The battle for the soul of the South African Institute of Race Relations

The battle for the soul of the South African Institute of Race Relations
(Background concept wordcloud illustration.)

The founder’s descendants are concerned about the institute’s ideological direction as the institute appears to be taking on the concerns and values of the American right wing, from opposing gun control to slamming Black Lives Matter.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In June 2021, a billboard appeared on the M1 South in Johannesburg. In white and red letters on a black background, it read, simply: “RACISM is NOT the problem.”

The billboard was erected by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) – and to the descendants of the think-tank’s founder, Edgar Brookes, the controversial stunt epitomises the worrying direction that the body is taking.

Brookes founded the SAIRR in 1929.

“We have noted with concern [the SAIRR’s] slide into the opposite of everything they originally stood for,” Brookes’ granddaughter, Dr Heather Brookes, told DM168.

The public spat between the Brookes family and the SAIRR was sparked in late July by the publication of an op-ed on the Rational Standard website by SAIRR council member Martin van Staden.

He defended the institute against growing criticism by arguing that its current positions are consistent with the ideals of its founders – a claim Brookes’ grandchildren vehemently refute – and citing Edgar Brookes’ words to support his argument.

Brookes said that discussions had been happening within the Brookes family for some time as to whether they should issue a public statement on their concerns about the institute. “We know a lot about my grandfather’s views, because we grew up with him, and when they actually quoted him, that’s when we decided: No, we can’t keep quiet,” Brookes said.

In a response to Van Staden, Heather Brookes and her siblings, Kathy and David, wrote that the SAIRR had declined from “an important part of the broader anti-apartheid and human rights movements” to become today “an extremist libertarian misinformation machine”. They said that their grandfather would be horrified at some of the current positions of the SAIRR, including its focus on personal gun rights.

SAIRR spokesperson Michael Morris told DM168 that the think-tank was not concerned about the Brookes’ family criticism.

“The descendants are entitled to their views, which we do not share,” he said.

Brookes told DM168 that the family was also seriously concerned by the fact that the SAIRR “is publishing policy papers that deny the certainty of the science of human-induced climate change, as well as outright lies that contradict basic physics understood over 100 years ago”. As an example, she pointed to a paper published by the policy bulletin of the SAIRR, @Liberty, in November 2015, which claimed that CO2 “can never have an important effect on temperatures”.

Said Brookes: “The institute used to be a source of good, solid data on race and poverty and inequality. That is no longer the case.”

Brookes cited the contentious Johannesburg billboard as an example of the SAIRR’s misleading claims.

The statement that “Racism is not the problem” is based on the findings of a 2020 SAIRR survey, which asked fewer than 2,500 South Africans questions including what respondents regard 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. From findings like these, the SAIRR concludes that “race relations remain generally positive – and far better than the ANC, the EFF, and many in the media commonly assert”.

Phila Msimang, a philosopher of race at the University of Stellenbosch, told DM168 that one of the major problems with such surveys was that “the methodology [used] is ludicrous”.

That getting a job may be more important to a survey respondent than solving racism at a certain point in time, said Msimang, could not be considered evidence that racism doesn’t matter. “The point is that this is not a mistake. It’s purposeful that [the SAIRR] design their surveys in this way, to produce certain outcomes which fit the types of policies they are trying to push.”

Such policies, Msimang charged, relied on “1960s race-blindness, which actually promotes racism by turning a blind eye to racial injustice. They have a lot to say about economic injustice, but conveniently speak about it in a way that doesn’t take into account how it happened.”

From the SAIRR’s perspective, its take on race today is perfectly consistent with its views throughout the decades.

“The IRR has throughout its history opposed race essentialism and polarisation and continues to do so today,” Morris told DM168.

He denied the claim that the SAIRR appeared to be intent on downplaying racism in South Africa.

“The IRR recognises that racism exists and opposes it. However, exaggerating the role of racism – something often done for political or commercial gain – divides South Africans and places concrete barriers in the way of meaningfully improving the living conditions of all South Africans,” Morris said. “The IRR opposes the exaggeration and instrumentalisation of racism.”

