A liberal for all seasons

Hermann Giliomee reviews John Kane-Berman's book, "Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in SA Politics"

John Kane-Berman, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, (Jonathan Ball, 201"

During the past half century John Kane-Berman whose autobiography, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics (Jonathan Ball), has just been published, has stood out as one of the most influential opinion-formers in South Africa. He criticised not only the National Party’s violation of rights and liberties but also the transgressions of its successor, the African National Congress. Like his fellow-liberal, Helen Suzman, he spurned petty personal attacks, but sought to build a case through marshalling indisputable facts and figures in a fight to protect rights and advance freedoms.

It is no-coincidence that the South African Institute of Race Relations played a central role in the careers of both Helen Suzman and Kane-Berman. Founded in 1929, the SAIRR (recently abridged to IRR) is the oldest liberal organisation in civil society. Today it arguably still is one of the most resilient bodies in the country. Its driving force has always been a belief in the power of ideas and the necessity of finding the facts, especially facts about the quality of life of disadvantaged people in society. “Fact-finding is what made the organisation famous”, Kane-Berman correctly observes.

Since the organisation’s founding the facts it has collated have been disseminated in more than a thousand reports. Often it was facts assembled by the Institute that enabled Suzman to be such an effective opposition parliamentarian. The Institute’s annual survey, nowadays called South Africa Survey, which in recent years has run to nearly a thousand pages, is by far the most valuable source book of our society.

In the struggle that was waged almost to the death between Afrikaner and African nationalism Kane-Berman chose to side with neither movement but sought to rally liberals across racial lines. His battle was against an intrusive state and an officious bureaucracy that undermined the core freedoms of individuals. He adhered to a robust form of liberalism that did not slide away --in Jill Wentzel’s famous term – when criticism of the ANC was justified. Every person and every party had to be treated on merit.

John Kane-Berman is the son of Louis Kane-Berman, a highly regarded Johannesburg lawyer, and Gabrielle de Maine. When the National Party government early in the 1950s launched its campaign to remove coloured voters from the common roll, Louis Kane-Berman was so outraged that he entered extra-parliamentary politics. He joined the War Veterans’ Torch Commando and was elected national chairman. More than 250 00 people, most of them ex-servicemen, both white and coloured, became paid-up members. Their mass marches made a major impact, initially rattling the government. Alan Paton believed it was the only organisation the NP government really feared in its first three decades.

John Kane-Berman studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and went on to Oxford University after being elected the Rhodes Scholar for Transvaal. Oxford reinforced his commitment to liberalism but he was under no illusions about the challenges he faced as a liberal when he returned to South Africa. The National Party government had weathered the storms of the early 1960s. The Afrikaner community was still solidly behind apartheid and in the only slightly more liberal English-speaking community even the qualified franchise propagated by the Progressive Party attracted scant support.

Kane-Berman joined the Financial Mail in the early 1970s and was assigned the labour beat. The magazine was then edited by the redoubtable George Palmer, whose deputy was Graham Hatton. Both insisted on clear and crisp writing, cogent arguments and logical conclusions. Here Kane-Berman was able to develop the crisp, succinct style that he still uses so well in his columns.

Palmer rejected the convention that a financial magazine should stick to business and economics and avoid politics. It was indeed impossible to avoid politics in South Africa. After a visit to South Africa in 1991 Francis Fukuyama, who would became world famous for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), stated the following in the Washington-based journal, The National Interest: “In retrospect, the aim of the apartheid system was utterly insane: it sought to permit the creation of modern industrial economy in South Africa using black labour while seeking not just to prevent but actively reverse the urbanisation of blacks. No communist apparatchick apparently ever devised a policy so contrary to the fundamental laws of economics.” Fukuyama continued: “Under apartheid the state pretended the blacks who assembled Toyotas or fabricated synthetic fuels in Durban or Johannesburg were really residents of a faraway rural African homeland”.

Yet persuading the NP government to radically alter course was no simple matter. Even Western governments held back in their criticism of apartheid. The American diplomat and academic George Kennan, who was perhaps the most influential commentator on the Cold War, visited South Africa in the early 1970s. He was highly critical of the government’s pretence that the presence of millions of blacks in the major industrial centres of South Africa was only a “temporary condition”. But, he added “All the people in South Africa are caught in a situation none of them had created themselves.”

Kennan took what he called the historian’s view: “[T]here are problems which, at the time they occur, are insoluble.” In answer to some black observers’ argument that conditions could not get worse, he referred to his Moscow experience: “Joe Stalin taught the Soviet people one thing: when you think that life cannot get any harder, it can.’”

What could be done was what Kane-Berman, and some other journalists did: expose by way of meticulous reporting the “insanity” of applying influx control and pass laws in a modern economy. (In 1983 alone 263 000 blacks were prosecuted for reference book and influx control offences). To this could be added the payment of ultra-low wages and the prohibition of black trade unions. Kane-Berman took the lead in exposing these issues.

Kane-Berman’s first book was an incisive analysis of the Soweto uprising that broke out on 16 June 1976. Entitled Soweto: Black Revolt: White Reaction (Ravan Press, 1978) it showed that black education and in particular the enforcement of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in Southern Transvaal schools helped to trigger the revolt. Of far greater importance, however, were the myriad of restrictions and the lack of any political power that blacks had to endure.

