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Standing ‘Between Two Fires’ and trying to hold a steady course – the political education of John Kane-Berman

Standing ‘Between Two Fires’ and trying to hold a steady course – the political education of John Kane-Berman

Still keeping to his promise to ignore Donald Trump for just a few more days, J. BROOKS SPECTOR reviews a new autobiographical memoir by John Kane-Berman, author, civil liberties advocate, and a very tough-minded polemicist for liberal values.

There is a theory that an autobiographer always gives his protagonist the best lines in every discussion; wins every argument he engages in; and always has the very best discussion-ending quip to lock down that win. In John Kane-Berman’s polished political memoir from a particularly difficult contentious period in South African history, to his credit, he doesn’t win every debate. Nevertheless, he does maintain his arguments were always the better ones, even if they didn’t carry the day on any particular day.

Kane-Berman’s early life was obviously deeply influenced by the values of his parents, especially from his father, Louis. It seems that much of what the son did and what he became was always done with an eye cast back over his shoulder to what his father would have said about it to him.

Louis Kane-Berman was an attorney, an officer in the South African military in World War II, and then, crucially, a leader of the Torch Commando, the group that came into being in the immediate post-war period in South Africa. Largely overlooked today by historians and commentators, the Torch Commando may have been the only organisation the newly ascendant National Party leaders really feared in the early years of their power in South Africa.

The Torch Commando, founded in 1951, comprised white veterans of the war, men who had seen enough of the world while fighting the Italians and Germans from East Africa to Egypt, then on to Sicily and Italy proper, to be sanguine about the growing political trends in South Africa – seeing the possibilities of home-grown totalitarianism in the National Party’s ideology and practice as the new government. The Torch Commando actually evolved out of the more left-leaning Springbok Legion to appeal to a broader base of ex-servicemen. (That group had included veterans such as Joe Slovo, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, Wolfie Kodesh, Jack Hodgson, Harry Schwarz, and Fred Carneson as members.)

The Torch Commando, formed at first to protest against the planned removal of Coloured voters – including World War II veterans – from the common voters roll, became an organisational shelter for many white South Africans who identified with black grievances more broadly. The renowned RAF fighter ace, “Sailor” Malan, became its president and at one point the commando claimed a quarter of a million members. Disturbed by the number of judges, civil servants and military officers who had joined it, the National Party government made it illegal for anyone in public service to join the group. The movement finally foundered in the mid-1950s from the legal assaults against it and (probably) a fatigue factor, as it ultimately was unable to forestall the government on its plans. Nevertheless, the Torch Commando clearly left a mark on John Kane-Berman, by virtue of his father’s involvement in it.

Running in the background for Kane-Berman, meanwhile, there was also the lingering intellectual influence and many of the tenets of that still-older Cape liberal tradition of the qualified, colour-blind voting franchise (something increasingly eviscerated after the founding of the Union of South Africa and then in the subsequent rise of Afrikaner nationalism), as well as a modernised version of John Stuart Mill-style economic liberalism. In Kane-Berman’s case, all of this eventually came together in a strenuous defence of the principles of absolute equality and fairness under the law, a thorough-going support for free speech, a full defence of the sanctity of property, and a reliance upon the idea that economic growth is the strongest, best means of enhancing the economic advancement of those disadvantaged by race and class.

All of this comes into crisp focus in John Kane-Berman’s Between Two Fires. Looking back on his work as CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Kane-Berman wrote, “…but our starting point was the property rights of the poor. In 1776, the same year in which the Americans proclaimed the God-given and ‘unalienable’ rights of man, Adam Smith wrote the following in The Wealth of Nations:

“ ‘The property which every man has is his own labour. As it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this… in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him.’

What flows from this moving passage is that without capital or education, the poor have nothing to exploit but their own willingness to work. Yet South Africa’s industrial relations system denies them this opportunity. We condemn slavery because we don’t think any man should be able to confiscate another man’s labour. But then we pass laws restricting his right to sell their labour. Either way he earns no money….”

Mill (perhaps in tandem with some chapters from Adam Smith), rather than Marx, would seem to have been Kane-Berman’s urtext.

Through his childhood and early adulthood, in something similar to a non-fiction bildungsroman, Kane-Berman describes the many people and books shaping his education in South Africa, and then at Oxford University – and beyond. In between, he records his struggles, fights and small victories within Nusas, South Africa’s almost entirely white national students federation. (Black students had split from it in 1970 to form SASO – the South African Students Organisation – under Stephen Bantu Biko and others’ belief in the ideology of Black Consciousness. Meanwhile, white students from the Afrikaans language universities – Stellenbosch, RAU, Pretoria – had earlier hived off to form their own body, in protest of NUSAS’ perceived left-wing tendencies.)

