South Africa


A window into the proud history of the SA Institute of Race Relations — and its sometimes perplexing new path

A window into the proud history of the SA Institute of Race Relations — and its sometimes perplexing new path
(Photo: Flickr / bostankorkulugu)

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • C. M. says:

    I think the IRR is pretty centrist and focused on South African perspectives and issues. They have some unique perspectives that the South African media and academia is in desperate need of. They’re not some USA right wing proxy. I think this article is stirring a non-existent pot.

  • Andrew Spiegel says:

    Albeit before Spector’s time in SA, amongst the ‘allied institutions’ the SAIRR supported was South African Voluntary Service (SAVS) – with Muriel Horrell’s colleague, Justine Pike, managing SAVS’s books and helping to find funds that enabled various rural school and clinic building projects to take place. Probably more importantly for the otherwise cosseted white kids involved, that support gave us the opportunity to break through the apartheid-imposed boundaries and to discover the common humanity we shared with all our fellow southern Africans.

  • Rosalie Kingwill Kingwill says:

    The problem with the current SAIRR goes way beyond their obsession with race theory and what South Africans’ priorities are in blunt-
    nosed surveys. Of course most South African are concerned with daily living and food and safety security! No brainer. The problem lies in lack of good quality qualitative, empirical and textured research into, or engagement with, the critical social concerns which the previous iteration of SAIRR did (for example, their archives at Wits provides rich field based research evidence for land restitution claims). Their current writings are invariably infused with libertarian rhetoric (sometimes more subtly disguised) and their research and quantitative survey research results are all subjugated to this rhetoric/ideology to bolster their mostly centre right views, but sometimes mixed with sufficiently ‘classical liberal’ to satisfy centrist appetites.

  • Mike Schussler says:

    Generally agree with Brookes here. I saw what the SAIRR did in the 1980s. I would have never have met many people from different political ideas. I heard people from the UDM and Inkatha speak. I heard about the then “other” South Africa.
    The South African Survey has been useful to me and many researchers for decades. I believe they still speak up and are not afraid of controversial subjects.
    I absolutely agree with the SAIRR that race plays a less important role today (But for the political parties who use it to get people to remember their role and get their votes.
    Today Unemployment and income are far more important. Not just the SAIRR says that but surveys from other institutions tell us that. People are worried about hunger, crime and unemployment.
    The DM may just see more people involved and reading if they talk more to these issues. People are complaining very loudly in restaurants and supermarket queues about the lack of action to bring the corrupt to book. Killers that never see a police cell. People are scared. Small business after small business tanks as tenders are never awarded the same way. People see the chosen get the deals. So the SAIRR is one organisation that highlights these issues year in and out in research.
    No one has everything perfect but the SAIRR gets things mostly right and that I believe to be true. Well written and told Brookes!

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      A better and more balanced article than Rebeccas ” The battle for the soul of the South African Institute of Race Relations” the other day on DM, that really just wants to paint the IRR into some right wing corner.

      Just like the defunding the police movement had unintended consequences and possible side effects, CRT has some terribly divisive components to it. Does any criticism of CRT immediately mean someone is hardcore right-wing?
      As much as there are accusations that CRT is a dog whistle for right wingers, looking at the responses the same is quite obviously true for the left wing when it comes to critiquing CRT.

      This is the primary problem we are currently facing I believe, the inability to discuss topics without ad hominem attacks and gross association fallacies, often coupled with huge generalizations.

    • Dave Martin says:

      But the SAIRR have yet to answer the criticism that their survey methodology is designed to downplay racism as a concern. If you can only list 2 concerns then of course it is unlikely that racism will feature for most people. If women have to answer which 2 of the following 3 issues concern them most – murder, rape or assault – the fact that assault would not be in their top 2 doesn’t mean that they do not fear assault.

      As white people we cannot rely on personal experience in restaurant queues to answer whether racism is a problem in our society. We have to rely on proper surveys. I suspect that racism is not as big a concern as some claim, but the SAIRR survey is not an honest assessment of the situation.

  • John Cartwright says:

    A diplomatic account of the Institute’s shift (which gathered force in the 1980s) from liberal to neo-liberal, a horse of a very different colour.

  • Caroline White says:

    Edgar Brookes was professor of History and Political Science at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg when I was a student there 1959 – 1961. It was after he retired from UNP that Prof Brookes was ordained.
    During my years teaching Social Anthropology at UCT, 1983 – 1988, we all had copies of the Race Relations Survey on our shelves.
    The Institute commissioned research into beer brewing in Johannesburg ‘yards’ from the anthropologist, Ellen Hellmann – probably the first ‘urban anthropologist’ in South Africa.

  • John Strydom says:

    I am looking forward to the SAIRR’s response to this more measured article.

  • david everatt says:

    Sorry to be nit-picky but the Liberal party organ was ‘Contact’ – ‘Reality’ was the Black Sashs’s, and by 1973 the Liberal Party had been disbanded for 5 years (as of 1968). As with many others, I’m sure, I have every Annual Survey from 1949 (not 1946) – the big OUP hndback – and then the soft cover annuals thereafter. But that was from the days when SAIRR felt that the voice of reason, backed by data, might at least persuade some folk of the folly (and barbarity) of apartheid. That is light years away from the ideologically driven nonsense from ‘The Liberal Slideaway’ or the endless defence of Inkatha as the innocent players in an ANC war, to the current libertarian ‘defend our guns’ crap. SAIRR was incredibly important in its day … but that day has long past, sadly.

    • david everatt says:

      …and I am happy to note (after receiving some courteous prods) my own error, namely that Reality was not the Black Sash organ, but rather a journal ‘of liberal ad radical ideas’, whose board I think was chaired by Peter Brown.

  • Dave Martin says:

    I also once regarded the SAIRR survey as a valuable source of information on the average South African’s views of the country’s biggest challenges. After Phila Msimang’s comments on how the results of the survey are manipulated by the survey design, I have yet to see a convincing response from the SAIRR. In short, when respondents are asked what their biggest problems are, how many answers are recorded? Is it just two?

    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 critique of its methodology.

    • Michael Morris says:

      The 2020 survey is the seventh since 2001. The first was conducted by professional research house MarkData, the questions having been designed by leading social scientist Lawrence Schlemmer. It was based on face-to-face interviews, in the interviewees’ chosen language, with a representative sample of 2 144 SA residents over 16, from rural and urban households of all races in nine socio-economic categories.
      Interviewees were asked to identify the “serious problems not yet resolved since 1994”. The question was open-ended: no list of possible answers was provided, so interviewees could identify whatever problems bothered them. Some chose more than one ( so percentages add up to more than 100).
      Unemployment topped the list at 55%, with crime and violence second (48%), and housing/ shelter third (31%). Race was ninth (8%).
      In the 2020 survey, MarkData canvassed the views of 2 459 people from all nine provinces in face-to-face interviews in the interviewees’ language across rural and urban areas and all socio-economic strata; 78.6% black, 9.0% coloured, 2.9% Indian, and 9.3% white.
      Responding to the same open-ended question, the results were: unemployment again top of the list at 53%, crime and safety 22%, and corruption 18%. Racism/discrimination had dropped to fourteenth on the list, at only 3.3%.
      In all the surveys between 2001 and 2010, unemployment has topped the list. The proportion of blacks identifying race as a key unresolved problem has remained below 6%.

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