An objection the think-tank has increasingly faced in recent years is that the institute appears to be taking on the concerns and values of the American right wing: from opposing gun control to slamming Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory, both of which have been the subjects of SAIRR reports over the past year.

There have been claims that the SAIRR is receiving funding from US groups such as the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank that has historically provided many of the policy positions of the Republican Party. Morris denies any financial link between the two bodies, but former SAIRR CEO Frans Cronje gave an address to the Heritage Foundation in 2015 and the SAIRR frequently makes reference to the foundation’s research.

Morris dismisses the idea that the body is trading liberalism for libertarianism, saying: “Individual writers for the IRR’s news and opinion outlet, the Daily Friend, may hold diverging views, some being more libertarian and others leaning more towards traditional liberal democracy, but the Institute continues to advocate classical liberalism as it has done since its founding in 1929.”

Other critics say that the SAIRR should simply be ignored by those who don’t share its views. But to Msimang, the SAIRR is a genuine threat to free and fair public discourse – because “they have money which they use to lobby damaging positions, they claim to represent the opinions of general South Africans which they actually misrepresent, and they are arguing for evidence-based positions with invalid data that doesn’t support the claims that they’re making. They are essentially misleading the public on matters about race”. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Buchan says:

    Personally I don’t think people really over worry about race relations. I’d be interested in what Phila Msimang says about having children out of wedlock, broken family units, over population, having children when there are no means to support those children who are not exposed to moral foundations within families and where fathers are very often absent. Oh, corruption by the political elite and jobs for comrades doesn’t really help the situation much.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Mr Buchan I salute you – these are my questions too!
      My other questions are “ Do the Brookes’ grand children live in South Africa.” And “ Does challenging their Grandfathers wishes entitle them to a crack at the funding – originally in the form of a foundation tax dodge.”
      Lastly, it is in itself racist to support campaigns like “Black Lives Matter” when, if one is not to be racist then “All Lives Matter” should be the slogan.
      Just my opinion.

      • Glyn Morgan says:

        Spot on. Daily Maverick can do with some moral introspection.

        • gorgee beattie says:

          Agree with some of the opinions expressed by IRR and their columnists or not, there is definitely a need for opinion that opposes the “woke” bunch
          It seems to me that on occasion DM veers too close to the “woke” opinions

      • Ralph A Meyers says:

        I agree; why are people so averse to All Lives Matter. At some stage the past has to be buried. Let’s move on as a nation.

        • Stephen T says:

          The problem is there’s still plenty money to be made from dividing people by intersectionality and then fabricating guilt to shame rational thinking into silence. Religion is big business. Always has been.

          One curious thing about these avowed Marxists living in a capitalist society is that they all somehow seem to get filthy rich very quickly. BLM is no exception. Their rhetoric says its all about justice. Their actions say its all about self-enrichment.

        • Simon Nicolson says:

          I am not averse to All Lives Matter, but I am also not averse to Black Lives Matter. The movement has come about due to the feeling that black lives do not matter as much as white lives. So by supporting Black Lives Matter one is acknowledging systematic and cultural inequality in how black people are treated… which needs to be put right. It does not mean that black lives are more important. I have never understood that interpretation. I dont think Black Lives Matter is about the past, it is about the present.

      • Angela Dyer says:

        I would like to challenge your view that it is racist to support campaigns like “Black Lives Matter” Perhaps if the slogan read “Black Lives also matter” it might be better understood.
        It grew out of the Civil Rights movement in America and if you know anything of the history of African Americans and how so many are still treated unjustly in the Criminal Justice system your view may change. You might like to read a book by Anthony Ray Hinton ‘The Sun Does Shine”. Anthony spent 30 years of his life incarcerated in prison in Alabama for a murder he never committed. It was racism that put him there and racism that kept him there. He is one of very many.

