Hayes family of South Africa

The Liberal Party of South Africa

The Liberal Party of South Africa was formed in 1953, and fifteen years later was forced to close when the National Party governnment passed the Prohibition of Improper Interference Act, which made non-racial political parties illegal. Another 26 years were to pass before South Africa became, at least on paper, the kind of society the Liberal Party had struggled for, with non-racial free elections, a democratic constitution that entrenched the rule of law, and a bill of rights.

The definitive history of the role of the Liberal Party in the struggle against apartheid is probably Randolph Vigne's Liberals against apartheid (London, MacMillan, 1997, ISBN 0-333-71355-9), but there doesn't seem to be any web page dealing with this topic, so I hope this helps to fill the gap. What follows is something of a personal memoir. I was a member of the Liberal Party towards the end of its life, in Natal, and I write from that point of view. I hope that eventually others will contribute to this story.


On 9 May 1953 the Liberal Party of South Africa was formed at a meeting in Cape Town. The meeting was of the South African Liberal Association, which had been formed earlier from diverse groups that had gathered in different centres in South Africa (Vigne 1997:20-21). The National Party had just won its second term of office with an increased majority, which it took as a mandate to press ahead with its policy of apartheid. It set about removing coloured voters from the common roll, and abolishing the separate representation that the few African voters had had since they had been removed from the common voters' roll in 1936. The Communist Party of South Africa had been banned, and civil liberties had been eroded as the National Party sought to suppress opposition to its policies.

The main centres of the Liberal Party - Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg and Durban - in many ways represented different philosophies, outlooks, views of what was wrong in South Africa, and what needed to be done about it. Vigne (1997) concentrates mainly on the Liberal Party at the national level, and in the old Cape Province. Natal liberalism, however, was somewhat different. The bulk of the party membership was among Zulu-speaking people in the rural areas.

The history of the Liberal Party is divided into two almost equal periods -- 1953-1960, and 1960-1968. Nineteen-sixty was a watershed year for South Africa. The Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 was followed by the banning of the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-African Congress (PAC), and several other political organisations, a State of Emergency (during which several members of the Liberal Party, as well as those of other organisations, were detained), and a referendum among white voters on whether South Africa should become a republic. The formation of the Progressive Party of South Africa in 1959, with its policy of a qualified franchise, siphoned off the more right-wing white supporters of the Liberal Party, and thereafter the Liberal Party was unequivocal in its electoral policy of "one man, one vote."

What is liberalism? What are liberals?

"Liberal" was, and to some extent still is, something of a dirty word in South Africa. It most frequently appears with the epithet "white", and the stereotype of the "white liberal" is often propagated in the news media. See, for example:

Such articles are misleading, however. Though most of those at the founding meeting were white, within a few years of its founding most of the members of the Liberal Party were black. For the first few years white members were the dominant influence in the party, mainly because the proceedings at national congresses were in English. But when simultaneous translation equipment began to be used, and conference delegates could speak their minds in whatever language they were most fluent in, this changed.

The main aim of the Liberal Party was to establish a free and democratic non-racial society in South Africa. A free society is one in which people are free from excessive government control. The Liberal Party was explicitly opposed to "all forms of totalitarianism, such as fascism and communism". It was therefore strongly opposed to the oppressive aspects of Nationalist rule, such as detention and banning without trial, and people being deprived of their property of ideological reasons, as when people were deprived of land and houses in the name of apartheid. Pass laws, influx control and similar laws were oppressive and unjust, and represented undesirable government interference in the lives of ordinary citizens. .

In a peculiar twist of the meanings of words, many people nowadays, especially in the USA, seem to associate liberalism with "big government". This, however, is the reverse of the truth, and was certainly the opposite of the truth in South Africa. In South Africa the National Party arrogated more and more power to the government and its officials, and systematically removed the legal rights that protected ordinary citizens from the arbitrary abuse of power by officials. It has been rightly said that one of the principles of liberalism is that "the government governs best that governs least". But the Nationalist government in South Africa wanted to govern more and more. New laws kept appearing to remove from the courts the power to question the validity of laws, or to pronounce on the validity of actions that government officials took when using the growing powers that the laws granted them.

Peter Brown, one of the founders of the Liberal Party, and for many years its national chairman, died in June 2004 at the age of 79. You can find more information on Peter Brown, including newspaper obituaries, here. The archives of the Liberal Party are kept at the Alan Paton Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg http://www.library.unp.ac.za/paton

Several members of the Liberal Party were banned. You may read more about them on The Banned Waggon

The Liberal Party policy was to establish non-racial democracy in South Africa. You can see the party's policy manifesto here. It explains what Liberals understood by non-racial democracy back in the 1950s and 1960s,

Message forum

If you were a member or supporter of the Liberal Party of South Africa (1953-1968) you might like to join the SA Liberal forum to make contact with other former members and share memories. If you were not a member, you may still read messages in the forum on the web, but you may not post.

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This page maintained by
Steve Hayes

Created: 27 August 2001
Updated: 11 October 2013