South Africa


John Kane-Berman – champion of liberal values and political and economic freedom for all

John Kane-Berman – champion of liberal values and political and economic freedom for all
John Kane-Berman, the late chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations. (Photo: Gallo Images / Business Day / Robert Botha)

The passing of John Kane-Berman at the age of 76 allows us to contemplate his hard-fought battle to defend liberal values and the political and economic redemption of South Africa.

After a lifetime defending the continuing relevance, potency and importance of classic liberal values in a South Africa fractured by ideological (and real) battles, John Kane-Berman has died at the age of 76. 

Over a busy life, his contribution of leading the South African Institute of Race Relations during two contentious decades was critical for the survival of that institution and, simultaneously, for a respect of those classic liberal values. But his contribution in reporting on the country’s newly energised labour movement must also be remembered for its importance in shaping attitudes during a critical time in South Africa’s tumultuous political evolution.

John always fought his corner without restraint. If he believed in something, he marshalled the evidence and his arguments, and worked strenuously to convey the logic and importance of that view to readers and audiences — and, most especially, to those who might have disagreed with him. His absence leaves an empty space in South Africa’s public life, one immensely difficult to fill.

John Kane-Berman was the eldest of Louis and Gabby Kane-Berman’s five sons. John’s father had been a successful lawyer in the post-war years and on into the 1970s, but his World War 2 experiences had clearly shaped him and his responses to social and political unfairness in his own nation.

Torch Commando

In the years after the war, he became a leader of the Torch Commando, the military veterans’ organisation that had come into being to oppose the planned abolition of the voting franchise for coloured South Africans in the Cape, an act that was an integral part of the National Party’s grand vision of an apartheid future for the country.

The Torch Commando, it was said, was the only organisation the National Party and its toadies ever really feared, given the Torch Commando members’ firsthand experiences in actually fighting evil, authoritarian regimes, starting with fighting in East Africa, then moving to North Africa, and then, eventually, on to Sicily and the Italian Peninsula during six gruelling years of warfare against Italian and German armies. But Louis Kane-Berman’s commitment to social justice also led him to assist authentic grassroots organisations struggling to improve the lives of those seriously less fortunate in South Africa’s greatly unequal and harshly segregated society.

For years, without any publicity, Louis Kane-Berman worked with my late father-in-law to set up, defend, and maintain the legal circumstances and financial viability of a social welfare organisation that over the years transported thousands of coloured children to a residential camp and school on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. For several months, those children received intensive educational tuition, nutritious food and well-supervised outdoor activities — away from baleful influences in their racially designated neighbourhoods that were part of apartheid’s restrictions.

Such life lessons about one’s responsibilities would have been closely observed by the young John Kane-Berman, despite his own privileged life and education through private schools, the University of the Witwatersrand, and then on to Oxford University and a Rhodes Scholarship. As The Daily Friend* wrote of him: “Kane-Berman would reflect almost 50 years later ‘that the Torchmen’s practical assertion of the right to free speech’ had impressed him enormously, and was proof that, borrowing from Tennyson’s Ulysses, ‘freedom of speech, sword-like, longs to shine in use [and] not be left to rust.’

“His life, Kane-Berman himself said, was really about opposition to the abuse of power and how its misuse hurt the most defenceless people. A clear memory was coming down to breakfast at the age of 14 to read about the Sharpeville Massacre in the Rand Daily Mail, and of how as a consequence of Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg Ambrose Reeves’ efforts to challenge the official account of the shooting, his parents then took in the Bishop’s son, Nicholas, his classmate, after the Reeves family had received death threats, making it untenable for the boy to remain at home.

“Kane-Berman recalled that while there were not many liberals at St John’s among the boys, this was ‘not true of the staff and least of all the headmaster Deane Yates’ who gave him some of his earliest experience of formal political resistance in making him chairman of the St John’s African Education Fund.”

