Liberalism in South Africa

Liberalism in South Africa has encompassed various traditions and parties.

The moderate South African Party and its successor, the United Party, formed government several times between the formation of the Union and the election of the National Party in 1948. In 1959, members of the United Party formed the Progressive Party, a precursor to the present-day Democratic Alliance. Separately, in 1953, the anti-Apartheid and multi-racial Liberal Party of South Africa was formed, before disbanding in 1968.

Various South Africans have contributed prominently to liberalism in the country.


Progressive Party to Unionist Party

South African Party

  • 1911: The South African Party was formed of various pre-Union parties. Led by the moderate Louis Botha, it formed the first government of a united South Africa. The party's support base included English-speaking white South Africans who developed a pattern of supporting the most moderate Afrikaner politicians to avoid domination. The party's own 'liberal' wing was led by Jan Hofmeyr.[1]
  • 1934: SAP merged into the ⇒ United Party.

United Party

  • 1934: The United Party was formed in response to the Great Depression, combining Jan Smuts' South African Party and most of Barry Hertzog's National Party.[1]
  • 1939: Hertzog left the party and a split formed following South Africa's entry into the Second World War.[2] The party increasingly resembled the former South African Party.[1]
  • 1948: The United Party, led by Jan Smuts, lost in the 1948 election to the Reunited National Party. The United Party based its platform on the recommendations of the Fagan Commission, which determined total segregation to be impossible, and advocated a relaxation of restrictions on black African migration into urban areas.[3][4] The Reunited National Party, conversely, had campaigned on total racial separation.[3]
  • 1973: Democratic Party broke away from the National Party.
  • 1977: DP and UP formed the New Republic Party.
  • 1987: NRP dissolved, many of their members went to the Independent Party.
  • 1988: IP and NRP merged into the ⇒ Democratic Party.

Liberal Party of South Africa

  • 1953: The Liberal Party of South Africa was formed by Alan Paton
  • 1968: The SALP decided to disband rather than obey legislation outlawing multiracial political parties. The decision was also influenced by the fact that the leadership of the SALP had been decimated by banning orders and other restrictive measures, and by the fact that many stalwarts had been forced into exile.

Progressive Party to Democratic Alliance

  • 1959: Liberal members of the United Party seceded and formed the liberal Progressive Party. The parliamentary party is led by Helen Suzman
  • 1975: The party merged with the Reform Party led by Harry Schwarz, a faction of the United Party, and became the Progressive Reform Party
  • 1977: After the dissolution of the United Party, former members merged into the PRP, which is renamed the Progressive Federal Party
  • 1987: National Party MP Wynand Malan quit the governing party to protest PW Botha's policies. South African Ambassador to the UK Denis Worrall quit his post in order to return to South Africa and fight apartheid. The two formed and led the liberal Independent Party.
  • 1988: The PFP merged with the newly founded National Democratic Movement and the Independent Party into the Democratic Party
  • 2000: The DP merged with the conservative New National Party into an alliance, the Democratic Alliance.
  • 2001: The NNP left the alliance and the DP continues as the present-day Democratic Alliance

Mahlabatini Declaration

On 4 January 1974, Transvaal United Party leader Harry Schwarz met with Mangosuthu Buthelezi and signed a five-point plan for racial peace in South Africa, which came to be known as the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith. Its purpose was to provide a blueprint for the government of South Africa by consent and racial peace in a multi-racial society, stressing opportunity for all, consultation, the federal concept, and a bill of rights. It also affirmed that political change must take place though non-violent means, at a time when neither the National Party nor the African National Congress were looking to peaceful solutions or dialogue. The declaration enshrined the principles of peaceful transition of power and equality for all, the first of such agreements by acknowledged black and white political leaders in South Africa and was heralded by many as a breakthrough in race relations in South Africa. Liberal figures and others such as Alan Paton praised the declaration. The declaration drew much media interest both inside and outside South Africa. Schwarz, leader of the liberal 'Young Turks' in the UP, would be expelled with other liberals from the party the following year.

Prominent individuals



  • Donald Barkly Molteno (1908–1972)
  • Edgar Brookes (1897–1979)

Media and literature

  • Author Alan Paton (1903–1988)
  • Laurence Gandar[5] (1915–1998), editor of the liberal daily the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg from 1957 to 1969
  • Barry Streek[6] (1948–2006)


Liberal organisations

  • Helen Suzman Foundation
  • Centre for Development and Enterprise
  • South African Institute of Race Relations
  • Black Sash
  • Free Market Foundation


  1. Mills, Wallace. "South African Political Parties". Retrieved 26 February 2022.
  2. "United Party, South Africa". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 26 February 2022.
  3. "South Africa - The 1948 Election". Retrieved 26 February 2022.
  4. Evans, Ivan (1997). Bureaucracy and Race: Native Administration in South Africa. University of California Press. pp. 58–59. ISBN 9780520206519.
  5. The Independent (UK)
  6. Mail & Guardian Archived 1 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine

See also

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