The HSF remembers John Kane-Berman
4 August 2022
It is with great sadness that the Helen Suzman Foundation records the passing of John Kane-Berman. Francis Antonie, HSF's former director, writes the tribute below.
John will be remembered not only as the CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, a position he held from 1983 until his retirement in 2014, but as a fierce and vocal defender of Liberalism. In both these roles he achieved a great deal. But his successes were also met with a range of hostile criticism coming, initially, from the right of the political spectrum, and later from the left.
John was rooted in Johannesburg, a city he loved. After completing his school education at St John's College, he proceeded to Wits University, where he soon gained a reputation as an inspired, and inspiring, student leader, eventually becoming SRC President, and NUSAS Chairman. It was in those years that his Liberalism was shaped and given full expression in his defence of the Rule of Law and in his commitment to non-racialism. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which took him to Oxford, where he was exposed to some of the economic thinking which he would put to good use on his return to South Africa when he embarked on a career in journalism, writing for the Financial Mail.
Always a brilliant speaker, his experience of writing, under pressure, completed his education. He would transfer those acquired skills to his role as CEO of the SAIRR, always demanding from young staffers the exacting standards he had been trained to deliver and to expect from others. His years as a journalist, coupled with the publication of four significant books, equipped him to enter national political and policy debates.
His arrival at the SAIRR coincided with a period of great political and social turmoil. This was the era of the Tricameral Parliament (with its effective exclusion of Africans from the central political structures of the country), of sanctions and disinvestment campaigns, of the emergence of the UDF as a significant political force, of quite widespread violence, all leading eventually to the imposition of the states of emergency. Meanwhile, the Institute was itself faced with serious challenges, both financially and strategically, in how it should respond to the various crises.
But these issues not only challenged the larger liberal community, but indeed confronted the country at large.
The first was related to the sanctions and disinvestment campaigns. These were ultimately predicated on the belief that apartheid had flourished because of the capitalist system prevailing in South Africa. In order to overthrow apartheid, the argument went, it was thus necessary to undermine its capitalist system.
This argument had informed the thinking of both the SACP and the ANC in exile, and a broad range of actors and activists in South Africa. It was, tragically, an era of "great simplification" and debates rarely if ever moved beyond first principles. That apartheid was recognized as a great evil was never in dispute, but liberals had always placed their hopes in the powerful forces at work in the economy which allowed the service sector to develop and which had already begun to undermine apartheid.
John entered the debate with great energy, and sought to provide a more coherent response to the sanctions campaigns based on his own earlier work. He voiced his real concerns that the campaigns, if successful, would devastate the economy, and put back real reforms by a generation. These views were greeted by many with incromprehension and by others with outrage. Thus began what Jill Wentzel would later characterize as the Liberal Slideaway.
Another area which generated much controversy and anger amongst liberals related to the work of the Institute in monitoring and reporting on the ongoing violence in Natal, which some commentators had already then labelled a localized civil war. As with so many comparable regional and national conflicts, the very acts of monitoring and reporting become, or are seen to become, acts of partisanship.
In the discussions which took place then and subsequently, it was clear that violence had become the preferred manner of engagement. John was sanguine about the violence which had so scarred KZN a year ago when I raised the question of its relationship to the violence of three decades ago. He also had no illusions about the role which elites play in orchestrating and managing violence.
John was not an optimist. He shared Alan Paton's disdain for optimism, which Paton had regarded as a very unChristian emotion, and a rather superficial and superfluous one at that. Instead, like Paton he chose to be hopeful about life and the future of South Africa. What underpinned his sense of hope was his belief in Liberalism, with the centrality of the individual, derived from his deep understanding of the four Gospels, and his faith.
These sustained him through his life, as did the support and love of his life's partner, Pierre Roestorf, to whom we offer our deepest condolences.
May John rest in peace.
A sharable link to this tribute can be found here.