On the IRR and its enemies

Jeremy Gordin writes on the wave of criticism that has recently been directed against the Institute

Tomorrow or today (depending on when you read this) is Heritage Day, a day on which we Seffricans are encouraged to celebrate the diversity of our beliefs and traditions. Unfortunately, King Shaka gets forgotten – but life is full of compromises, not so?

So, what better day on which to consider the brouhaha presently seizing the minds and keyboards of those in, and those (apparently) not in anymore, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) [i] – with the latter group doing their best to damn the IRR (and not with faint praise either).

Now, I’d best concede from the get-go that, try as I may, I don’t have a dog, or even a puppy, in this fight. I’m not a “member” of the IRR but I’m not “against” it or those who travel in and with it. Nor have the arguments of those castigating the IRR caused me to lose any sleep – but at the same time I do feel some empathy for them [ii]. (Maybe I’m the real liberal around here?)

As many readers know, there have been numerous letters, articles, and op-eds, both anti and pro, flying back and forth. Exchanging views on the IRR seems to be something of a growth industry among our intelligentsia; hardly a day goes by without the interested young reader coming across another one. “Wat die hart van vol is, loop die mond van oor”.

As of today, I have counted at least 37 “documents,” all of which I obviously can’t, for space reasons, quote [iii]. I’ll just have to show the ones I think are significant and do my best at capturing the nub or nubs of the “arguments”.

The first salvo seems to have come from Roger Southall, emeritus prof of sociology at Wits, who wrote a letter to Business Day complaining that “Increasingly the IRR has moved to the right and seems to have switched from the defence of the rights of people to those of the rights of property. Rather than being an independent think-tank, it has aligned itself ever more closely with the DA, which itself is shifting from liberal to conservative. In recent weeks it has opted to stoke SA’s culture wars, launching attacks upon critical race theory and defending, and I quote, ‘the gun-owning rights of law-abiding citizens’.”

Next, on 14/7/21, Kathy Brookes, Prof Heather Brookes[v], and Prof David Brookes wrote, also to Business Day, that “As grandchildren of the late Edgar Brookes, a founder and president of the IRR, we would like to point out that the IRR’s championing of the libertarian concept of an unfettered free market economy and gun rights is not in line with the original liberal positions of the IRR and its founders”.

The IRR’s Michael Morris responded to the Brookes grandchildren in the IRR newspaper, the Daily Friend, on 22/7/21: “In our contemporary democratic setting, there is nothing pallid or qualified about the IRR’s solidly liberal argument for a thorough-going overhaul of the conditions determining socio-economic relations ... . Today, the IRR continues to advocate for social progress through responsible taxation and efficient government action that gives citizens a fair shot at making the most of their lives”.

The next significant comment was that the “IRR’s current approach betrays the legacy of its founders and does a disservice to the people of South Africa” – a letter signed by “concerned citizens” in the Daily Maverick on 17/9/21.

“We do not dispute the right of individuals to promote their own political and economic beliefs but note that the IRR fosters a ‘free-market, small state’ agenda while representing itself as a human rights research organization devoted to impartial fact-based analysis. This testifies to its open association with northern libertarian groups such as the Atlas Network and the Heritage Foundation, the latter supporting Trump’s presidential campaigns. Furthermore, although the IRR’s founding constitution ‘explicitly excluded the Institute from identifying or associating itself with any organised political party,’ the IRR has increasingly identified itself with the Democratic Alliance”.

Most interesting, in my view, is the list of signatories, all impressive people, and ones whom one wouldn’t, methinks, want to alienate. Here is not the place to list them but, since I’ll be commenting on them, I’ll put them in this endnote [vi].

On 21/9/21 the IRR CEO-elect John Endres responded in a letter to Business Day (LETTER: IRR holds the liberal line against the left (businesslive.co.za)

“The signatories of the ‘concerned citizens’ letter includes many of those disgruntled former office bearers and members who will not forgive John Kane-Berman, CEO at the time, for rescuing the institute from being captured by the ANC alliance, like other liberal organisations at the time. They continued to hope that Kane-Berman’s successors – Frans Cronje and latterly myself – could be brought round to shepherding the institute into the left’s hegemonic fold. Sadly, for them, they will be disappointed once again.

“Over the past seven years the IRR has produced more than 450 policy submissions and policy reports, covering topics ranging from property rights to freedom of speech and electoral democracy, from water policy to electricity provision, consumer spending, demographic trends, education and health policy, communication, crime, corruption, unemployment, empowerment, women’s rights, gun policy, gay rights, economic reform, the minibus taxi industry and much else besides. We cover a lot of ground.”

