Maverick Citizen

OPEN LETTER

IRR’s current approach betrays the legacy of its founders and does a disservice to the people of South Africa

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The Institute prioritises its own ideological predilections rather than devoting itself to the betterment of race relations. Despite this, the IRR claims to be representing the concerns of all South Africans and that its policies and campaigns continue its human rights legacy.

We write as current and former members of the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and other concerned citizens to express our disquiet at the direction the IRR has taken and its current role in South Africa. 

The IRR was once a major player in the human rights movement in South Africa. According to its own historian, Ellen Hellmann, it was “specifically established to promote interracial goodwill and to conduct investigations bearing upon race relations. The two main objectives of its constitution adopted in 1932 read: 

  1. To work for peace, goodwill and practical co-operation between the various sections of the populations of South Africa.
  2. To initiate, support, assist and encourage investigations that may lead to greater knowledge and understanding of the racial groups and of the relations that subsist or should subsist between them.” (Hellmann: 4). 

Research in the field of race relations was central to the work of the IRR. Over the years, the IRR’s Annual Survey and reports made an enormous contribution to greater awareness about the social and economic conditions in which Black, Coloured and Indian South Africans lived. Its research provided detailed data on a host of matters, such as social welfare, wage levels, cost of living, child malnutrition, transport costs, and conditions in the so-called African reserves and homelands. It made detailed submissions to official commissions, and it was regularly consulted and its research cited by universities and other bodies, international as well as national, wanting reliable information on South Africa. Today, all that is left of that legacy is the Annual Survey which remains a valuable source of statistics and data drawn from such bodies as Statistics South Africa, the Reserve Bank, government departments and international bodies – but only because they are published without comment. 

Under apartheid, the IRR was a leading voice in civil society. Prior to the creation of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights in the 1970s, it was one of the leading advocates of human rights, working in close association with bodies that opposed apartheid such as the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute. Its committees and leadership included prominent South Africans such as Ezekiel Mahabane, William Nkomo, Stanley Mogoba, Archbishop Denis Hurley, Alan Paton and Helen Suzman; Mahabane, Nkomo and Mogoba serving as presidents in the 1970s and 1980s. Ina Perlman launched Operation Hunger from the IRR in 1981. Nor should we forget that Desmond Tutu, then Bishop of Johannesburg, also worked closely with the Institute. It was simultaneously activist and informative in its opposition to apartheid and injustice, and played a different role in society to its present successor, which has become an entirely different enterprise. Its work was so effective that it was investigated by the apartheid government’s Schlebusch Commission in the early 1970s. 

The IRR’s objectivity and credibility were built on its accountability to regional committees and an alliance of organisations of civil society, including churches and the Black Sash. In the 1980s the IRR underwent a major change in direction. It ceased to work with or concern itself with community-based organisations and civil society, allowing those who led it to promulgate their ideas without checks or balances. The IRR was one of only three organisations (with the Free Market Foundation and the Gauteng Chamber of Commerce and Industry) that approached the Constitutional Court in 1995 to object to the inclusion of social and economic rights in the Bill of Rights of the 1996 Constitution (their objection being rejected by the Constitutional Court in its first Certification judgment). 

We do not dispute the right of individuals to promote their own political and economic beliefs,  but note that the IRR fosters a ‘free-market, small state’ agenda while representing itself as a human rights research organization devoted to impartial fact-based analysis. This testifies to its open association with northern libertarian groups such as the Atlas Network and the Heritage Foundation, the latter supporting Trump’s presidential campaigns. Furthermore, although the IRR’s founding constitution “explicitly excluded the Institute from identifying or associating itself with any organised political party” (Hellmann: 4), the IRR has increasingly identified itself with the Democratic Alliance.

Through its news website, the Daily Friend, and their @Liberty policy bulletins, the IRR has obfuscated or denied the role of humans in causing climate change, attacked South African medical scientists, offered unscientific advice about COVID-19 vaccines and other mitigation measures, and attacked analyses of the societal production of racism and racial inequality as inherently ‘race essentialist.’ Furthermore, in a society where some 30 people were shot in recent civilian conflicts in Durban, it has objected to proposed government legislation tightening access to fire-arms. Instead, it equates ‘gun rights’ with self-defence and personal property rights, despite the Constitutional Court (along with a majority of other countries) having ruled that gun-ownership is a privilege and not a right.

