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.
But this was an early sign of the intolerance that characterises climate alarmists, who are among the foremost exponents of what is known as “cancel culture”. I wonder whether Dr Brookes would have been as intolerant as his grandchildren so obviously are.
In any event, they are too late if they wish to wage the “battle for the soul of the IRR” of which Rebecca Davis so gleefully writes in Daily Maverick. That battle, spread intermittently over a decade, was fought and won a long time ago.
First and foremost, it was a battle for survival. The organisation I took over in September 1983 was on the verge of bankruptcy. We staved it off by hiving off numerous loss-making projects, and launching a major business membership drive. This was necessary to replace the foreign donor funding that was largely denied to us unless we obtained endorsement by the African National Congress (ANC), which we declined to do as it would have undermined our political independence. Not until after 1994 were we able to obtain regular (though limited) foreign funding.
We did indeed cease to be a member of the “broader anti-apartheid and human rights movements”. This was because they had been largely captured by the ANC, inter alia through the United Democratic Front, in effect an ANC front organisation.
There were also other reasons. Many anti-apartheid organisations (and newspapers) turned a blind eye to the ten-year “people’s war” which the ANC prosecuted from the mid-1980s. We did not. Nor did we go along with “slideaway” liberals – some of them within the Institute itself - who refused to criticise strategies used by revolutionary organisations. We exposed the lies of “third-force” propaganda which sought to blame all the political violence on FW de Klerk and his supposed surrogates in Inkatha. We criticised church leaders who endorsed violence in the name of “liberation theology”, and we exposed the bias of the so-called Truth Commission.
Even before the ANC came to power we made it clear that we would apply to its behaviour the same yardsticks as we had always applied to the National Party (NP) government.
Once it was in power, many organisations in the broad anti-apartheid camp endorsed the ANC’s view that the alternative to apartheid was affirmative action. Not us. The alternative was not a kind of racial engineering in reverse, but a society based on equality before the law. Our criticism of the new government’s “employment equity” legislation was endorsed by Helen Suzman and Finance Week, but some of our corporate members were shocked. So were Business Day and the Financial Mail. Tito Mboweni, author of the legislation, accused us of sowing confusion.
Our research into the disintegration of apartheid had shown how the 6% economic growth rate of the 1960s had caused a skill shortage which eroded the job colour bar and other aspects of apartheid. We therefore argued that the best way to break down remaining racial barriers in business was faster economic growth, which would also reduce unemployment and poverty. So we opposed not only the racial legislation introduced by the new government, but also Mr Mboweni’s labour legislation, which was, and is, designed to entrench the power of organised labour and big business at the expense of small business and the jobless.
This standpoint put us at odds with many other organisations in what had previously been a broad “anti-apartheid and human rights” camp. They believed in a powerful state with extensive powers of regulation, control, and redistribution. We embraced the view that government should be limited to the essentials, for it was abundantly clear from experience around the world that the best route out of poverty was economic freedom, and that the most powerful generators of wealth were not governments but profit-seeking private businesses.
My advice to the Brookes grandchildren is that they should worry about their own “ideological direction”, not that of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 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.