  • Stephen T says:

    Sounds like these critics of the IRR are just salty Leftists – anyone who doesn’t regurgitate the official Lefty narrative is automatically stupid and must be labelled “right wing” etc in an attempt to shame them into compliance. It is good that the IRR stands up to them with rational responses but also acknowledges their right to disagree. Morris sounds far more reasonable than these critics.

    Just ponder Phila Msimang’s standpoint for a moment. Since when does “arguing for evidence-based positions” make something “a genuine threat to free and fair public discourse”? Is he seriously arguing *against* a scientific approach to political analysis?! That sounds too retarded to be true. Am I reading this right? Can someone with a (presumably) tertiary education even be that dof?

    • Andrew Johnson says:

      Fully agree with this comment.

    • Gerhard Swiegers says:

      Stephen, you are a little unfair to Msimang. Read where he was quoted earlier in the article and you will realise that it was possible that DM misquoted him in the last paragraph. I agree that the last quote is illogical, but it also does not reconcile with his earlier comments

      • Stephen T says:

        I disagree. I also disagree with his earlier quotes as well. I think the IRR approach and reasoning here is sound. Just because a survey does not produce the results that suit your narrative does not mean its methodology is automatically flawed.

        It appears as if the IRR is deliberately trying to be as practical and unemotional as possible about what the country considers to be the most pressing problems. Msimang, on the other hand, seems to have already made up his mind that this is racism and to challenge that assumption is blasphemy. The term “racism” itself, much like “equality”, can mean very different things to different people, thus making it useful only to an agenda that is not based on evidence-based research. The political Left knows this and makes extensive use of these terms in their rhetoric to sound noble and just, but turn out to be hollow and useless when scrutinised.

        So no, I don’t think anyone has been misquoted here.

    • Michiel Heyns says:

      Msimang is not arguing against an evidence-based position; he is arguing against the use of ‘invalid data’ to support that type of position. So no,I don’t think you are reading that right. But commend you for questioning your own reading.

      • Simon Nicolson says:

        Agree with this. He is not arguing against an evidence based positions, he is highlighting what he believes to be the irony that they use poor evidence to promote their position. I have long heard the CRA make the assertion that SA people are not worried about race and I am always surprised as it is such a heated topic at social gatherings, at work, in social media… everywhere really. Not just the politicians or the media, though of course they play a role in fanning the flames. I believe if they did the research differently they might well get different results – so in that respect I agree with Msimang.

    • Ralph A Meyers says:

      The IRR has always, in my opinion, had a very balanced honest opinion on these matters in the light of the current political background. I think it is wrong to try and defend the original reasons for its creation against current opinions.

  • Rosalie Kingwill Kingwill says:

    I agree that SAIRR has departed radically from the original SAIRR we all respected and relied on in the past for solid empirical data on race and social relations in South Africa. They should change the name to their own breed of nauseating right wing libertarianism and stop degrading liberal values. I find theur views and methodology repugnant to progressive advancement of the SA Constitution. Insults like ‘salty leftists’ merely confirm their style of engagement.

    • Hugh Corder says:

      This is an excellent piece, and I totally associate myself with this comment. This has been a long time coming; I resigned from the national exco in about 1996 and as Chair of the WC region of the SAIRR because this trend had started then already. The SAIRR’s Annual Survey of Race Relations and their magnificent work done till the mid-90s stayed true to Brookes’ and his co-founders’ vision: this was a body which was investigated by the apartheid regime’s Schlebusch Commission in the mid-70s, along with NUSAS and the Christian Institute, as a threat to “national security”, surely a badge of honour. The current stance taken by the SAIRR is light years away from that track record.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      That was then…this is now.
      Would you not consider BEE policies of today ( and over the last 25yrs) now racist and discriminatory? Things change. And there are two sides to a coin!
      The term “Race Relations” is in itself discriminatory – it implies that the relationship between people based on their race needs management and policing. How quaint! The bottom line is that a Country’s Constitution takes care of the policing for ALL people no matter their race, religion or culture – a second layer of managment is unnecessary, especially in our country with our current ( and hopefully long term!) Constitution.