You – the reader – pretty much get the picture by now, yes? Nonetheless, let me try to summarise.

Those attacking the IRR seem to be troubled by (1) the IRR’s attitude to firearm ownership; (2) the IRR’s infamous billboard campaign, “Racism is NOT the problem”; (3) the IRR’s “championing of the libertarian concept of an unfettered free market economy”; and (4) the IRR’s emphasis on the importance of property rights.

But I want to try and compress this list even further (“Sub it down, sub it right down,” as the chief sub-editor ordered). I want to suggest that what is mainly irking the detractors is (a) criticism of the ANC’s racial nationalism (which hides under the cover of NDR or quasi-Marxist folderol); and (b) the removal of self-defence as a reason for owning a firearm – something which the ANC is quite wisely doing ahead of any future move to dispossess the Boers.

Southall, for example, fails to mention that he was responding to an IRR campaign opposing police minister Bheki Cele's introduction of an amendment bill removing self-defence as a reason to be able to own a firearm [vii].

Similarly, the Brookesian argument against the “Racism is NOT the problem” campaign is that it was “tone deaf to the pain and experiences of black South Africans who suffer the effects of historical and continuing structural racism”.

Possibly it was a little tone deaf – but it was based on the findings of a 2020 survey, which asked some 2 500 South Africans questions, including what the respondents regarded as the two most pressing problems in the country today. The majority of respondents listed unemployment, crime, and corruption as the biggest South African problems, with just 3.3% mentioning racism or discrimination.

So, was the sample too small and was the IRR’s extrapolation – that race relations remain generally positive, “and far better than the ANC, the EFF, and many in the media commonly assert” – rather a grandiose assertion? Again – possibly. But then challenge the findings – write a substantive criticism of them.

Point is that the IRR has published a lot of stuff – a lot good, some bad. One can go through it and easily find sticks with which to beat the IRR. Going through “the documents,” I came across a comment from a Politicsweb reader, Sydney Kaye, whose commentary I always find apt.

He wrote (in BD, I believe it was) that “[The IRR] seem to have lost the plot and have forgotten about the think in think-tank. In addition to ... [elevating] ... “wokism” to an existential threat to western civilization, the other medicine it doles out is climate change denial mixed with a dose of Covid cynicism. Pity really, because the good work it does in surveying race attitudes carries less weight when there is a credibility problem”. 

Fair comment – that stuff annoys me too, as do those in the IRR fold who appear to champion so-called libertarianism. If such annoyances exceeded those inflicted on my life by the ANC government, I might even write a column or two about them. But I weigh the bad against the good when judging the whole, and I don’t go into the garden and burn my Horrell and Kane-Berman books or sign a petition trying to kill an important civil society counterweight to the ANC by getting its corporate funding cut off.

What is notable about the signatories – in Note 6 – is that almost all are made up of people who are leftwing, or at best liberal-left, and who were, until recently, largely pro- ANC and its historic project. Which is, of course, fine; whatever gets you through the night. But these are not people who were manning the liberal barricades against the ANC’s nationalist overreaches during the last three decades.

Trouble is that it can be very difficult to “person up” and accept that the ANC government and its project has been an utter disaster (I include myself in this remark). But the ANC has been a disaster – and is. It’s not difficult to see. We all wish to be the heroes in our own life narrative, and for those who went the ANC-supporting route in the late 1980s, and after, this is probably something very difficult to acknowledge or accept.

It is easier in other words to ignore the elephant in the room - one’s own moral complicity in the ANC failures - and instead, try and take a broomstick to those squeaky liberal mice scuttling along the floor.


[i] Probably more well known as the SAIRR.

[ii] I don’t have a dog in this fight mainly because, to be honest, the IRR and its publications (e.g., the Daily Friend) have simply not been a major interest of mine for many years. I don’t write this boastfully (as some sort of badge of courage), but simply because it is so. Nor is my lack of interest intended as a criticism of the IRR; it’s simply a mark of my laxity (if you like) or perhaps an indication of the phenomenon that as things change and one’s interests also change, a “think tank” that grabbed one’s attention 35 years ago no longer necessarily does so.

