In March, Yvonne Phyllis wrote a scathing attack on the classical liberal theory of private property from a clearly socialistic and racial nationalistic perspective in the Daily Maverick.

To Phyllis, private ownership of land, linked to liberalism, is ‘a form of ownership rooted in racialised dispossession’. Implicitly – like many others – she argues that this liberal notion is alien to South Africa, and that a more socialistic economy is more suited.

Indeed, throughout South Africa’s recent history – the last century or so – nationalists and socialists have felt very confident about deriding liberalism as an acontextual Western import which has no place in the peculiar South African reality. In suggesting that nationalism and socialism are more locally rooted, nationalists and socialists forget that not only is liberalism the older brother to both in South Africa, but this is true globally as well.

Liberalism is the oldest continuously existing mode of political thought in the country, and is perfectly at home here.

Nationalism and socialism

What nationalists and particularly socialists seem to miss is that the foundations of their thinking are also derived from Western sources, which find analogues and derive their lineages from sources lying partly in Europe and partly outside. Edmund Burke, usually cited by contemporary national-conservatives, and Karl Marx, lodestar of the socialists, were not ‘sons of the African soil’, even though especially the latter is often treated as such. Even Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, the intellectual pioneers of contemporary African racial nationalism in South Africa, were primarily influenced by (white) European thinkers.

Marx in particular explained that his version of socialism could only come about after the capitalist phase had been reached in the ‘inevitable’ progress of history. Here, he had in mind the European Industrial Revolution that raised living conditions for all but also maintained inequality.

Africa, meanwhile, has not yet had anything akin to the Industrial Revolution. Marx was not speaking to an African context, and if he had, he would have argued that we, even in 2023, still have the capitalist phase to go through before Africa can even consider socialism. Significantly more development, only possible on the back of a free and dynamic market economy, is necessary to bootstrap the future socialist utopia.

Nationalism, in turn, tends in part to be a natural occurrence, as those who share the same language, ethnicity, culture, or religion tend to congregate and associate. But its clearest political expression is very recent in human history. In fact, as Phillip Blond explains, humanity spent far more time under imperial rather than national rule. Looked at from this perspective, imperialism is the more ‘normal’ human political condition than is nationalism.

Liberalism in South Africa

Liberalism, clearly distinguished from nationalism and socialism, when stripped to its bare essentials, is the idea that people are the best judges of their own self-interest and are best allowed to pursue that self-interest, provided they allow the same for all others. (Those who feel that their own self-interest is better judged by others, according to liberalism, should be free to appoint such others on a voluntary basis to manage their affairs.)

There is little ‘Western’ about this, other than the West being the place where the idea was first directly and explicitly articulated. But what liberalism represents – liberty – is a condition every society and, ultimately, every person, yearns for, even in precolonial Africa. The West simply made a wonderful contribution to a universal institution by expressing it clearly.

There were echoes of (proto-)liberalism in South Africa for many years, as in 1707 when Dutch burghers protested the misrule of Willem Adriaan van der Stel rather than meekly deferring to his ostensible authority. Adam Tas, one of the leaders of this protest, was arrested by Van der Stel, and upon his release from prison thirteen months later, named his home ‘Libertas’.

John Philip and the market liberalism of Adam Smith

But liberalism’s origin in this country can perhaps most clearly be set at 1818, when John Philip, Superintendent of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in and around the Cape Colony, arrived in Cape Town from Scotland. Philip was no ordinary missionary. He was very much immersed in what has come to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular the contributions to it by one Adam Smith.

Philip grew up in a Scotland benefiting immensely from the Industrial Revolution, leading to a general rise in living standards (particularly in urban areas) and bringing about a middle class – a phenomenon never before known in that country.

Other than Adam Smith, Philip was influenced by the brothers Robert and James Haldane. Robert was in turn influenced by both Edmund Burke and the French Revolution. Haldane supported the latter revolution, however, only to the extent that it did not result in ‘either bloodshed or loss of property’.

Philip was ‘a devotee of Smithian economics’, writes Andrew Ross, Philip’s biographer. Ross argues that it is important to understand how Philip interpreted the thought of Smith, for us ‘to understand what he was attempting to achieve in South Africa.’ Ross writes:

‘[Philip’s] understanding of history and society was based on Adam Smith’s understanding of the world which was apparently confirmed by the experience of life in Scotland at the time. After all, all the new prosperity which extended to most people in Scottish society had come about as a result of the new developments of laissez-faire economics freed from the old feudal restraints. The general good of everyone seemed to be served by all seeking to work hard and follow their economic opportunities. As we have seen, the Scotland of [Philip’s] young manhood was prosperous as [Scotland] had never been before […].’