  • Smudger Smiff says:

    “We have noted with concern [the SAIRR’s] slide into the opposite of everything they originally stood for,” Brookes’ granddaughter, Dr Heather Brookes, told DM168.
    It’s interesting to have Heather Brookes opinion on the SAIRR as it stands today, but I do not share her criticisms and concerns. I do not suggest the SAIRR is unchanged since her grandfather founded it in 1929 – were that so, it would not have survived and thrived.
    I very much doubt many, or any SAIRR members will rally to her battle-cry for the soul of the organisation.

  • david everatt says:

    Excellent piece and long overdue. Critics of the SAIRR are not just lefties who perhaps never liked it; but people who hold liberal values, and detest libertarians, mourn it equally.

  • Timothy Van Blerck says:

    The last of Big Coal? By Andrew Kenny – Aug 8, 2021

    “Medupi will release vast amounts of CO2, a wonderful, clean, life-giving gas. Good for it. Increasing CO2 will stimulate plant growth and have little if any effect of the climate.”

    A deep appreciation for research, expert analysis and the the scientific method in the IRR

  • Andrew Ardington says:

    The SAIRR’s soul died long ago!

  • Patrick Devine says:

    So if you don’t support the blatant racism of CRT, then you’re right wing?

    Please ^%#* off.

  • Stuart Hulley-Miller says:

    Thanks Smudger,……My sentiments entirely…… 1929 and now are different forums for obvious reasons, what is important is that the IRR ethos has remained unchanged and relevant to current circumstances.
    I also feel that the Daily Maverick has gone too for with the manner in which they have approached this and that they are definitely using their forum to attack the IRR…… this is very unfortunate, unless it is totally unbiased and fair, which I personally feel is not the case.
    I am disappointed with the accusatorial and confrontational manner…….this is about the views and opinions of your readers and thus supporters and you should be more respectful of that.

    • Caroline de Braganza says:

      Have you considered the views and opinions of readers and supporters may differ from yours? Open debate is fundamental to democracy – you can’t cancel someone because you disagree with them.

      • Hans Wendt says:

        I agree. Having an array of opinions from different sources can only be good for democracy. Especially with the corrupt and dysfunctional government we have at present.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Sadly the SAIRR has also captured the DA. I have stopped supporting both organizations . To downplay the existence of systemic racism in our country is out of step with reality. There is systemic racism both by Whites against Blacks and by Blacks against Whites.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    Over the past few years I have come to share the concerns expressed by the Brookes family. I have sensed a move in the SAIRR away from addressing fundamental problems in South Africa to becoming a forum to justify the views of the wealthier part of the population. It would be interesting to know who were the 2500 people canvassed in the survey quoted. Canvassing 2500 people in shopping centres in the major suburban areas would elicit a very different response to canvassing 2500 people queuing at soup kitchens or clinics in the sprawling informal settlements around Coligny or Zeerust or Marikana.

  • David Turner says:

    I originally subscribed to DM cause I felt they provided balanced journalism, giving both sides of any story – unlike the many main stream outlets today. However, over the last while there has been a definite move away from their original position to always only giving the main stream media narrative and even worse than that, not allowing debate on the other side of the story. For example, DM only gives the official WHO/CDC and national governments narrative concerning Covid and Vaccines, cancelling the other side of the story as misinformation and conspiracy theories, and don’t even allow any comments on any articles relating to Covid and Vaccines. I have written various letters to the Editor and others regarding this, but have never had a reply of any kind. Last week DM heavily criticized Mail & Guardian for an article giving the other side of the Covid/Vaccines story and now this article criticizing the IRR and their newspaper, The Daily Friend, for giving some opinion that does not follow the official USA main stream media viewpoint.
    DM, we are not idiots that need you to decide what we should or should not be exposed to. We want both sides off the story and will make up our own minds. Do you job – Defend Truth – which is never only one side of the story.
    The IRR’s The Daily Friend follow the same model as DM of free content with voluntary subscription. In my view, the former are currently providing much more balanced journalism. Should I switch?

