A recent article in Daily Maverick carried the headline “the battle for the soul of the South African Institute of Race Relations” (IRR). The casus belli was supposedly concern about the IRR’s “ideological direction” among three grandchildren of one of its founding members, Edgar Brookes.
Among the many issues that bothered the three Brookeses was an IRR billboard proclaiming that “RACISM is NOT the problem”. According to the Daily Maverick, this was based on a 2020 opinion survey using “ludicrous methodology”. Actually the message on our billboard drew on the findings of no fewer than seven surveys dating back twenty years, the first of which was designed by Lawrence Schlemmer, one of South Africa’s most distinguished social scientists.
The surveys repeatedly found that most South Africans regarded unemployment as far and away the country’s most serious problem, followed by crime and other issues, with race invariably near the bottom of the list. More recent surveys, dating back to 2015, showed that almost three quarters of South Africans think more jobs and better education are the best way to improve their lives, while no more than 5% favour affirmative action.
Notwithstanding the fact that it seems to have freaked out quite a few people, the five-word message on our billboard was based on solid research.
The billboard aside, the IRR has supposedly committed offences that include opposing gun control, “slamming” Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory, and even “publishing policy papers that deny the certainty of the science of human-induced climate change”. We have also supposedly declined from being part of the “anti-apartheid and human rights movements” to become “an extremist libertarian misinformation machine”, the billboard and the “outright lies” we publish on climate being examples of this “misinformation”.
The objection to publication by the IRR of heretical material about climate is interesting. During the 30 years (from 1983 to 2014) when I was the IRR’s chief executive we hosted hundreds of speakers on a variety of topics and of all shades of opinion, from Left to Right. Only once did anyone object to our giving a platform to a speaker: Heinrich Boell, a German green foundation, was outraged when we hosted a speaker who favoured nuclear energy. They demanded equal billing, failing which they would cancel their membership. We of course refused their demand.