Documenting his rising status as a journalist and political analyst, Kane-Berman’s memoir goes into considerable detail, exploring his writing for various newspapers and weekly magazines – and most especially the Financial Mail, then edited by the redoubtable George Palmer – where Kane-Berman’s writing really came of age. The Financial Mail was a powerhouse of a publication, and before the internet (or even television until 1976) this journal had an influence and readership that greatly exceeded its more limited subscription base.

Making the labour relations beat his very own, Kane-Berman was on to a very good thing in a rapidly growing area. This became especially the case as the various nascent black unions began achieving full legal status and much greater negotiating power – and as they eventually became a crucial part of the birth, evolution and growth of the United Democratic Front. Moreover, a number of the UDF’s leading figures could draw upon their experience and struggle nous from their labour backgrounds in efforts to build the UDF into a powerful force for political change in South Africa in the 1980s.

Kane-Berman’s reporting on labour issues also clearly shaped his world view more broadly. Observing the growing impact of unions on business, and the rise of a black, urban, unionised working (and even nascent middle) class, Kane-Berman insisted that economic growth – accompanied by the absorption of black South Africans into the better paying, more skilled rungs of the ladder of the formal economy – would be the path to changing South Africa’s economy, and thus its politics, not sanctions.

As Kane-Berman wrote about that change later (just as he had made the point repeatedly in his writing still earlier), “In a paper I delivered in Zurich in 2003 I argued that in earlier years business had been ‘content to play along with apartheid’. It had, however, become more critical as ‘apartheid got in the way of doing business’.” This equation became the core of Kane-Berman’s thinking on the recreation of South Africa.

Thus the invisible hand of economics was, in Kane-Berman’s way of looking at it, the implacable machinery of history that would eventually set the country on a new path and out of the apartheid straitjacket, much more effectively than any other potential mechanism. And such a position found him becoming a leading opponent of the increasingly severe economic and trade sanctions regimen South Africa faced in the final decades of the apartheid era. His position was clearly not totally popular with the left, but it was entirely consistent with his belief in the magic – or effectiveness – of an economy increasingly unfettered by those older racial prescriptions and arbitrary race barriers.

Throughout this memoir, Kane-Berman details his many travels throughout South Africa and abroad, in which he offered his insights, historical observations and predictions to almost any audience interested in his views. The book provides fascinating, detailed, long lists and descriptions of these trips, the places he stayed, the concerts and art galleries he appreciated, and the many bright people he met. And the quotations or references to his many speeches and articles seems to mean that since high school he had kept a rather comprehensive archive of his writing for later use or reflection.

Any reader even modestly familiar with Kane-Berman’s career trajectory, however, waits eagerly for his discussion of his time as head of the South African Institute of Race Relations. The SAIRR was the country’s most visible, most venerable upholder of an alternative vision of the country – within its constitutional and legal order. And he took it on at a particularly tricky time in its history.

Its yearly report functioned as an unblinking statistical abstract and yearly report card on the nation’s economic, social, political health – and disfiguring illnesses. Its extraordinary comprehensiveness gave this institution a national and international cachet, well beyond its organisational size; and libraries and research centres around the world relied upon it for both basic data and deeper context for understanding and interpreting the South African nightmare. In addition, there was its redoubtable reference library as well as a host of additional publications streamed forth from the research section of the SAIRR. There were reports on specific apartheid tragedies and atrocities, analyses of proposed, pending or enacted legislation, and much more throughout the organisation’s life.

Among all the other efforts, its cultural programmes had hosted some of the earliest productions of important plays from people such as Athol Fugard, and its lecture series drew impressive crowds on a range of topics. It became a protective home for projects like Operation Hunger – the feeding scheme that was crucial for many thousands of destitute people. And that project had even provided a job for one of Nelson Mandela’s daughters while he was still imprisoned.

But, by the time Kane-Berman took the job as its CEO, the SAIRR had fallen on very difficult times, and its financial coffers had become virtually bare. Accordingly, his most immediate task became rebuilding its financial infrastructure – and raising the funds needed to keep the SAIRR alive for all those battles yet to be waged in the future.

Concurrently, Kane-Berman had determined that a key task was to tighten the focus of the institution around the defence of liberal ideological principles in order to clarify funding efforts, even if this meant creating a level of disaffection on the part of some of its oldest and most loyal supporters. This was all taking place, even as South Africa itself was moving swiftly towards great change in the country’s political future, what with the vote (among whites) to pursue negotiations for the country’s future; the unbanning of political parties including the Communists, the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress, and the release of political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela.