But, having said the above, I also need to note that I was “brought up” suckling, as it were, at the teat of the SAIRR – that is, reading all those invaluable surveys of race relations compiled by Muriel Horrell and others, as well most of the work written by Ellen Hellmann. The publications were “in the house”: during the late 1930s and early 40s, my father was a member (perhaps even chairman at some point) of the Pretoria Joint Council of Europeans and Natives, and though I don’t have documentary proof at hand, I believe he was also a member of the SAIRR, if not an office-bearer at some stage.

 He also presumably knew Edgar Brookes; about a year ago I found among my books an inscribed (presumably for my father) copy of Brookes’s South Africa in a Changing World (OUP, 1953), though how my father (a Bundist in liberal’s clothing) got on with Brookes and vice-versa, I don’t know.

 And, of course, there have been many other IRR “publications” that I have read over the years with massive interest, such as Between Two Fires by John Kane-Berman (2017) and People’s War by Anthea Jeffery (2009; 2019) – both, however, produced for the commercial market by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

[iii] If anyone cares, I have, for my sins, read all of them.

[iv] Whom I know and in one of whose publications I have appeared (New South African Review 1, Wits University Press, 2010).

[v] Whom I also know, mainly via our children, to whom I gave the Brookes book mentioned in Note 2 above, and who can, I think, be fairly called a “formidable” person. (That’s a compliment btw.)

[vi] John Aitcheson (Former IRR member), Samantha Ashman, Emily Bacon (née Dyer), Omar Badsha, Di Bishop/Oliver, Andrew Boraine, Jeremy Boraine, Heidi Brookes (Family of IRR founder & president), John Brookes, Katherine Brookes, Heather Brookes, David Brookes, Debbie Budlender, Geoff Budlender SC (Chair, Western Cape Regional Committee, 1973 to 1975, member of the Executive Committee and National Council 1973 to about 1985, resigned), Mary Burton (Former IRR member), Coco Cachalia (IRR archivist 1982-1984), David Cooper, Hugh Corder (Member and sometime Chair of the Western Cape Regional Committee, 1985 to 1994, member of the National Council 1988 to 1994, resigned), Bishop Geoff Davies, Kate Davies, John de Gruchy (IRR member 1960s to early 1970s), Rosemary de Waal (IRR regional chair and national council member), Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, John Dugard (President of IRR 1977-1979), Jackie Dugard, Dorothy Dyer, Rob Dyer, George Ellis (IRR member and sometime Chair of the Western Cape Region, late 1980s and early 1990s), David Everatt, Ilse Fischer-Wilson, Drew Forrest, Ela Gandhi, Michael Gardiner, Nazim Gani, Keith Gottschalk (IRR life member), Adrian Guelke (Former IRR member), Peter Hain, David Hemson (Former editor of Race Relations News 1970-1971), Douglas Irvine (Former IRR member), Peter Kallaway (Former IRR member), Joan Kerchoff (Former IRR member), Rosalie Kingwill, Mary Kleinenberg, Horst Kleinschmidt (IRR Board 1973-1975), Sue Krige, Merle Lipton (Former IRR member), John MacRobert (IRR Regional Committee member mid 1980s; Regional Chair 1990-1991; National Council 1993 to mid-1990s), Anne Mager (Coordinator of IRR Western Cape Bursary and Enrichment Programmes 1983-1986), Itumeleng Mahabane (Grandson of IRR president), Anwar Suleman Mall, Andrew Manson (IRR researcher 1980-1983), Dale McKinley, Kirti Menon, Christopher Merret (Former IRR member 1980s), Rajend Mesthrie, Sibongiseni Mkhize, Mavuso Msimang, Lawson Naidoo, Bill Nasson, Amuzweni Ngoma, Noor Nieftagodien, Bishop Michael Nuttall (Former IRR member 1950s), Nic Paton, Anthony Paton, Pam Paton-Mills, Devan Pillay (IRR youth programme 1978-1979), Barney Pityana, Max Price, Beverley Roos-Muller, Alan Rycroft, Bridget-Nomonde Scoble (Cape Western Regional Representative of IRR 1984-1990), Crain Soudien, Roger Southall (Former IRR member), Andrew Spiegel (Former IRR member), Jane Tempest (IRR Head of Research 2003-2007), Karl von Holdt, David Welsh, Michelle Williams, Francis Wilson, Lindy Wilson, Tim Wilson, Nan Yeld.

[vii] Southall surely doesn’t need me to explain that SA is a violent society (check the murder figures) and that every time there is violent unrest – and we’ve just had a bonanza of such in KZN and Gauteng – the fear lurks in every person’s heart that his or her loved ones might be attacked. This is especially so when the police force has shown itself to be completely inert.