FirstRand's assault on 'thought leadership'

John Kane-Berman says bank is using its financial muscle to enforce obeisance in the think-tank sector to ANC race ideology

First Rand tries to put fetters on "thought leadership" at the IRR

Hanging on the walls of the offices in Johannesburg occupied by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) are a few plaques and certificates testifying to the various awards we have won down the years. The most recent addition is a letter from the FirstRand Foundation. However, unlike the others, it testifies to an award we did not get.    

Signed by Sizwe Nxasana, chairperson of the FirstRand Foundation, and addressed to Frans Cronje, CEO of the IRR, the letter tells us that the foundation has decided to stop funding us because we have not "meet the requirements of [FirstRand's] thought leadership strategy". Unlike most of the organisations that submitted applications for funding, the Institute is supposedly not doing enough to make itself "representative of our country's demographics".  

Mr Nxasana's letter follows lengthy negotiations, during which FirstRand insisted that the IRR agree to a programme of race-based employment targets before receiving any more money. Although the foundation has previously supported the IRR, FirstRand's new "thought leadership" strategy is designed to promote "transformation" in the South African "think-tank sector". There is something Orwellian about purporting to promote "thought leadership" while demanding conformity with the government's agenda of bringing about demographic representivity.

FirstRand is free to fund whomever it wishes. But to use its financial muscle to compel think tanks to comply with government demographic ideology effectively precludes them from debating this crucial aspect of public policy. Far from promoting "thought leadership", FirstRand is stifling it. Far from supporting "thought leaders", FirstRand is trying to turn them into followers of the herd. Far from promoting the "think-tank sector", FirstRand is undermining the intellectual independence which must be the most treasured asset of any think tank worth the name.  

That the IRR of all organisations should be expected by FirstRand to comply with the transformation agenda laid down by the African National Congress (ANC) is a particularly great irony.   

Founded in 1929, the IRR is but two years away from celebrating its 90th birthday. Throughout its history, the organisation has fought racial discrimination and promoted the principle of equality before the law. It has also argued that promotions and appointments should be made on merit rather than on racial grounds. It has also applied these principles in its own operations.    

Had banks and other parts of the private sector followed our lead and applied these principles, years of frustration, injustice, and racial antagonism might have been avoided. Instead, many in the private sector chose meekly to fall in line with the National Party's racial policies. It was only when those policies became too costly, and, for multinational companies, too embarrassing, that the private sector began to challenge them. FirstRand's predecessor, Barclays, found them so embarrassing that it quit South Africa.  

Throughout the apartheid years, there were no doubt many donors who would not touch the IRR with a barge pole because of our well-known opposition to those racial policies. But there were others who supported us, and stuck with us, because they wished to encourage that opposition.    

We have framed Mr Nxasana's letter and hung it on our wall so that visitors to the IRR will be able to see that we have been willing to forfeit FirstRand's funding rather than comply with its transformation agenda and, for the first time, start using race as a criterion when making staff appointments. That is why we regard Mr Nxasana's letter rejecting us as a badge of honour.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.    

Post-script by Frans Cronje: The IRR is a classically liberal think-tank and a founding principle was not to treat people differently because of their race – a radical idea in South Africa of the 1920s. Over the decades the IRR suffered much hardship for that principle to survive. Through steadfastly sticking to its principles, the IRR has become an organisation in which the majority of research staff and managers happen to be black – although their race was not a factor in why they were appointed.

By appointing people based on merit and strength of character, particularly where that character was shaped through the hardship of socio-economic disadvantage, the IRR’s staff today better reflects the “demographics of the country” than do many other policy organisations.

Creating opportunities for people from disadvantaged communities, regardless of race, has been at the core of the work of the IRR for almost 90 years. It was that commitment that inspired its brave and influential opposition to apartheid, and which continues to inspire its work today. 

Almost 90 years after our founding we again hold to a radical idea: that an approach of empowering people on the basis socio-economic disadvantage will do more to achieve substantive empowerment than the current policies of the government.  We also believe in living our principles and hope that our example, and the successes it has helped us to achieve, will serve to inspire society and the business community to do more to achieve substantive transformation – that which moves beyond box-ticking and compliance with the edicts of politicians – and rather looks to create real opportunities for people from disadvantaged communities.

The management of the IRR holds no ill-will towards FirstRand but the banking group must understand that what they demanded of us we could not do. It would have been to deny our founding principle and we could not in good conscience continue to promote that principle if we were not prepared to stand up for it – regardless of the severity of the financial implications.

* Frans Cronje is the CEO of the IRR.