BODY UNDER FIRE
A window into the proud history of the SA Institute of Race Relations — and its sometimes perplexing new path
The SA Institute of Race Relations is in the news, not simply for its research, but its organisational soul. There is important history here to remember.
Back in 1975, just after arriving in Johannesburg for my first assignment here, a few days after I had settled into our new office and figured out the best routes between home and work, our South African staff colleagues started to arrange introductory calls for me with key organisations and institutions our office had built ongoing relationships with.
There was, naturally, too, an unflinching, firsthand introduction to the physical circumstances of South Africa’s apartheid-style human geography. That mattered because so much of what was important to know about South Africa hinged on the way the different racial communities coped with the enforced physical segregation that governed so much of their lives.
One of our earliest orientations thus became an all-day visit to the vast township of Soweto where virtually every inhabitant was black African. On that trip, it was hard to construct a mental map of the landscape because of its size and the fact there were only subtle differences between the different models of dwellings constructed over the years by the people who controlled Soweto. I needed a map of the township if I ever planned to drive there on my own.
One of the stops on this trip was the office of the less than subtly named West Rand Bantu Administration Board (WRBAB). The national government had, just a few years before, taken direct control over Soweto from the Johannesburg city government that had managed to maintain a modest degree of independence from the national government over the township. The national government created this bureaucratic structure to integrate its control more closely with the police and other government agencies, and largely financed its administration through government sales of beer.
The problem for me was the lack of any map of Soweto. If you bought the maps sold in bookstores, Soweto — and every other township nationally — was described by a blank grey smudge. No streets, no landmarks, no schools, no nothing. It was, in fact, a metaphor for the official fantasy that townships were simply temporary settlements of rural sojourners who had no permanent, legitimate place in cities and towns.
When WRBAB administrator Manie Mulder (yes, from that Mulder family) ushered us into his office, I noticed a slender blue pamphlet on his desk that contained sketch maps for every segment of Soweto. They were not quite maps, but they were more than just grey smudges. I very politely asked him to assist a new diplomat (me) and to please give me a copy of that pamphlet, especially since it was not marked secret or even confidential. Somewhat surprised by my question, he handed it over to me.
The next day, I photocopied and re-photocopied the various individual pieces (they were all drawn at different sized scales) until we could assemble a map of all of Soweto — the first time anyone in our office had ever seen one. That exercise was an apt demonstration of the complexities of gaining accurate, comprehensive information about South Africa — rather than just the bits in tourist brochures.
Of course, back in 1975, there certainly was no lack of academic, journalistic, or fictional (but essentially accurate) searing testimony about South Africa. There were armloads of it. The country’s historians, social scientists and economists produced volumes on South Africa’s deeply rooted economic inequalities, and the evolution of its repressive government. Even within the limitations on press freedom imposed by the government, brave journalists carried out investigative reporting that might lead them to being interrogated, banned from working or incarcerated — and sometimes with their writing banned as well.
Regardless, diplomatic reporting back to headquarters on the circumstances and conditions in a host country meant making certain we accurately understood what we were describing, and that required access to detailed, comprehensive, authoritative specifics. And the government data could not be trusted. By the mid-1970s the government was already skipping over information from those ostensibly “independent” homelands like the Transkei since they were now “foreign nations”.
It turned out there was really only one place to go for serious data and analysis beyond conversations with political actors, activists or journalists. And that was the South African Institute of Race Relations’ publications, its library, its librarians, and its reference staff — and, most especially, its premier annual publication, the Race Relations Survey, or RRS.
As one leading US scholar of southern African affairs, William Minter, described it, “The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), founded in 1929, was the first national multiracial organization to work for peace, goodwill, and practical cooperation between the various sections and races of South Africa.
“Its supporters included prominent liberals such as Edgar Brookes, Alan Paton, and Alfred and Winifred Hoernlé. Its most prominent publication was the annual A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa, which began publication with a volume for 1946/1947 under the title Race Relations Survey. This annual publication quickly became the standard reference source documenting political, social, and economic developments in South Africa, and continues to be published as South Africa Survey.”
Brookes, himself a senator from Natal, had moved away from earlier support of racial “separate development” and eventually joined the Liberal Party, along with Alan Paton, before entering an Anglican seminary.
