Will Labor suffer fate of United Party? By Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D.
If the Likud is the equivalent of the verkrampte, or conservatives in the National Party, and Kadima is the equivalent of the verligte or “liberals” in that same party, what is the South African equivalent of the Labor Party? That would be the United Party.
This is for several reasons: First, the United Party and its predecessor, the South Africa Party, were the more moderate of the two mainstream parties in South Africa. Second, the two parties were the home of most of the former Boer War generals in politics after 1914. Third, the United Party after the mid-twentieth century faced a shrinking demographic base. And finally, the United Party in its final decades became a “me too” party offering a “kinder, gentler” form of apartheid rather than a real alternative. Labor in Israel suffers from all of these same problems.
The South Africa Party was originally formed as a union of three Afrikaner parties from the three Afrikaner-majority (among the whites) provinces: the Afrikaner Bund from the Cape Province, Het Volk (“the people” in Dutch) from the Transvaal, and Oranie Unie (Orange Union) from the Orange Free State. The party included at least four former Boer generals: the most prominent being Louis Botha, who became prime minister in 1910 until his death in 1919; Jan Smuts, who served as justice minister and minister of mines and then defense minister; and James B. M. Hertzog, who served as education minister. In 1913 Botha resigned and formed a new government in order to rid himself of Hertzog and the nationalists who objected to South Africa being a part of the British Empire. Hertzog formed the National Party, which soon became the main opposition party.
In addition there were two other parties: the Unionist Party, the party of the English-speaking whites; and the Labour Party, the party of white workers of both ethnic groups. In 1914 there was an Afrikaner Revolt on behalf of Germany, which resulted in one former general being accidentally killed and another banned from politics. In 1920, having failed to repair the breach in Afrikaner politics, Jan Smuts—who became prime minister in August 1919—proposed to the Unionists that they simply disband their part and join the South Africa Party, which shared virtually an identical platform, so as to ensure a majority against the Nationalists. The Unionists agreed and then there were only three parties.
From 1924 until 1929 a coalition government of the National Party (“Nats”) and Labourites ruled in South Africa. After that the former absorbed most of the supporters of the latter party and it became a much smaller party. In 1926 Britain granted dominion status or autonomy to the white-ruled territories in its empire. So in 1933 the Nats under Hertzog formed a coalition with the South Africa Party. A year later the two parties merged to become the United Party. At this point the Cape leader of the Nationalists took most of his provincial caucus and formed a rump National Party. This was the party that triumphed in 1948.
From 1933 to 1939 Jan Smuts, the former Boer general and prime minister, served as justice minister, under Prime Minister Hertzog, another former Boer general. This new party was at the expense of the Africans, who lost their qualified franchise in the Cape Province. This is similar to Israel’s own Arabs losing out when governments of national unity are formed. In September 1939, when Hertzog wanted to keep South Africa neutral at the beginning of World War II, Smuts won a parliamentary vote in favor of South Africa joining the Allied side. Smuts then became prime minister for the next nine years—much of which he spent abroad in London as a member of Churchill’s war cabinet. Hertzog went into the opposition and in 1940 resigned from politics before dying of exhaustion two years later.
The United Party won a sweeping majority in parliament in 1943. But five years later the National Party under Daniel Malan, a Calvinist minister by profession, campaigned under the slogan of apartheid or separation between the races. Although the United Party won more votes the Nats won more seats because rural seats had up to ten percent viewer voters than urban seats under an arrangement made in 1910. It was the equivalent of winning the popular vote and losing the electoral college vote. So from 1910 to 1943 the old South Africa Party/United Party had grown progressively larger. For the next 45 years it would shrink. Each subsequent election it received an absolute minority of votes and fewer votes each election. With the Labour Party gone by 1950 South Africa had a two-party system so that as the UP grew smaller the Nats grew larger. After 1943 the UP failed to attract new Afrikaner voters and was dependent on English-speakers and old Afrikaners who grew fewer with each election.
In 1959, as the National Party was beginning to implement its homeland or bantustan policy of assigning all Africans an ethnic homeland, the liberal parliamentary wing of the UP broke away to form the Progressive Party in opposition to apartheid. This was the equivalent of Mapam and Yossi Sarid leaving the Labor Alignment in 1984. In 1961 the Progressive Party (“Progs”) were reduced to a single Johannesburg MP, Helen Suzman. She remained the party’s sole MP for thirteen years. But by boldly challenging National Party policy in speeches and during question time she was more effective than the entire UP. In 1974 the Progs elected six MPs and the UP began to deteriorate more rapidly. It lost major splinters in 1975 and 1978, both times to the Progs, but also to the Nats at the latter occasion. By 1977 the New Republic Party—the UP had foolishly given up its name—was largely confined to South Africa’s smallest province, Natal, where English-speakers were a majority of whites. After the party lost half of its strength in defections in 1984-87 to the Nats, it was reduced to a single MP in the 1987 election. In 1988 the party finally folded.
Like the UP, Labor is dependent on a shrinking (Ashkenazi) base. Since 1973 an increasing amount of the mizrakhi electorate has been voting for the Likud and Shas. Both during the late 1980s and since 2000 Labor has become a “me too” party supporting a “kinder, gentler” settlement policy and occupation. Its generals are more interested in serving in government without principles, rather than in opposition with them. Labor is now about where the UP was in the early 1980s—no longer either capable of leading coalitions or of being a credible opposition party.
One of the differences between South Africa and Israel is that the liberal opposition Progs grew at the expense of the conservative UP, whereas in Israel, the liberal Meretz has been shrinking at an even faster rate. The only solution is real alternative policies and a merger to form a viable opposition party. It is time for the liberal opposition and the verligte to start talking about cooperation and principles for a future merger.