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Institute of Race Relations holds the liberal line agai...

South Africa


Institute of Race Relations holds the liberal line against the left

(Image: Adobe Stock)

The state of SA today is an affront to human decency that should spark deep embarrassment on the part of the activists who helped bring it about, considering the potential the country once had.

The criticism directed at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) today is not dissimilar to that which it received for endorsing unpopular positions in the 1980s, which you can read about in Jill Wentzel’s excellent 1995 book, The Liberal Slideaway

At that time, a schism developed in the liberal community around the question of whether the institute, in opposing apartheid, should surrender its independence to the ANC/UDF and its left-wing alliance partners. This would require it to endorse the violence that the ANC was unleashing to eliminate its black political rivals – violence that began and then intensified after it was already evident that apartheid was on the way out. 

As Wentzel records, critics who stood for human rights by condemning the use of violence “were berated for criticising blacks”, much as present-day critics of the ANC are accused of being racist.

While the 1980s scepticism about the democratic credentials of the ANC has been proved most prescient by the State Capture era and the general state of corruption and malfeasance in South Africa, such scepticism angered many liberals at the time, including various IRR members and employees who parted ways with the institute. 

The signatories of the “concerned citizens” letter includes many of those disgruntled former office bearers and members, who will not forgive John Kane-Berman, CEO at the time, for rescuing the institute from being captured by the ANC alliance, like other liberal organisations at the time. They continued to hope that Kane-Berman’s successors – Frans Cronje and latterly myself – could be brought round to shepherding the institute into the left’s hegemonic fold. Sadly, for them, they will be disappointed once again.

Leaving aside historical developments, it is the present that deserves our attention. Today, we celebrate the fact that South Africa is a democracy and that South Africans are freer than ever before – free to associate with whom they choose, free to marry whoever they love, free to express their opinions, free to move wherever they like. The IRR played an important role in helping South Africa achieve this victory. 

But despite this welcome progress, nobody can deny that the country has failed to make enough headway in enabling the majority of South Africans to improve their material conditions. 

For South Africa’s poor, after a decade of relatively successful economic performance under Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), social mobility ground to a halt as the ideas of the left won back much of the ground they had lost to Mandela and Mbeki in the immediate aftermath of South Africa’s transition to democracy. The state of SA today – which is significantly a result of that leftward shift – is an affront to human decency that should spark deep embarrassment on the part of the activists who helped bring it about, considering the potential the country once had.

Consider that, after doubling in the first decade after 1994, the number of jobs in the country has flatlined as government policies have moved further to the left. Our unemployment rate has reached a record 44.4%, of whom a quarter have entirely given up looking for work. Incomes have stagnated for a decade. Too many South Africans are stuck in low-wage, low-productivity jobs with no prospect of advancement. Signs of poverty and suffering are everywhere.

Investment in fixed assets is at half the level it should be. Only 40% of any given cohort of school children pass matric, and only 5% graduate with a maths pass of 50% or better. 

South Africa’s Gini index – a measure of inequality – is worse now than it was at the dawn of democracy, mostly because of growing intrablack inequality fuelled by BEE and rising unemployment. In the second quarter of 2021, more than 60 South Africans were murdered per day and the police minister is on the record saying that the police service is unable to fulfil its mandate. The Post Office doesn’t deliver, South African Airways only flies on the wing of generous bailouts, the railways are literally running out of track because it is being stolen – and in some places the government has lost the ability to process driver’s licences. 

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Clearly, South Africa has an enormous number of problems that need to be fixed. But before that can happen, they have to be correctly diagnosed and their causes identified.

This is where perspectives diverge. At the risk of simplifying, the dominant perspective – promoted by the government and endorsed by the left-wing intelligentsia – is that white racism and corporate recalcitrance are to blame. What is required, therefore, is more state intervention. 

More master plans must be developed for the various economic sectors; racial transformation must be more aggressively pursued; more land and other assets must be brought under state control; the health system should be transformed into a state-run monopoly; the hiring practices of companies must be more tightly circumscribed; the hundreds-strong stable of state-owned enterprises should be expanded by adding a state bank among other state entities; labour-intensive make-work schemes must be created by the state; black industrialists should be established by state fiat; millions more people should receive state welfare; law-abiding citizens should be disarmed to reduce crime rates; and the state should, by some unknown mechanism, be made competent, honest and developmental.

This sounds far-fetched because it is far-fetched. Even the most adoring statist acolyte must look at that list and experience at least a hint of uncertainty. Placing the state at the centre of the solutions, when it is the cause of so many problems, is clearly a mistake. It is also a model that is reaching the end of the road, as is evidenced by the fact that the state has run out of money and the ANC has run out of credibility and ideas. 

But if the intrusive, big-state, race-based approach is failing, then what should replace it? The answer is to pursue the classically liberal approach, “an effective way to defeat poverty and tyranny through a system of limited government, a market economy, private enterprise, freedom of speech, individual liberty, property rights, and the rule of law”. 

These are the principles that underlie the success of all free and prosperous societies. It is on the basis of these principles that the IRR develops its policy analyses and proposals – which call not for the abolition of the state, but for a more streamlined and effective administration.

Over the past seven years, the IRR has produced more than 450 policy submissions and policy reports, covering topics ranging from property rights to freedom of speech and electoral democracy, from water policy to electricity provision, consumer spending, demographic trends, education and health policy, communication, crime, corruption, unemployment, empowerment, women’s rights, gun policy, gay rights, economic reform, the minibus taxi industry and much else besides. We cover a lot of ground. Our detractors are welcome to point out which papers they disagree with and to engage with us on our various public platforms. 

We also invite members of the public who have read these accusations against us to make up their own minds. We invite you to come and read the Daily Friend here every day and decide for yourself. After a week or two you should know enough to decide whether you can believe the accusations levelled by this small group of detractors.

Ellen Hellmann, author of a short history of the IRR’s first 50 years, wrote of times when “the Institute lost some support both to the right and to the left”. That remains true today, as we are regularly accused of being too right wing by our left-wing detractors, and of being too left wing by our right-wing critics. We prefer to think of ourselves as holding the sensible middle, and will continue to stand up for liberal ideals, truth and justice, so continuing the institute’s long and proud tradition. DM

John Endres is the CEO-elect of the Institute of Race Relations. 


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  • Well said John. Eventually we also hear the ‘other side of the story’. Being criticised from left and right normally means that what you are doing and saying is on target. Being critical of the anc government for the corruption and thieving direction they have followed since 1994 and pointing out their BEE and AA and other racial and economic failures now suddenly makes the IRR the enemy. Keep up the good work!

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