Defending and advancing liberalism in South Africa after Covid-19

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and the political response to it have made liberalism more relevant than it has been in recent decades, especially in South Africa.

As with the apartheid regime before, once again we have seen the destruction the government can bring to the economy, people's livelihoods and personal freedom, all under the guise of serving the so-called public interest. This destruction requires us to redouble our efforts in the fight for human liberty.

Many people regard the Covid-19 outbreak as the end of liberalism. It appears that most people have looked to the government to provide leadership through the crisis, rather than to themselves and their communities, as liberals would have it.

The government has certainly answered that call in the only way it knows how: Widespread infringement of civil and economic liberties. To some this is eminently justifiable because these freedoms are ostensibly elitist and liberalism does nothing less than prop up the elite at the expense of authoritarians' grand social narratives.

But liberalism, evidently often overanalysed and misconstrued, is nothing more or less than the political value system that prizes individual freedom above other considerations, such as social engineering. It has nothing to do with unsustainable growth, consumerism, moral decay or brutish selfishness. To be sure, liberalism allows space for people, communities and firms to make the decisions that could lead towards any of those things, but liberalism itself does not encourage that.

For instance, the Amish society in the US - an incredibly orthodox conservative community - has used the framework of US liberty to pursue a path of extreme traditionalism.

Those in the progressive mecca of San Francisco, at the forefront of social causes such as LGBTI+ rights, have used the freedom afforded by liberal institutions to accomplish their desired goals.

In South Africa, liberalism is predictably analysed through racialist lenses.

Authoritarians have regarded the accusation that liberalism is a tool of the white elite as sufficient argument against this value system and its proponents. But this thinking trivialises the passionate black and coloured liberals active in South Africa today. People such as Mpiyakhe Dhlamini and Zakhele Mthembu, Tami Jackson and Dumo Denga, Gwen Ngwenya and Sindile Vabaza, Temba A Nolutshungu and Duwayne Esau, Unathi Kwaza and Phumlani Majozi.

Contrary to the belittling condescension of authoritarian race hustlers, these individuals are not figments of the white liberal's imagination, but are influential, driven and certainly intellectually independent of the "white master" caricature. Their work stands on its own, a testament to deep care for their fellow citizens and the freedom necessary for them to attain their full potential.

What annoys the race hustlers most is that these individuals, some of whom grew up in South Africa's impoverished townships and rural areas, do not look in the mirror and see "a black" or "a coloured", but see their race as, at best, only one part of an accomplished individual identity.

Moreover, unlike the race hustlers, these individuals do not spend every waking moment of their lives dedicated to academic inquiries into racism, structures of privilege, positionality and intersectionality.

Instead, they concern themselves with actual issues affecting human development and liberty: destitution, freedom of expression, education policy, technology policy, jurisprudence and the battle of ideas.

Therefore, you won’t see any of these individuals rallying against what a racist 15-year-old girl said six years ago or what the people of Orania get up to on their own property. Instead, they are concerned with the human liberty and prosperity of all people, particularly those who do not have deep pockets, who cannot resist the overzealous state.

The Covid-19 lockdown has been a disaster for poor people and its deleterious effect on them will continue for many years to come. Countless jobs have been lost and the infrastructure for creating new jobs in the future - investment in existing businesses, savings - has been similarly decimated; not by the virus, but by the draconian, irrational response.

The liberal answer to this has been to err on the side of freedom: To allow those who are not at risk to work, to keep e-commerce completely open, to keep the military off the streets and to take swift and uncompromising action against police brutality and ministers who excuse it.

The liberal, aware of the public health implications of Covid-19, can nevertheless appreciate the fact that time does not stand still and that the economic capital and infrastructure we destroy today will not magically reappear when the disaster has passed. Similarly, the civil liberties sacrificed during the lockdown might themselves be left behind, given how some are now calling for alcohol and cigarette bans to continue indefinitely.

Benjamin Franklin, an early liberal (who left much to be desired), once remarked: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Additionally, the safety gained in the sacrifice of liberty is often illusory. This is why erring on the side of freedom is an imperative not to be taken lightly.

The debate is over about the effectiveness of liberalism as a conduit for prosperity and true self-actualisation. Without liberalism, you probably cannot have either, and certainly not both.

This does not mean you have to let go of your most deeply held personal, cultural and religious convictions, but rather that you must allow others the same freedom you expect for yourself. It is this truth that we must defend in the world after Covid-19 and advance to new heights. A free society is always just within reach - it is up to us to extend our collective hand and take it.

This article was first published on City Press on 22 May 2020
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