IN HER book Laying Ghosts to Rest, published about five years ago, Mamphela Ramphele complains of "an increasing tendency to demonise liberalism as a political orientation. There is a dismissive view about the role of liberals in our political history, although many fine South Africans made a significant contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle from the platform of liberalism".

I found her comments ironic considering the scathing critique of liberalism that came from the Black Consciousness movement during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly from Steve Biko, who explained the movement’s break with the National Union of South African Students thus: "Blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and by themselves."

In the climate of political quiescence after the Rivonia trial, Biko was not only underscoring the spirit of black self-reliance but he was also rejecting the paternalism evident in the words and deeds of the liberals.

Black political elites did not always have a negative attitude to liberalism. As fellow advocates of liberal democratic institutions, the black elites viewed liberals as their allies. Both the African and coloured political elites considered the retention of the Cape colonial franchise as an entrenched clause of the 1909 Union Constitution as in-principle recognition of the aspiration to common citizenship. The complete disenfranchisement of Africans in 1936 represented the repudiation of both the aspiration and the principle. African politicians in the Cape had campaigned in defence of the Cape franchise through the 1920s in the expectation that their liberal allies were doing likewise among whites. The upshot was that white women were enfranchised in 1930 but, five years later, by merging into the United Party, Jan Smuts and JBM Hertzog mustered the two-thirds majority to amend the constitutional clause protecting the Cape franchise.

Instead of raising their voices in defence of the principle of common citizenship, the liberals compromised. A basic principle of liberal democracy was sacrificed because white voters would not accept it.

The African political elite of the 1940s and 1950s censured the liberals for being too deferential to white racism and for selling out fundamental liberal values to accommodate it. After 1943, every trend in African nationalist politics unapologetically demanded majority rule, expressed in the principle of government by the consent of the governed. The black political elites led the charge in the struggle to establish it in South Africa.

South African liberals could not reconcile the elementary liberal principle of government of the people and by the people with their political strategy that relied on white support. Liberal democratic principles never gained much traction among white South Africans. But, the liberals opted to retain a political foothold within that illiberal white community by compromising basic principles. Perhaps this accounts for Robert Sobukwe’s wickedly facetious "umlungu osithandayo" — the whites who love us (but not enough to affirm our humanity). Even the Liberal Party of Alan Paton proceeded from the assumption that the country’s political institutions should be under white control.

As recently as the 1970s, liberal scholars David Welsh and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert decried "majoritarianism" and admitted that their advocacy of federalism was a device to evade it. Hidden behind the appearance of mere prejudice are the palpable material interests white power established and defended. Liberal political and social values arrived in South Africa with settlers from Europe but they were repressed and subverted by state practice. When European settlers were not agents of that colonial state, they were the direct beneficiaries of its oppressive policies. The advocacy and defence of liberal democratic values usually devolved on the African nationalist movement. The victory of liberal democracy in South Africa is paradoxical because its midwife was an African nationalist movement with a history of a troubled relationship with liberals but which had nonetheless consistently defended basic liberal democratic principles. It was the parties associated with that movement that upheld the universalist vision at the core of the liberal democratic tradition during our constitutional talks.

The antagonism between the universalism of the liberal political tradition and the reality of aggression, dispossession and domination was the material undergirding of all nationalist intellectual traditions in the colonies. In some places, nationalist intellectuals retreated into the cul-de-sac of "authenticity". South Africa is fortunate in that the majority preferred the universalism of the liberal tradition.

To return to Ramphele’s complaint: the love/hate relationship that evolved between all schools of African nationalism and liberalism in South Africa is not a result of political intolerance. Its cause is the liberals’ perceived betrayal of the principles that they claim to uphold. The assertiveness of Biko and his generation was indispensable for the revival of mass politics during the 1980s. Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille’s toyi-toyi tells me that it was right on the money.

• Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.