At Wits, John had been a leader in Nusas — the National Union of South African Students — but he supported black students like Steve Biko when they decided to break away from Nusas in order to establish their own organisation, Saso, the South African Students Organisation. They had taken this action following Rhodes University’s refusal to allow integrated dining facilities for the delegates to Nusas’ national gathering taking place at that university.

Labour and unions

After he had returned to South Africa from Oxford, following a research stint with the SA Institute of Race Relations, and an offer to join the Rand Daily Mail, John Kane-Berman instead joined the Financial Mail, the country’s authoritative journal of business and public affairs. For his time there, the publication was led by its redoubtable editor, George Palmer. But, rather than becoming a reporter who might cover the country’s roiling political battles among white politicians or business developments or debacles, John embraced the labour and unions beat he was given. This topic was still something of an orphan step-child, in comparison to the many other political and economic areas regularly covered by that periodical. 

But, in his hands, he became the periodical’s key reporter, analyst and observer of a rapidly evolving landscape as black trade unions were again legally allowed to organise and build their membership across the country’s economic sectors. Because of his position, he had a prime seat to witness how the country’s economy (and, soon enough, its politics, too) was changing as the weight and influence of the unions were shifting the power equation across the nation. Those changes were also central to the creation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. Back in 1976, while at the Financial Mail, as his first of four books, Kane-Berman had written his influential volume on the recent Soweto Uprising, entitled, “Soweto: Black Rebellion, White Reaction.”

Cape liberal tradition

Meanwhile, still running in the background of Kane-Berman’s thinking, were the lingering intellectual influences of the much older Cape liberal tradition as well. Key among those was support for the qualified, colour-blind voting franchise for all South Africans (a position that was increasingly eviscerated following the creation of the Union of South Africa, and then eventually crushed by the subsequent rise of Afrikaner nationalism). Those influences also co-existed with a modernised version of John Stuart Mill-style economic liberalism.

As Kane-Berman had written in his memoir, Between Two Fires, “[B]ut our starting point was the property rights of the poor. In 1776, the same year in which the Americans proclaimed the God-given and ‘unalienable’ rights of man, Adam Smith wrote the following in The Wealth of Nations:

“ ‘The property which every man has is his own labour. As it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this… in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him.’

“What flows from this moving passage is that without capital or education, the poor have nothing to exploit but their own willingness to work. Yet South Africa’s industrial relations system denies them this opportunity. We condemn slavery because we don’t think any man should be able to confiscate another man’s labour. But then we pass laws restricting his right to sell their labour. Either way he earns no money…”

For John Kane-Berman, these ideas pulled together in a strenuous defence of the principles of equality and fairness under the law, a thorough-going support for free speech, a defence of the security of property, and a belief that, ultimately, economic growth would be the best way to advance those deeply disadvantaged by race and class. 


Crucially, for John Kane-Berman, there was his belief that apartheid was doomed to failure over the long run because of the pressing need to include more and more black workers fully into the modern economy, and to ensure they had the skills needed for that rather than that iniquitous limitation on them as “hewers of wood and haulers of water” — despite those stale political arguments about racial separation that continued to hamstring change for many whites. Such views, in turn, helped him decide to oppose economic sanctions, despite the political goal for its proponents, because sanctions would just bring great economic suffering to actual workers. Moreover, if they were effective enough, they would ruin the economy as well.

As I wrote in a review of his memoir when it was published, “Kane-Berman’s reporting on labour issues also clearly shaped his world view more broadly. Observing the growing impact of unions on business, and the rise of a black, urban, unionised working (and even nascent middle) class, Kane-Berman insisted that economic growth — accompanied by the absorption of black South Africans into the better paying, more skilled rungs of the ladder of the formal economy — would be the path to changing South Africa’s economy, and thus its politics, not sanctions.

“As Kane-Berman wrote about that change later (just as he had made the point repeatedly in his writing still earlier), ‘In a paper I delivered in Zurich in 2003 I argued that in earlier years business had been “content to play along with apartheid”. It had, however, become more critical as apartheid got in the way of doing business.’ This equation became the core of Kane-Berman’s thinking on the recreation of South Africa.

