My moedertaal is colourful and versatile – especially when it comes to insults and swearwords. I’m convinced that rugby is largely such a popular sport amongst Afrikaners because it offers such a vibrant outlet for the Afrikaans language. The vast collection of ways of scolding a fellow passing an inflated ovoid at an angle greater than ninety degrees I’ve encountered over three decades is something to marvel at.

Yet, in all Afrikaans the word that carries contempt and revile with more potency than perhaps any other must surely be that toxic moniker ‘liberaal’ – liberal. Whether it’s your morals, your theology, or your politics – if an Afrikaner ever throws the l-bomb at you, you know your grandmother and the sea cannot scrub you clean of the stench of this insult of insults. Spineless, weak, and possibly homosexual and high – you’ve been labeled a liberal and sterkte.

The problem with this insult is that it is fundamentally misguided and wide of the mark – ‘in sy moer in mis,’ to quote Christiaan de Wet’s pithy commentary on artillery practice efforts of boere under his command.

Having grown up in a distinctly Afrikaner milieu, and being quite conservative in my personal outlook, I had for the first twenty years or so of my life assumed myself to be naturally a conservative. It was only in my third decade of life that I started suspecting I might be a liberal – not due to any significant shift in ideological conviction, though.

This liberal realisation was a strange development, as it happened to coincide with my religious gravitation towards what would be considered conservative Christianity: from being born, baptised and raised in the NG Kerk, I went through typical adolescent atheism and emerged on the other side into the Gereformeerde Kerk, an unabashed adherent of Calvinist theology. Simultaneously, I found myself believing, from biblical, gereformeerde bases of common grace, in things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, property rights, free markets.

Being an avid follower of American politics, and this being circa 2010, the rise of the so-called Tea Party and the build-up to the Romney-Obama face-off in 2012, my religious and ideological convictions placed me firmly in what I considered to be the conservative camp. I remember even giving a good friend a hard time for self-identification as a liberal. ‘Liberal’, in my then-understanding of the word, moulded by my Afrikaner background and my exposure to American politics, meant the opposite of my convictions.

But today, I am, for better or worse, a decade wiser. The first tremors of the dislodgment of my self-identification as a conservative came from study of British political history.

Having been an anglophile my entire life, it might be strange that I approached the Reagan-Thatcher relationship from an American rather than British point of view, but I guess that must be what happened. Travelling in history, philosophy, ideology, and politics eastwards across the Atlantic, via the special relationship between the Gipper and the Iron Lady, I landed in the unfamiliarly termed but familiar surroundings of British liberalism.

Exactly when I realised that Reagan’s American conservatism harmonised almost seamlessly with Thatcher’s British liberalism, I cannot recall. But something that has stuck with me for almost a decade now was a speech given by Connor Burns MP in the House of Commons shortly after the death of Lady Thatcher in 2013. In this tribute, Burns, a close friend of Thatcher in her later years, explained how the Iron Lady did not see herself as a conservative at all, but as a Gladstonian classical liberal. This seed of insight, falling on freshly tilled earth, germinated into the liberalism I hold today.

As I write this, a commissioned 3D-printed William Ewart Gladstone, who was affectionately known as the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Victorian politics, glares at me with determination captured quite wonderfully by the artist I had commissioned to digitally sculpt him. The reason I commissioned this somewhat odd piece of art? Well, upon hearing almost a decade ago that Margaret Thatcher considered herself a Gladstonian classical liberal, I thought it worth investigating liberalism properly. And that is essentially what my political and ideological journey has consisted of over these last years: realising that I believe in the liberal freedom of individuals to choose – in my case, to choose to be a conservative.

(In contrast to Gladstone’s liberalism stood Disraeli’s conservatism – ironically the very political movement that brought about the aggressive imperialism against which Christiaan de Wet fought.)

Had I simply applied basic etymology a decade ago, it would probably not have taken me this long to reach this point of considering myself a proud liberal – ‘liberal’ so obviously deriving from ‘liberty’ and the like. But, alas, hindsight is twenty-twenty.

To quote another leader of the era of the Anglo-Boer War, the then-leader of the opposition in the British House of Commons and then-leader of the British Liberal Party: “What do we mean by this Liberalism of which we talk? I should say it means the acknowledgement in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves.”

One can overcomplicate this issue through tracing and plotting the meanderings of philosophy and history, but Campbell-Bannerman (soon to be commissioned bust Number 2), summed it up quite perfectly. It is a shame of immense proportions that decidedly illiberal political movements and ideas have expropriated the term ‘liberal’. At some point during the twentieth century, true, classical liberals, believers in freedom, allowed ‘liberal’ to lose its meaning of being about liberty. And the world still grapples with this great liberal confusion today.

Perhaps it is worth encouraging people to start challenging all those who, like myself, consider themselves ‘liberal’. Ask self-professed ‘liberals’ directly whether our claimed liberalism has anything to do with liberty, with allowing people to live free from insidious state harassment. If the answer is ‘no’, well, you then have significant grounds to call out the faux-liberal as a hypocrite. If you can do it in Afrikaans – even better. You see, my moedertaal is colourful and versatile – I’m sure it’ll one day cease having ‘liberaal´ as an insult and cook up something equally scathing for those who call themselves liberals while not giving two hoots about liberty.

[Logo: South African Christian Directory]

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