    • Michiel Heyns says:

      It sounds as if you should carry on reading both — unless you want to read only what you agree with.

      • David Turner says:

        Yes, Michiel, that is exactly my point, we need to read both sides – this what is what DM are currently not giving us the opportunity to do. My question of switching was relating to monetary subscription.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    It is remarkable how many of the respondents … especially the ones supportive of the IRR current position … are from the ‘previously advantaged’ (which I am sure they will deny existed in S.A. – as with apartheid and its consequences). So is the question of ‘methodologies’ mute or relevant ?

    • Stephen T says:

      Because generalisations such as this are always so super useful for generating respectful dialogue…

    • Michael Kihato says:

      Wrong. I am not sure why opposing certain issues. I am black, and definitely not a fan of BLM. There should surely be space to disagree with specific issues and positions, without being labelled apartheid supporter. The labeling is not very useful.

  • Zavier Haddad says:

    I find the SAIRR a tad more in touch with reality these days than most of the DM writers. My opinion.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    At the heart of this debate is the need for the ‘conservative’ American view of the world to be in control and control the narratives, that world is exposed to. Might and domination is right, is its central message. Any challenges to that dominant and dominating view must be contested, is its central right.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The SAIRR has certainly moved to the right. A certain amount of movement from pre- to post democratic reform is of course to be expected, but imho the SAIRR has almost certainly meandered from trad liberal to reactionary libertarian. This is clearly visible in their mouthpiece, the Daily Friend. However, the way our ANC government works – divisive, corrupt, majoritarian and captured, erasing the lines between party and State; and their stubbornness with regard to the effectiveness of BBEEE and cadre deployment is the major cause of such positions. My gripe with them (the SAIRR) their mouthpiece and most white South Africans is that the incessant whining about what Ramaphosa should or shouldn’t do makes zero difference to the status quo. We are almost at a point of no return, and only a middle way can save us (maybe). We have to identify a middle way acceptable to the majority of South Africans. This joint will NEVER be libertarian, and most black South Africans will never vote for such a party. NGO’s critical of government, like the SAIRR, is crucial, but to be effective they should steer away from partisan politicking.

  • Penny Milner-Smyth says:

    For many years now it has seemed to me that the agenda of this organisation has strayed so far from that which gave rise to its name, that the name is now not only a misnomer but misuse of a legacy and misrepresentative in the present. Perhaps a renaming is in order.

  • Richard Atkins says:

    Since when has it been “Right wing” to oppose the Marxist BLM movement or the racist CRT dogma or want to protect one’s family?
    1929 was another planet and what held then does not necessarily hold valid now.
    Move on, keep up and do not be fooled by the centravist mouthpieces.

  • Ian Hall says:

    The Daily Maverick has lost the plot. I for one am stopping my contributions.

  • Simon Nicolson says:

    I am not convinced by the SAIRR position on race not being an issue of note for most South Africans. I agree with Msimang that the methodology seem inadequate … a couple of throwaway questions in an omnibus survey does not a proper study make. (I do WANT to believe it though!) I still find the SAIRR (or the CRA at least) pretty well balanced and they are a more trusted source of data for me than most media ….and any politician. The thing is, they are incentivised to be right ….because much of the funding comes from business/investors who are trying to plan scenarios based on actuality, not some fiction with an agenda. If their analysis is wrong they end up losing credibility. They are in the business of being accurate, surely! Howeve, all know that perfect objectivity is a myth and social dynamics are very complex, so I guess it is very easy to be skewed, even with the right intentions and ‘supporting’ evidence.