In his own writing about the SAIRR in 1973 for Reality (the house publication of the Liberal Party), Brookes had described sharp disagreements and a near-split within the membership over whether the SAIRR’s officers should testify before apartheid-era government commissions.
He wrote, “When the institute was started it was dominated by the Fabian slogan, ‘Measurement and publicity’. John Rheinallt Jones, the founder of the Institute, was a Welsh Liberal who believed in this slogan and also had that faith in reason which is a mark of the Liberal creed. His personality left a deep impress on the Institute and as, in its earlier stages, he was on the staff of and closely associated with the University of the Witwatersrand, there tended to be an academic, upper-middle class outlook on the part of the leading Institute members.”
Over time, the SAIRR broadened its activities — further expanding its research and publications presence, documenting South Africa’s racial, political, economic and social landscape. First published in 1946 as the rise of the National Party was becoming increasingly clear, the SAIRR’s annual review became the kind of comprehensive national statistical yearbook produced by a government in most other places — but not by the South African government. Every bit of data was exhaustively referenced and contained reams of information on education, government budgets, spending on social welfare per capita by race, income data and more, cross-checked from sources that included newspapers, government documents, and academic research, and every bit carefully footnoted.
For example, if one needed to know the precise number of black South Africans allowed by special permits to study at a specific university designated only for white students, or the exact rand total of per-student funds allocated by race, grade by grade, in order to quantify precisely the racial educational disparities for an embassy reporting telegram (as I sometimes did), one found that data in the yearly editions of the RRS.
Those annual versions of the RRS (that became thicker and more comprehensive every year) were indispensable reference works in foreign embassies for their diplomats, with academics and researchers worldwide, and among journalists everywhere interested in South Africa. For much of the annual’s publication history, it was compiled by the redoubtable Muriel Horrell. The organisation also produced a stream of other publications on various issues and crises.
The South African government was sufficiently alarmed by this work that it attempted to establish a competing body, the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs, designed to put the best possible face on the indefensible in their reports and conferences.
In the mid 1970s, when I first encountered the SAIRR, it hosted lectures, discussion programmes and conferences, and even sponsored drama productions. The first time I saw a live production of one of Athol Fugard’s great plays, The Blood Knot, with some of the country’s best acting talent, it was in the SAIRR’s auditorium in their offices in Braamfontein, near the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand. Eventually, through allied projects, it assisted with a national feeding scheme, managed major scholarship/bursary programmes for international and domestic university studies, and even hosted a well-regarded handicrafts sales space in its offices.
But all institutions require money and funding for the SAIRR was always a challenge. Grants and sponsorships were hard to come by, and membership fees and publications sales could not carry the full cost of the organisation. Such a challenge was not unique to the SAIRR, of course. Politically active advocacy-style think tanks were also substantially reliant on foreign foundations and similar support, but they also ran the risk of being driven to the wall by government pressure and intimidation — such as the treatment of Rev Beyers Naude’s Christian Institute.
Following the establishment of the United Democratic Front in 1983, it apparently became difficult for the SAIRR fund-raising efforts as it was a research body not directly carrying out political activism, and the SAIRR began to face a life-threatening cash crunch. In the years following the onset of non-racial democracy, the SAIRR increasingly shifted its activities to the corporate risk advisory and analysis sector, especially since that older model of compiling comprehensive data on the country’s racial, political and social circumstances for public consumption has increasingly been carried out by the government’s own offices, as well as other bodies.
In recent years there has been growing criticism of the SAIRR that its research fellows and senior staffers have authored views significantly out of sync with more broadly accepted South African ideas on economics or governance. Instead, this critique goes, their publications are increasingly in line with US right-wing conservative views, rather than the SAIRR’s traditional liberal positions and institutional values. Some of these new writings are clearly controversial. Moreover, some of them seem largely unrelated to issues central to South African life and issues.
It is possible to argue these writings are meant to be controversial, provoking public discussion through positions largely unstated in contemporary South Africa. I am not planning here to offer a defence of their views on climate change or critical race theory. For the former, it seems to me the global body of evidence about the growing and imminent threat of catastrophic climate change is virtually inescapable. For the latter, this sudden fixation on critical race theory seems rather far afield of the SAIRR’s historical concerns. It is a boutique issue for only a few here and its perceived dangers are effectively being used as a partisan political tool by the denizens of Fox News and company.