These issues reflect the concerns of the board of an institute which, nearly three decades after the end of apartheid, remains engaged primarily with the interests of an overwhelmingly white, elite, and ‘big business’ constituency. The Institute prioritises its own ideological predilections rather than devoting itself to the betterment of race relations. Despite this, the IRR claims to be representing the concerns of all South Africans and that its policies and campaigns continue its human rights legacy. Any ideas that do not serve the interests of unfettered free market economics are framed as an assault on individual freedoms, human rights and inequality. Through the Daily Friend’s opinion columns, and in their campaigns and reports, the IRR uses misinformation and hyperbole to foster fear, confusion and conflict rather than logical and constructive public dialogue based in solid empirical research. The Daily Friend is not a member of the Press Council of South Africa, and hence not subject to its jurisdiction nor the media code of ethics. 

The IRR’s present direction is contrary to the original core aims of the Institute as recorded by Hellmann (p. 9), that the IRR “believed in the pursuit of the truth as a value in itself” and did not pursue its work with “a preconceived programme nor ready-made policy”. “It believed that the systematic seeking out of facts relating to the conditions which determine the quality of life of the disadvantaged groups in South Africa would increase public awareness and promote interracial understanding, an understanding without which there could be no peaceful future for South Africa.” It actively acknowledged the central role racial inequality played in economic and other spheres. The IRR’s excellent body of work in previous decades is a testament to the dedication and integrity of the many researchers who worked for it and upheld its ideals. 

We believe the IRR’s current approach betrays the legacy of its founders and does a disservice to the people of South Africa. We urge the IRR’s members and its funders to call it to account and support work that upholds the values of truth and justice and promotes the interests of the most vulnerable in our society. If it does not, it is time for the IRR to change its name and eschew any mention of or reference to the original human rights organization that it no longer represents. 

Hellmann, E. (1979). The South African Institute of Race Relations 1929-1979: A short history. South African Institute of Race Relations.

John Aitcheson (Former IRR member), Samantha Ashman, Emily Bacon (née Dyer), Omar Badsha, Di Bishop/Oliver, Andrew Boraine, Jeremy Boraine, Heidi Brookes (Family of IRR founder & president), John Brookes, Katherine Brookes, Heather Brookes, David Brookes, Debbie Budlender, Geoff Budlender SC (Chair, Western Cape Regional Committee, 1973 to 1975, member of the Executive Committee and National Council 1973 to about 1985, resigned), Mary Burton (Former IRR member), Coco Cachalia (IRR archivist 1982-1984), David Cooper, Hugh Corder (Member and sometime Chair of the Western Cape Regional Committee, 1985 to 1994, member of the National Council 1988 to 1994, resigned), Bishop Geoff Davies, Kate Davies, John de Gruchy (IRR member 1960s to early 1970s), Rosemary de Waal (IRR regional chair and national council member), Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, John Dugard (President of IRR 1977-1979), Jackie Dugard, Dorothy Dyer, Rob Dyer, George Ellis (IRR member and sometime Chair of the Western Cape Region, late 1980s and early 1990s), David Everatt, Ilse Fischer-Wilson, Drew Forrest, Ela Gandhi, Michael Gardiner, Nazim Gani, Keith Gottschalk (IRR life member), Adrian Guelke (Former IRR member), Peter Hain, David Hemson (Former editor of Race Relations News 1970-1971), Douglas Irvine (Former IRR member), Peter Kallaway (Former IRR member), Joan Kerchoff (Former IRR member), Rosalie Kingwill, Mary Kleinenberg, Horst Kleinschmidt (IRR Board 1973-1975), Sue Krige, Merle Lipton (Former IRR member), John MacRobert (IRR Regional Committee member mid 1980s; Regional Chair 1990-1991; National Council 1993 to mid-1990s), Anne Mager (Coordinator of IRR Western Cape Bursary and Enrichment Programmes 1983-1986), Itumeleng Mahabane (Grandson of IRR president), Anwar Suleman Mall, Andrew Manson (IRR researcher 1980-1983), Dale McKinley, Kirti Menon, Christopher Merret (Former IRR member 1980s), Rajend Mesthrie, Sibongiseni Mkhize, Mavuso Msimang, Lawson Naidoo, Bill Nasson, Amuzweni Ngoma, Noor Nieftagodien, Bishop Michael Nuttall (Former IRR member 1950s), Nic Paton, Anthony Paton, Pam Paton-Mills, Devan Pillay (IRR youth programme 1978-1979), Barney Pityana, Max Price, Beverley Roos-Muller, Alan Rycroft, Bridget-Nomonde Scoble (Cape Western Regional Representative of IRR 1984-1990), Crain Soudien, Roger Southall (Former IRR member), Andrew Spiegel (Former IRR member), Jane Tempest (IRR Head of Research 2003-2007), Karl von Holdt, David Welsh, Michelle Williams, Francis Wilson, Lindy Wilson, Tim Wilson, Nan Yeld