  • Greg Z says:

    Maverick has a history of good journalism, but now seems to be biased towards a populist left-wing ideological agenda. With such one-sided reporting, Rebecca Davis perpetuates and deepens the racist divide in this country rather than healing it. This article portrays the SAIRR as a tool of the US right and obscures the fundamental issues that this country is facing, such as the right to employment and personal safety. It reads like Bell Pottinger and sounds like David Mahlobos’ narrative on foreign powers’ involvement in South Africa. I think I will be cancelling my subscriptions to the Daily Maverick.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    “An association fallacy is an informal inductive fallacy of the hasty-generalization or red-herring type and which asserts, by irrelevant association and often by appeal to emotion, that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another. ”

    We are definitely losing the ability to have a discussion without immediately resorting to association fallacies and very heavy accusations. Just because someone supports gun ownership in a violent under policed country like SA, doesn’t mean that that person is a right winger. If someone feels there is a case for border control doesn’t mean they support abortion. It is possible to support social programs while still being a centrist…

    • Michelle Kuttel says:

      This is my concern as well. We are in a sad situation where adults feel the need to label someone they disagree with an epithet, and so dismiss them (or claim to be offended), rather than engaging with the argument. AS with everything in SA, it’s complicated. Importing attitudes and opinions from the States is just lazy thinking – and highly divisive. The SAIRR has the moral courage to uphold liberal values, ask the difficult questions and fight the difficult fights in the teeth of this kind of puerile name-calling and the prevalent cancel-culture – and that is why I respect them.

  • Alex Wood says:

    Any possession of a fire arm requires a degree of state control. However anybody who supports “Black lives matter” are 100% racist!…… It must be one of the worst and most damaging organizations in the world right now!

  • District Six says:

    A very balanced piece, Ms Davis. You gave the SAIRR equal space and Morris had an opportunity just as Phila Msimang was able to offer considered critique. The SAIRR has definitely shifted base and it doesn’t look pretty. If the comment section here is any indication of where they are positioning then it’s a slam-dunk. The right offers bogeymen – BLM, CRT, BBEE, gun ownership, and “cadre deployment” – it’s all like waving a red flag at a bull that results in a lot of snorting and huffing.
    So when Donald Trump appoints Republican Jeff Sessions or Republican William Barr as A-G, does one consider that as a cadre deployment? If Barack Obama appoints Democrat Eric Holder as A-G, or California appoints Democrat Kamala Harris as State A-G, are these considered cadre deployments? When Boris Johnson appoints the PM’s Chief of Staff, Tory, Dan Rosenfield, may it be considered as a cadre appointment?
    It seems to me that global best-practice is for each successive administration to appoint its own political cadres, without it being an issue for the SAIRR, and that the hysteria around this is unwarranted.

  • JP van der Merwe says:

    The term racism has unfortunately been contaminated by the BLM, radical left, wokeness, cancel culture and the like, but that does not mean that racism is still racism and is still around, alive and well.
    It will not be easy, if not virtually impossible for DM’s editor to respond to the anti’s of all of the above, but I am sure those who want to understand, will know that assuming that DM supports the anti’s, is simply not listening.

  • Johan says:

    In the age of post-truth and unreality (i.e. putting the optics of withdrawal by 9/11/2021 before facts on the ground in Afghanistan) evidence based voices are not popular. These voices are often answered not by facts but by ideological reasoning, aspersions and guilty by association.

  • Dave Martin says:

    The problem with the IRR survey was detailed in an earlier article by Phila Msimang: When respondents are asked what their biggest problems are, apparently only their top 2 answers are accepted.

    An analogy.
    If you ask South African women the following survey question:
    What are your biggest fears as a South African woman (select 2 of the following options):
    1. Murder
    2. Rape
    3. Assault

    It makes sense that the vast majority would respond with options 1 and 2. This doesn’t mean that option 3 is not a major concern, it is just less of a concern than the other 2 options.

    What Msimang is implying is that the SAIRR is effectively doing the above survey and then putting up a billboard saying “South African women do NOT fear assault!!”

    Which is blatant misinformation.

    We need to know how big a problem racism is in our society and what form it takes. I used to regard the SAIRR survey as one of the most important sources of objective information on this issue. I no longer trust it unless it can clearly answer Msimang’s criticism.

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