This article was first published by Daily Friend on 28 September 2023
South Africa is not the first place most people would think to look for examples of successful private, voluntarist initiatives that – with any luck – render a harmful state irrelevant. But liberals and those around the world who believe in harmonious freedom of association can learn a lot from the Solidarity Movement and the civil rights group, AfriForum.
A brief autobiography of myself and my time thus far in the liberal movement was recently published – for which I feel honoured – in the Palgrave Macmillan book, Libertarian Autobiographies: Moving Toward Freedom in Today’s World, edited by Professor Jo Ann Cavallo and Professor Walter E Block.
In my contribution, I explain that despite (and perhaps also because of) all of South Africa’s challenges, there is nonetheless a flourishing voluntarist scene. The Solidarity Movement and the civil rights group, AfriForum, embody this thriving spirit of selfdoen (‘doing it ourselves’), and are examples for anyone elsewhere in the world – liberals and libertarians in particular – interested in attaining practical independence from the state.
Solidarity is a behemoth of a movement. It includes under its umbrella a trade union, a cultural federation, a charity, an investment company, a basic education platform, a private technical college and a private academic college, a popular online newspaper, a religious institute, and a civil rights group. It is this civil rights group, AfriForum, that is the most well-known part of the movement.
All of these entities within the movement themselves contain an impressive host of subsidiaries and initiatives, and AfriForum is no exception.
AfriForum includes under its umbrella a private security firm, a television studio, a publisher, a youth movement, a college hostel, an emergency panic-button service, a business network, a sports network, a theatre, a psychological trauma unit for victims of crime, a vast neighbourhood watch network, a local government centre, a disaster management unit, a private prosecution unit, and a refuse removal initiative.
All of this is funded either through money that the Solidarity Movement and AfriForum make (through business ventures or investments) themselves, or that is given to them through subscriptions from their – mostly Afrikaner – members, or donations. There are no subsidies or taxes. It is all voluntary.
The problem with (many) other conservative movements around the world – whether the conservative Islam of the ruling elite across the Middle East, the conservative Confucianism of the Chinese Communist Party, or the Christian conservatism of past American governments – is that they are (1) presumptuous about their values and (2) lack political foresight.
In the first place, these movements believe that because they value something, be it the ‘right’ of a husband to have sex on command with his wife, heterosexual relationships, or the ‘sacredness’ of specific days, this must be elevated to the status of law that is binding on everyone. In the second – and related – place, they seem blissfully unaware that, by enforcing these values upon dissenters, future governments that do not share the conservatives’ values will enforce their own values upon the conservatives, who would then be the dissenters.
Neither of these is true for the Solidarity Movement or AfriForum, because they respect history’s most important function: the lessons it teaches.
In a recent speech to students from around the world, Dr Ernst Roets, former Chief Executive for Strategy and International Liaison at AfriForum and now Head of Policy at the Solidarity Movement, among his other insights, said: ‘We [as Afrikaners] have learned about the importance of stateproofing; of the danger of becoming dependent on the state – when you control the state – and the consequences of then losing the state’.
Afrikaners rightly valued their Afrikaans language, but they sought to use the state not only to ‘protect’ it but also to artificially and coercively use the education system to make the language the lingua franca of ‘white’ South Africa. This precedent has come back with a vengeance, with the post-1994 government discriminating against Afrikaans-speakers and their language in the education system of today in favour of the wonderful but nonetheless homogenising English.
This is a hard-learned lesson that AfriForum has taken to heart.
In celebrating Heritage Day this week, the group said that rather than outsourcing responsibility for language, culture, and heritage to political authorities, ‘communities must take responsibility for the preservation and promotion of their heritage themselves’. Alana Bailey, AfriForum’s Head of Cultural Affairs, expressed the view that protecting and advancing such things ‘as language, memorials, heritage sites, and historical research should not be left to the authorities’, because the authorities would at best neglect that ill-deserved power, and at worst use it to ‘distort the heritage of respective communities to sow division’.
Solidarity’s own history as a trade union in twentieth-century South Africa contrasts starkly with the movement today.
Formerly known as the Mineworkers’ Union (MWU), the union was as unsurprisingly racist and authoritarian as the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) was at the time. But just as the South African Communist Party (SACP) of today boasts a multiracial membership – it has not shaken its authoritarianism, however – Solidarity has abandoned racism and its plea for the state to rent-seek on its behalf.
Instead, it boasts an optimistic commitment to self-help, constructive development, and freedom.
Solidarity’s motto today is Ons Sal Self (literally, ‘We Shall [Do It] Ourselves’), with the emphasis falling on We.
On the movement’s website the state’s indifference (at best) or contempt (at worst) toward Afrikaners is described as an ‘opportunity to help one another and to build a future for ourselves’.
Not one hint of discord, disdain, or envy. Only an optimistic, future-oriented agenda founded on peaceful and harmonious voluntarism.
Conservatism done right
The praiseworthy conservatism of Solidarity and AfriForum was forged in the fire of experience. It is a mature and humble conservatism that invites – not compels – support and adherence.
Some bad conservatives with a base (they will say ‘based’) desire for authoritarianism will accuse voluntarist entities like Solidarity and AfriForum of not taking the values they wish to conserve seriously, precisely because they do not propose using state violence for that end. Such an accusation would be misguided, as the work being done by these organisations is future-proofing the Afrikaner community and its heritage in ways that state-entwined communities around the world – right now, particularly in the Western world – are failing at.
Few are actually doing the hard work of conserving as diligently as these entities are.
Building ten private universities with an engrained and transferable cultural ethos is a much stronger safeguard than adopting a law that requires all educational institutions to obey what the state deems the cultural ethos to be.
Those communities that opt to rely on the state rather than themselves should all ask, ‘If we lose the state, what will we have left?’ If their answer is, ‘Very little’, then the correct path – the one Solidarity and AfriForum have chosen – is obvious. As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and paying member of AfriForum myself, this seems crystal clear.