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All Comments 16

  • The IRR response will be instructive. A fine line between being identified with political party policy and delivering opinions based on Research.
    Another consideration would be how differences in tactical approach to the betterment of race relations, are the cause of disquiet.

  • My view is that the path to racial harmony lies through the elimination of poverty. And the most effective means of eliminating poverty lies in a solid education that is grounded in the physical and economic sciences as well as in the humanities — an rounded education that prepares citizens for 21st century living.

    BEE, cadre deployment, overly powerful unions (especially in the mining and educational sector) has failed to eliminate poverty and left millions of people jobless. To the extent that the IRR opposes such policies, it is indeed promoting race relations.

    On the other hand, aping positions taken by the US Republican (Trumpist) party, embracing trickle-down economics, promoting suspicion of science with respect to climate change and vaccinations, promoting the idea that possession of weapons is a human right — these are indeed silly positions that do nothing for race relations or the poor whatsoever. To the extent that the IRR espouses such positions, it should indeed be condemned.

    • I agree with this comment in all except the gun ownership issue. While I don’t think actual gun ownership itself should considered a human right, I do consider safety and security to be one, and a very important one too.

      In the absence of a competent state that can provide such safety and security, as is obvious in RSA, what other option is there than to allow citizens the freedom to decide for themselves how best to protect themselves and their families within the bounds of the law?

      • To be safe and secure is indeed a human right and the state should guarantee these rights. The extent to which gun possession advances this right when the state fails in its obligations can be debated. But the matter is, at best, obliquely related to race relations.

  • Thanks for this article. I have also noticed their slide into “radical” politics. Looks like they have been infiltrated by conservative/right-leaning agents. Very sad because their voice was valuable not so long ago. Let’s chuck them on the rubbish dump please

  • We can all see that since 1994 there has been increased poverty for Black South Africans. Positive discrimination has not done anything to alleviate this situation. Government companies have proved to be riddled with corruption and required large sums of money to stay afloat. This is money that could have been spent on housing for the poor which would have enabled the uplifting of children. In this situation privatization and abandoning positive discrimination appears to be warranted.

    • “We urge the IRR’s members and its funders to call it to account and support work that upholds the values of truth and justice and promotes the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.”

      May I agree with you that “positive discrimination” has done nothing for the “most vulnerable”. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “positive discrimination” has increased the numbers of the “most vulnerable” in society, and that they are worse off now than they were years ago.

      In my opinion, the IRR highlights the plight of the “most vulnerable” and brings their current situation to the surface.

  • It is all in the eyes of the beholder. When you lean towards the left, the middle is wrong and when you lean to the right, the middle is wrong. Seems to me that the IRR is keeping all on their toes.

  • I strongly support the above letter. The signatories constitute an impressive list of very fine South Africans. The last thing South Africa needs is a right wing organization masquerading under the banner of what was an outstanding NGO in the dark years of apartheid. It kept the light burning.

  • “To work for peace, goodwill and practical co-operation between the various sections of the populations of South Africa.”
    In my opinion, the current IRR do this. Can you please provide the facts which say that they are violating the above principle?

    “To initiate, support, assist and encourage investigations that may lead to greater knowledge and understanding of the racial groups and of the relations that subsist or should subsist between them.” (Hellmann: 4).”
    I am not too sure how the past or present IRR measure up on this goal. Once again, more facts would help here.
    thank you

  • Going forward, civil societies will have to focus on priorities and issues embedded in their mandate, otherwise they will lose their way. In the case of the IRR, the open letter highlights how a civil society that started off with a focus on promoting harmony on race-related issues, has been drawn into politically motivated human rights issues. Although this may be important to some, adds little or no value to strengthen their race relations credo. Politics will always influence the agenda. Choosing the priorities, and how to vet these as worthy agenda items, clearly requires some form of revision.