liberal bred in the tradition of the old ,Cape Colony. That was a tradition founded on the assumption of the common humanity, the common rights and therefore the common loyalties of all members of a complex society’. He added that our departure from this tradition after Union and especially after 1949 ‘has been the major tragedy of our history in the twentieth century’. The description of Margaret Ballinger applies equally to his own subjective experience as a Cape-style liberal. This obituary seems an elegy rather than a ‘terminal phase’. Instead, after a brief factual summary, the intention of my paper is to re-examine the Cape liberal tradition in the light of recent research and criticism. Three scholars are of special importance: Colin Bundy, Martin Legassick and Stanley Trapido. They have rigorously analysed liberalism as a class phenomenon; and Bundy in his articles and his book, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry, has provided a seminal examination of an almost neglected area, the Cape peasantry. My own primary research in this period has been partially reexamined in the light of these critical revaluations, which in turn have been tested against the documentary factual material. (This whole problem needs to be studied in depth and in detail, and only a small but suggestive segment has been studied comparatively.)
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented September 1980
Liberalism. South Africa. Cape of Good Hope