South Africa

SAIRR: There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s moving beyond only race

By J Brooks Spector 8 October 2013

The South African Institute of Race Relations has been around for a long, long time – 84 years in fact. Its current CEO, John Kane-Berman, for example, has been in charge for decades. But, come next February, it will gain a new head - Frans Cronje. Given his relative youth - he’s still only 36 - the course Cronje sets is likely to be the one the organization will be following for decades into the future. J. BROOKS SPECTOR spoke with him recently to get a measure of this new sheriff in town.

According to the organization’s official history, “When the Institute was established in 1929 it was the first national multiracial organisation to work for goodwill and to conduct research into race relations. The constitution adopted in 1932 defined its objective as: ‘… to work for peace, goodwill, and practical co-operation between the various sections and races of the population of South Africa.’ ”

For decades, the institute took a principled stance against apartheid, issuing reports and statistical surveys that were a marvel of completeness and thoroughness in some very tough political and legal circumstances.

The SAIRR is now an elder statesman of this country’s think tank community and it picks its leadership for the long haul to give steady direction to its course.

Cronje doesn’t exactly look like what one expects a think tank researcher to look like. No beard, no rimless glasses, no professorial-style fashion sense. Instead, he looks like an ex-cop, or maybe an ex-lumberjack, or even an ex-riding instructor. Perhaps that is because he is – all three of these. And he also participated in a year-long expedition across the African continent from the Cape to Cairo by Land Rover, just to keep things interesting.

While studying at the University of the Witwatersrand, he worked his schedule so he could actually serve as a real policeman – patrolling both Alexandra and Sandton. Feeling the call of wanderlust, he talked his way into becoming a riding instructor at a summer camp in America. And then he spent time working at a commercial tree farm in the state of Connecticut as well. He met his wife in America. Cronje now has an MA in international relations from Wits and PhD in scenario planning from the University of the North West.

Then, responding to the urge to return home to South Africa, he wrote to John Kane-Berman to ask for a job. Cronje eventually became SAIRR’s head of research, heading up its Risk Analysis Unit, developing the kinds of sophisticated, data-rich scenario planning and “if-this-goes-on” projections that corporations, foreign embassies and even a growing number of government departments have come to depend on in making their own assessments of South African developments. And now, at the ripe old age of thirty-six, Cronje steps up to the top job in just a few months from now.

Cronje has nothing but good things to say about his soon-to-be predecessor’s work at SAIRR over the years – Kane-Berman has, after all, achieved a real measure of national and international public presence for his institutional direction and his crisp, forceful (even acerbic at times) writing that will be a very tough act to top. But Cronje is also able to admit it is the right time for SAIRR to undergo something of an institutional makeover in light of South Africa’s changed – and still-changing circumstances.

Between bites of pizza at a small, neighbourhood restaurant just off of a bustling suburban shopping street, Cronje, contemplating the institute’s mission for the future, says this will be an opportunity to move adroitly beyond the very name – the SA Institute of Race Relations – because it is no longer actually primarily just about – or only about – race relations. Of course the country’s issues, problems and possibilities will almost certainly always have a racial texture to them, but that powerful tag should no longer be the primary – or only – way the institute’s work is categorized or seen in the years to come.

A conversation with Cronje is filled with interesting asides and unexpected footnotes.

Cronje is proud to identify (and associate himself with) the institute as an organization that is profoundly and proudly liberal in its values – no apology about it at all. There is an important and honourable philosophical and political tradition of liberalism in South Africa (even if it usually was unable to carry the day politically and often was harshly pilloried by politicians for its blend of idealism mixed with pragmatism).

Cronje wants his institute to remain as an important public force for the values of political openness, pro-growth economics and the strict defense of personal liberty – even if such positions may put it in opposition to the political and economic preferences of some in high places. Ideological orientation and advocacy are different than research, however. The facts developed from research must help lead the argumentation and inform the institution’s analysis of political and economic trends and patterns.

The conversation turns to the future of the SAIRR and think tanks more generally. It is hard work keeping a think tank alive and flourishing in today’s world, Cronje says. If one takes money from outside organizations like the European Union, one may find one’s projections and analysis constrained by the predispositions of the sponsors, as in “do research on poverty but eschew the politics of the situation”.

Moreover, business groups will be reluctant to fund as well. Groups like the Centre for Development and Enterprise or the Free Market Foundation hang in there, but groups in the centre like IDASA, or on the left, like the Centre for Policy Studies are now memories. Assembling an actual American-style endowment is probably an impossible dream in today’s economy and business climate. And too many businesses say that openly funding a group like SAIRR would be “bad for business” in dealing with government.

Curiously, however, some forty government agencies – including the Presidency – have made extensive use of Cronje’s Risk Analysis Unit’s research output, saying to him, “Your data is very useful for checking” what other government units and the provinces report.

Told his briefing on future trends in South African society is a thoroughly useful tool, Cronje says that if his group was resourced like a solidly funded American think tank, he’d be happy to give away the research. But for now at least, corporations who get this briefing or something similar (and pay for it) are subsidising the act of giving SAIRR’s research to the media, civil society and government.

In the process, the Risk Analysis Unit will become the Centre for Risk Analysis – and the actual name, the SAIRR, will slowly fade into the backgrounding of the institute’s branding.

Talk turns to accessing the SAIRR’s astonishing archive – a veritable history of the rise and fall of apartheid. What Cronje would love to do is sell the whole archive to a major American university to digitalise and have them thoroughly index the entirety of the collection and then distribute the whole thing – at a reasonable cost – worldwide. (This would be a splendid task for a foreign university eager to own the rights to a unique collection of data and writing on South Africa to prepare it for distribution to everyone who wants to make use of it. Any takers among DM readers? Ed.)

Cronje speaks to some of the hot policy issues like land reform and BEE, and he argues that high growth is the real target to aim for, rather than simpler redistributionist policies. Similarly, when he discusses education, he argues that one of the most distressing statistics is the dreadfully low number of math and science-educated high school graduates – that, and the frightening number of unemployed young people in South Africa.

He warns that one future track for South Africa is the possibility that it could slide into a path that keeps low growth and growing social pressures foremost. In that set of circumstances, Cronje sees a chance – just a chance only – that in the face of such tensions, so-far-unnamed reformists in the heart of the ANC will see the need for a major shift of policies in the coming decade. “Our best shot,” he says.

As an aside, Cronje says that if the DA is smart, it will decide to fight its corner on the grounds of ending corruption and seriously enhancing competence, rather than on virtually any other grounds. Evidence for such a position comes, Cronje says, from the thousand-two-hundred-plus protests against service failure, incompetence and corruption every year. Some day it may move from the local and then move on to the provincial and perhaps even on to the national offices. This is actually a cruel irony for the ANC because, Cronje agrees, the governing party has done well in at least initially delivering services and improving the basic living standards of people, but the ANC is now cruelly bedevilled by the curse of rising expectations. “I don’t think the view that one hears in dinner parties that it is in our interest to weaken and destroy the ANC is a particularly strategic view.” Backing ANC reformists may be the best policy, “our best shot.”

In sum, Cronje says the main task of the new SAIRR is to do the basic research, to educate, and to identify and provide support to the reformists within the ANC – all with a view to turning the national ship towards pro-growth policies that can build a better future.

The man has clearly given himself a huge helping of work. But he seems astonishingly calm about the tasks ahead, even relishing these challenges he has given himself. Well, maybe anyone who can successfully teach himself the fine points of equestrianism from books – after getting hired by mail to do the job – is the right man for the job. DM

For more background, read:

Photo: Frans Cronje (SAIRR)

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