Moreover, the notion of emblazoning a giant billboard overlooking a highway with the idea most South Africans do not see racial discrimination as a major concern clearly galls many among the commentariat as a kind of in-your-face publicity stunt; and with a billboard message like that, the SAIRR’s position can easily be read as a kind of blasé embrace of status-quo-ism with all its economic disparities. However, the institute’s survey data does point to an idea that in today’s very tough economic climate, bread and butter/kitchen table issues actually are more salient for a majority of South Africans than those sometimes more abstract questions of racial prejudice. (We should add a cautionary note that says racial concerns may well be suffused into all those other concerns, of course.)
But the results of that seemingly controversial attitude survey cannot be quite so easily dismissed, given that it was carried out by a well-regarded survey company and respondents numbered well over 2,000 people. That is larger than the number of respondents for most attitude surveys carried out internationally these days, assuming the use of careful modelling techniques and analysis by reputable attitude research bodies.
We should also note survey data released by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Afrobarometer on 24 August noted that two thirds (67%) of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing and jobs. Nearly half (46%) say they would be “very willing” to do so. Such findings would seem to track in some way with the SAIRR’s data that put racial discrimination issues as less critical than those kitchen table ones.
Moreover, while cross-national comparisons can be tricky and misleading, in our own recent story on the success by black ex-cop Eric Adams in New York City’s primary election for mayor, kitchen table issues such as crime control and effective policing, as opposed to the rhetorical push to “defund the police” were key for Adams’ win. Parallels to South Africa’s current situation may possibly be illuminating.
In our article, we cited Center for American Progress Fellow Ruy Teixeira (who is nobody’s conservative, angry, right-wing voice) who had said, “Crime is a great example of this. Initially dismissed as simply an artifact of the Covid shutdown that was being vastly exaggerated by Fox News and the like for their nefarious purposes, it is now apparent that the spike in violent crime is quite real and that voters are very, very concerned about it.
“According to recent data from the Democratic-oriented Navigator Research, more Americans overall, including among independents and Hispanics, now believe violent crime is a ‘major crisis’ than believe that about the coronavirus pandemic or any other area of concern.
“Moreover, majorities of even Democrats now believe violent crime is a major crisis and concerns are sky-high among black voters (70 percent say it’s a major crisis). Similarly, the latest USA Today/Ipsos poll (June 29-July 6) finds crime and gun violence topping the list of issues that worry Americans.
“The public response leans heavily in the direction of more policing, not less, countering the ‘defund the police’ approach that was promulgated by many on the Democratic left and still holds considerable sway in those quarters. The same USA Today poll found 77 percent support for deploying more police to street patrols and 70 percent support for increasing police department budgets. In contrast, ‘defund the police’ clocks in at just 22 percent support and is even opposed by black respondents 60-38.
“Concern about public safety is especially high in urban areas, particularly among nonwhites. In heavily black Detroit, a USA Today/Suffolk University/Detroit Free Press poll found: Amid a jump in violent crime in this and other cities nationwide, Detroit residents report being much more worried about public safety than about police misconduct. By an overwhelming 9-1, they would feel safer with more cops on the street, not fewer. In Detroit, 1 in 5 residents (19%) cited public safety as the biggest issue facing the city, second only to education, named by 23%. On a list of eight concerns, police reform ranked last, at 4%.”
As a conclusion, then, we need to acknowledge the vital role the SAIRR played during the tough times under apartheid as it meticulously documented the nature of those deeply discriminatory circumstances and all the crimes committed in its name. The body of material the SAIRR generated over all those years still remains an important resource for scholars even now for the full documentation of history.
Nevertheless, as South Africa has obviously changed significantly since the apartheid era, the SAIRR was compelled to shift its primary efforts in order to achieve a more stable financial basis for its operations in the midst of that change. But given the growing urgency in this country concerning questions of social and economic stability, as well as growing economic inequality, those grave national challenges should open up important areas of research (generating easily accessible but still authoritative writing, analysis, and surveys) for the SAIRR to pursue.
This should give the SAIRR opportunities to move away from any of those fevered preoccupations of US right-wing propagandists and polemicists, and, instead, help lead it back to its proud place in South African history as an authoritative source for credible information, aiding policymakers and society as a whole in the task of building a more just and equal society. DM