Ninety years of opposing racial nationalism

John Kane-Berman says the IRR remained true to liberal principles under both NP and ANC rule

Ninety years old and still going strong

Thursday 9th May, two and half weeks from now, is the 90th birthday of the South African Institute of Race Relations, now officially known as the IRR. It is a unique organisation.

Firstly, the IRR is one of the few organisations in South Africa to have been without a colour bar in its membership or leadership from Day One. Secondly, its critical scrutiny of apartheid was second to none. Thirdly, it has remained true to classically liberal principles under both National Party (NP) and African National Congress (ANC) rule – and applied the same yardstick to the policies of both parties.

Even today, some whites claim that censorship by the NP government kept them in the dark about what they were voting for. "We never knew," goes the excuse. But censorship was limited. There were few aspects of apartheid that were not exposed to the light of day by the IRR, year in and year out, with its thousands of lectures, conferences, press statements, and publications. It's all there in meticulous detail, chapter and verse.

The IRR was also one of the very few organisations to predict the demise of apartheid long before it happened. Early liberals had always pointed to the ultimate impossibility of trying to manage an irreversibly integrating economy within a straitjacket of political segregation. They said so long before either the Liberal Party or the Progressive Party (forerunner of today's Democratic Alliance) was founded.      

However, as the NP began to make the necessary, albeit clumsy and half-hearted, reforms of the 1980s, the IRR recognised a new threat: the ANC and its allies feared that successful reform would undermine their objective of bringing about revolutionary change.

As the violence of the 1980s intensified, we identified a key component that few other liberal institutions were willing to acknowledge: the ANC and its allies were pursuing two agendas – one to make the country ungovernable, the other to eliminate rival black organisations, notably the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Azanian People's Organisation.

By this stage the reputation of the ANC was riding high around the world, and in the eyes of most of the local and foreign press it could do no wrong. This view was shared by most previously liberal South African organisations, which now threw in their lot with the ANC. The Mandela years after 1994 helped to ensure that almost everyone continued to see the ANC through rose-tinted spectacles.

But the IRR warned even before 1994 that South Africa could go to the dogs. Current attempts by the ANC to destabilise areas it does not control vindicate our early scepticism about the movement's democratic credentials. We were one of the very first organisations to flag the arms deal as a key development in both corruption and cover-up – although we never anticipated how widely and deeply the ANC's criminality and depravity would spread.

The IRR was one of the very few liberal organisations to oppose Tito Mboweni's job-destroying Labour Relations Act of 1995. We have also been the toughest critic right from the start of both the Employment Equity Act of 1998 and the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003. Even today few organisations are willing to recognise the immense harm that the first of these has done to the public sector, although the crony capitalism encouraged by the second has been more widely recognised.

On 8th May South Africans will go to the polls with virtually no public attention having been paid to the dominating ideology of the ANC – its determination to continue with the implementation of the national democratic revolution to which it has been committed since 1969. Nobody in business mentions it, nor anyone among ratings agencies. The only time this policy is mentioned in the media is when the ANC reaffirms its commitment at its various conferences.  

Even in the policy research community, the ANC's revolutionary thrust is taboo except among a tiny handful of organisations. Some analysts think that expropriation-without-compensation proposals are merely "populism", ignoring the possibility that they are driven by ideology.

Equally taboo is the people's war the ANC waged in its quest for power. But the IRR, in accordance with its tradition and practice of confronting the country with unpalatable facts, will soon publish updated studies of both that war and the ANC's current revolutionary policy thrust.                   

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. He was CEO of the IRR from 1983 to 2014. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.