In practice, this also meant the SAIRR’s political mission was going to change from opposition to that old racial order and on to becoming a principled critic and analyst of whatever was coming in its place. While Between Two Fires gives us a peek at what must have been spirited debates and arguments, readers may be hungry for even more of a peeling back of the cover enough to be able to savour the intensity such debates must have generated.

It might also have been useful for the memoir to give readers deeper insights into the intellectual texture of the cut and thrust of the debates Kane-Berman participated in, or the insights that continued to shape his views on the issues he articulated so strongly in his speeches and writings. A reader will hunger to see still more of the inner workings of his thinking, rather than simply the smoothly finished final product in defining his views on the issues he still feels so strongly about in contemporary South Africa.

Perhaps this is an element of Kane-Berman’s reluctance in speaking too openly about some things. In what could easily be read as metaphor for how he sees the private space of his personal and professional life, Kane-Berman wrote towards the end of his memoir,

Thanks to speaking invitations at conferences there, I have visited some of the upmarket game reserves that adjoin Kruger [National Park]. Apart from being much cheaper, I think Kruger is nicer. This is because you have the sense that it belongs to the animals, not the visitors. Once at Mala Mala we crashed through the bush at night in a Land Rover with the searchlight chasing after two leopards who were trying to mate. I thought this a gross invasion of their privacy.”

It reads like a professional and personal credo.

Regardless of these questions, Kane-Berman’s memoir offers much useful material on the political infighting of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s in South Africa, as well as how someone with his commitment to remaining true to his classic liberal values will need to respond to the changed political landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. Or, as Kane-Berman wrote,

While running the Institute in the post-apartheid era I was variously accused of being right-wing, neo-liberal, neoconservative, or whatever. I was also described as one of the ‘old lefties’ who’d become ‘new righties’, people who read Paul Johnson, Thomas Sowell, PJ O’Rourke, Commentary and The Spectator (guilty on all counts). We ran one or two articles in Frontiers [an SAIRR publication] pointing out that the ‘right-wing slur’ was designed to cow people into silence, but it never worked with us. A columnist on the Cape Times wrote that the Institute’s ‘increasingly outspoken brand of liberalism under the leadership of John Kane-Berman has put it very much at odds with the ANC and its academic supporters’. This was true, and it didn’t bother me either. We knew that criticism from liberals would be especially resented because they had always been part of the broad anti-apartheid family, which would give our opinions more weight. But we shouldn’t feel too much self-pity if we got more than our fair share of criticism, because we handed out plenty ourselves.”

Now retired as SAIRR CEO, and looking forward from the country’s current political and economic impasse, Kane-Berman argued in a final chapter, The Way Forward, by writing,

The question now facing South Africa is whether the ANC can reform itself as the NP reformed itself. Does it have an FW de Klerk? Does it even have a John Vorster or a PW Botha? As this memoir has shown, they too played a role in dismantling apartheid. The NP was under immense pressure from all sides. The ANC is not – not yet anyway. Although pressure for Mr Zuma to resign has been growing following the strictures by the courts and the unceasing flow of reports of malfeasance on his part, there is little pressure for fundamental change in ANC policy.”

And he concluded,

More than 50 years ago, when I joined the battle of ideas as a school-boy, the ruling party and prevailing ideology seemed monolithic, and impregnable. But they were not. The NP was compelled to abandon its own ideology. The ANC will have to do likewise. It will eventually have to liberalise economically, just as the NP had to liberalise. Even the communists in the ANC and the government will find themselves having to search for pragmatic solutions. The question is whether they can be prevented from doing more damage before they begin the retreat from revolutionary ideology into liberal pragmatism.”

And so he calls on readers to join this continuing battle of ideas, pleased that democracy opens the space for this battle, and that free speech is the key weapon in that engagement.

John Kane-Berman’s memoir is a ringing argument for the classic values of pragmatic liberalism, as opposed to dogmatic ideologies – the two fires of the title. Thus the question, not yet answered, is whether such a struggle over ideas will come down on the side of open politics and pragmatic decisions or – as some increasingly fear – unhappily on the side of dogmatic, doctrinaire solutions to social, political and economic issues. Between Two Fires is a fine read with a rich depth of detail about his struggle in waving that banner of liberalism in a very tough neighbourhood. But – necessarily, perhaps – it leaves open the pending question of what will happen next in South Africa’s evolution. DM

Between Two Fires – Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, by John Kane-Berman, Jonathan Ball Publishers, ISBN 978-1-86842-769-7.

(Full disclosure moment: J. Brooks Spector has known the memoir’s author since John Kane-Berman’s early days as a reporter and his wife’s family worked closely with John Kane-Berman’s family on a range of community social welfare projects for years during the apartheid era.)


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