‘For Philip,’ continues Ross, ‘education, evangelical Christianity and freedom from feudal restraints had created the prosperity of the Scotland of his youth as Smith said it should.’ And Philip believed – correctly – that this would be true for all people. Scotland had long had restraints ‘on economic developments and on individual enterprise’ that kept it poor, until this ended and prosperity followed. It was thus that Philip made it his mission – in addition to spreading the Lord’s Word – to secure to the non-white population of South Africa ‘the basic civil rights due to subjects of His Majesty’. Ross writes:

‘Philip along with his allies in the mission like Read and Wright had to be involved in politics so long as the structure of Cape society prevented their converts from having the freedom to pursue the ideology of self-help and hard work, of getting on, which was integral to the Gospel in their view.’

Putting Philip’s approach beyond any doubt, Ross writes:

‘[Philip] was a firm believer in the theories of his fellow townsman, Adam Smith, that the power of laissez-faire capitalism of the Smithian sort would bring good to the whole community. This was part of his intellectual debt to the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, Philip cannot be understood apart from these ideas.’

On applying these ideas to Cape society, Ross writes:

‘Philip believed that if the Khoi, and eventually the slaves, were granted equal civil rights with British citizens in the Colony, and if the barriers to their owning land, to their pursuing trades and to receiving education were removed, then not only the Blacks but all would benefit. He saw the Cape as an economically backward society, imprisoned in its backwardness by the slave structure of its economy. […] This structure, he believed, helped no one, not even the masters. If all had the same civil freedom, if all were able to bring their labour to the free market and sell to the highest bidder, if they could own land and engage in trade and pursue trades, the benefit to all would be direct and of significance to the whole economy.’

Philip spent more than three decades in the Cape dedicated to this mission. Among other things, Philip had a significant hand in the adoption of the ‘Magna Carta of the Coloured Peoples’ – Ordinance 50 of 1828, which gave ‘Hottentots and other free persons of colour’ the same rights as white Cape citizens.

Philip, in other words, brought with him to South Africa the classical liberalism of Adam Smith. Philip would, during these three decades, influence the generation of liberals that succeeded him primarily in the Cape but later throughout the country. Liberalism in South Africa has necessarily been of the classical variety.

Adam Smith’s thought was, of course, incomplete, himself having been arguably the first ‘economist’. Smith, like Marx after him, put too much emphasis on labour as a determinant of value. It was thinkers like Carl Menger and his successors who refined Smith’s thought not only in terms of economic cohesion but also made it more comfortably compatible with a liberal political dispensation.

Aside from these peripheral economic complications, however, Philip embraced non-racialism completely.

In a report he compiled for the directors of the LMS in London, Philip wrote of the indigenous races that ‘I have no hesitation in affirming, that you will find as rational ideas, as large a quantum of intelligence, and as much religion and morality, as much appearance of civilisation as in many villages of the same population in Great Britain.’ In a report for the American Board, he wrote similarly that ‘it appears to me that the natural capacity of the African is nothing inferior to that of the European.’ Ross summarises:

‘The equality of the races seems therefore to have been basic to Philip’s view of reality, and whether “extreme” or not, was consistently expressed in his writings and his actions.’

These were radical views to hold in the first half of the nineteenth century, at the height of the scramble for Africa.

John Philip played a significant role in establishing the non-racial Cape liberal tradition and, as a result, the stream of non-racialist thought in formal South African politics. The liberal Philip’s opponents were not intellectually activated nationalists or socialists, but almost without exception small communities seeking land or an economic edge over the natives. They were not motivated by principle, but by raw self-interest.

Perfectly at home

Liberalism’s pedigree stretches back at least 205 years into South African history, considerably more than ideological nationalism or socialism. And this ideology was not brought here by Western imperialists seeking to extract wealth, but by those who sought to ameliorate if not eliminate the worst and most brutal excesses of colonialism and racialism.

The liberal tradition in South Africa is a proud one worth keeping alive today. Its basic insight – that free individuals, who by right may own landed property, are the best judges of their own interests and the best vehicles for the achievement of social flourishing – remains as true today as it was in 1818.

[Image: Engraving (1844) of the 1836 Parliamentary delegation from South Africa, led by John Philip, by engraver Richard Woodman, after Henry Room –, Public Domain,]

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Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit