Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The freedom to be wrong

Last night I attended an extraordinary event. A biography of Helen Suzman was launched in the ballroom of the Mount Nelson Hotel. Now a book launch is not normally something to write about, but this was some launch! 
First up to introduce the book was the author, Robin Renwick, or Lord Renwick of Clifton, to give him his full title. He had been British Ambassador to South Africa in the late 1980's, and had played a crucial role in facilitating the transition out of apartheid. He spoke briefly, because he had learned a long time ago that you couldn't keep people from the bar for too long! 
He was followed by Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape, who said some things about Suzman that I will talk about later. She was her usual trenchant self, firm, to the point, and quite brief. Next up was ex-President FW de Klerk, full of bonhomie and rueful of the many occasions when he had been bested in Parliament by Suzman. Then we had Mamphaela Ramphaela, newly welcomed to the DA ranks as Presidential candidate, who was wise and nostalgic in her praise of Suzman. And to round off the list of luminaries, none other than Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who also remembered Suzman warmly. 
But Zille said something which grabbed my attention. She quoted Suzman as saying that she had lived through three ideologies, Nazi Fascism, Communism and Apartheid. Each of them was dominated by its own ideological 'truth'. In every case they fell because the 'truth' carried the seeds of its own destruction, when reality eventually forced its way past the misconceptions. 
She - Suzman - was a liberal, which was not an ideology because no liberal ever lays claim to be the holder of the 'truth'. In a liberal democracy you are allowed to make mistakes, but mistakes get picked up and corrected because there is no perceived 'truth'. Instead there is open debate about what is best for society, and that debate is fostered by freedom of speech and the rule of law. 
I knew Suzman quite well, but I had never heard her advance this. Yet it has a ring of veracity about it. Something gave her the will to fight. For 17 years she was the lone voice of reason. Then, in 1974, Gordon Waddell became the first progressive to join her in Parliament. 
 I remember that night well, because at long last a tiny crack had opened in the rigid facade of the apartheid government. Waddell was no light-weight, and I and another tall bloke were only too keen to put him down when we were so foolish as to raise him up in triumph. There was a car close at hand, and Waddell stood on the roof to make his victory speech - which was interrupted by the officer in charge of voting shrieking "Get off my blerry car!" We had to pay for the repairs to the dented roof. 
 So I leave you with the thought that none of us can lay claim to be right. We can have views, and as long as we have the freedom to express those views, then what is right and just will emerge. But attempts to shut down the debate, by declaring that there is 'consensus' or that is is wrong to publish 'falsehoods' miss the point - today's consensus is tomorrow's mistake. That is one of the things that makes life worth living.

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