Kane-Berman describes the revolt and its aftermath vividly but he does not give us his view on the question of why the Vorster government had ignored all the prior warnings and allowed this political discontent to explode. Partly it was due to Vorster’s lack of a firm grip on his ministers’ way of administering the country -- the cabinet apparently made no decision to impose Afrikaans; it was the work of the responsible minister and senior officials. Secondly, calls by employers for the abolition of influx control were fainthearted. Lastly there was the white failure to acknowledge that demography was destiny. In the first twenty years of apartheid the black population more than doubled from 8 million to more than 16 million. By the 1970s there were no longer enough prison cells to lock up all the pass offenders.

Kane-Berman’s book on the uprising and the underlying causes received widespread praise. In Oxford R.W. Johnson commented that the book showed that apartheid was not just a crazy set of laws but an immense administrative system. Kane-Berman was “a clear and critical guide” through the maze of apartheid and the impact of the system on the daily lives of blacks.” In Cape Town Oscar Wollheim wrote that after this book there would never be an excuse for saying: “But I never knew all this.”

Disagreements with Stephen Mulholland, George Palmer’s successor, prompted Kane-Berman to resign from the Financial Mail and to become a freelance reporter for a wide range of influential foreign papers and journals. In 1983 he was given an opportunity he could not refuse: the job of chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations and Editor-in- Chief of the Survey of Race Relations in South Africa. As manager of the Institute and the editor of the Survey Kane-Berman is probably the man who over the past thirty years knew most of what is still quaintly known as race relations in South Africa. He was in my view one the best informed analysts of the successive crises South Africa as a country has faced since 1960.

Taking over the Institute was no cake walk. The honorary treasurer, Harold Bernstein, reported that the liquid position was dangerously low. Ernie Wentzel, the chairman of the board, warned about the real possibility of board members facing legal action for carrying on the affairs of a bankrupt organisation. The Institute had to mortgage Auden House, its famous property in Braamfontein, as security for an overdraft.

Under Kane-Berman the Institute’s prospects steadily improved. It restored research as a priority, focused on reform instead of charity, and it revitalised the membership. It resolutely stuck to merit in employing staff. Its bursary programme, which was head office’s main project, went from strength to strength. (In 1947 Nelson Mandela was one of the recipients). Over the past thirty years it has awarded bursaries to nearly 4 000 students. At present the Institute’s reserve fund stands at R40 million. Kane-Berman’s managerial abilities were crucial in this turn around.

Through the years the Institute has predominantly been an organisation of white English speakers, although a few Afrikaners and Africans were elected to the presidency. From the mid-1980s the NP government’s attitude towards the organisation started to change. Cabinet ministers like Gerrit Viljoen and Chris Heunis contacted the Institute for advice because they suspected that their own officials and commissions would only tell them what they wanted to hear.

The ANC’s rise in the late 1980s as major force, along with their allies the South African Communist Party, Cosatu and the United Democratic Front, presented the state with a major challenge. Kane-Berman strongly believed in individual rights, merit and equal opportunities and the dispersal of power through federalism. From the start he questioned whether the ANC really represented a liberal democratic alternative. As he told Jeremy Cronin, a leading SACP member, it was the masses streaming to the cities --not individuals, not a leadership collective like that of the ANC or SACP - who overthrew influx control and forced the abandonment of group areas. It was the mass-based unions that made bargaining in the work place imperative. It was black and coloured parents and children seeking better education than that provided in the township schools who drove the desegregation of schools and universities.

Kane-Berman was delighted when F.W. de Klerk in 1990 abandoned apartheid and sought to negotiate a non-racial, liberal-democratic revolution. He correctly notes that “it was an act of brave statesmanship rarely seen in politics here or anywhere.” He adds:

“De Klerk also played the local and foreign media brilliantly. This enabled him not only to seize the moral ground but also to catch the ANC on the back foot. He therefore had to be discredited. This was done by brilliant ANC propaganda which blamed him for orchestrating violence via a clandestine third force consisting of the police, the defence force, Inkatha, vigilantes and miscellaneous ‘hit squads’. The aim was supposedly to destabilise the ANC. This was widely propagated by the ANC and its supporters, many of them in newsrooms across the country. It was widely accepted as the gospel truth, one key consequence being to shift the balance in the negotiating process to the ANC (pp.225-6).

Kane-Berman had already spelled out this fundamental fact of our transition in a book Political Violence in South Africa Violence in South Africa (SAIRR, 1993). He showed that much of the ANC-directed violence was aimed not at the state but against black opponents. This perspective was confirmed by Anthea Jeffery’s book: People’s War: New Light on the Struggle in South Africa (2009). Working on records of cases in courts where the available evidence was weighed much more carefully than in newspaper reports, Jeffery shows how ANC members created virtual anarchy in some townships in order for the movement to attain hegemonic control. As the book suggests the ANC People’s War set in motion forces that cannot easily be reversed for anarchy cannot easily be converted into order.

Kane-Berman’s final chapters deal with the way in which the IRR in coalition with other organisations tried to stem the ANC efforts to impose its National Democratic Revolution and curtail liberties. Thanks to Kane-Berman’s brilliant account South Africans can now fight back against the populists and state plunderers with a much better insight into the way in which we landed in our current parlous state. Should some form of liberal democracy emerge out of this it will again be mass protest that would be decisive.

Hermann Giliomee is a former president of the SAIRR and is presently one of its life members. He is also the author of Historian :An Autobiography (Tafelberg).