I had continued, “Thus the invisible hand of economics was, in Kane-Berman’s way of looking at it, the implacable machinery of history that would eventually set the country on a new path and out of the apartheid straitjacket, much more effectively than any other potential mechanism. And such a position found him becoming a leading opponent of the increasingly severe economic and trade sanctions regimen South Africa faced in the final decades of the apartheid era. His position was clearly not totally popular with the left, but it was entirely consistent with his belief in the magic — or effectiveness — of an economy increasingly unfettered by those older racial prescriptions and arbitrary race barriers.”

SA Institute of Race Relations

Following his years with the Financial Mail, Kane-Berman then took on the leadership of the SA Institute of Race Relations in 1983. This organisation was the country’s most publicly visible, most venerable upholder of an alternative vision for the nation under constitutional and legal structures, in contrast to the racially tinged morass apartheid was continuing to lead it into. But by taking over the SAIRR in 1983, he had become its head at an especially tricky time in its history.

Unquestionably, its yearly reports continued to deliver an unblinking statistical abstract and yearly report card on the nation’s economic, social, and political health — and its corresponding political, social, and economic disfigurement. This annual publication and its extraordinary comprehensiveness gave the SAIRR national and international cachet, well beyond its organisational size. Libraries and research centres around the world relied upon it for both basic data and deeper context for understanding and interpreting the South African condition. In addition, there was its authoritative reference library, as well as a flow of other publications from the research section of the institute. They included reports on specific apartheid-era atrocities, analyses of proposed, pending, or enacted legislation, and so much more.

Among all these efforts, it also had an active cultural programme with productions of works by playwrights like Athol Fugard, a public lecture series that drew crowds on a wide range of topics, as well as serving as the organisational base for internationally supported university bursary programmes. It was also home for Operation Hunger — the feeding project crucial for providing nourishment to thousands of destitute people. That project employed one of Nelson Mandela’s daughters during his imprisonment.

By the time Kane-Berman took on the role of CEO for the institute, the SAIRR’s financial coffers were virtually bare. His most immediate task became rebuilding the body’s financial infrastructure — trimming what could be hived off or ended, and raising the funds needed to keep SAIRR’s core alive for the battles yet to be waged.

Liberal principles

Concurrently, Kane-Berman also determined that a key task for him was to tighten the focus of the institution around a defence of liberal principles in order to clarify and focus its funding efforts, even if this meant some disaffection on the part of some of its oldest and most loyal supporters. (As an organisation, it would not affiliate with the UDF, for example.)

All of this was occurring even as South Africa was moving towards great changes in the country’s political future. These events included the vote (among whites) to pursue negotiations for the country’s future; the unbanning of political parties — including the communists, the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress — and the release of political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela.

But such events also meant Kane-Berman’s institution’s political mission would be required to evolve beyond its relentless opposition to that older racial order and to become, instead, a principled critic and clear-eyed analyst of what was coming in its place.

As a statement of the Institute’s new tasks after the demise of apartheid, Kane-Berman had written:

“While running the Institute in the post-apartheid era I was variously accused of being right-wing, neo-liberal, neoconservative, or whatever. I was also described as one of the ‘old lefties’ who’d become ‘new righties’, people who read Paul Johnson, Thomas Sowell, PJ O’Rourke, Commentary and The Spectator (guilty on all counts). We ran one or two articles in Frontiers [an SAIRR publication] pointing out that the ‘right-wing slur’ was designed to cow people into silence, but it never worked with us. A columnist on the Cape Times wrote that the Institute’s ‘increasingly outspoken brand of liberalism under the leadership of John Kane-Berman has put it very much at odds with the ANC and its academic supporters’. This was true, and it didn’t bother me either. We knew that criticism from liberals would be especially resented because they had always been part of the broad anti-apartheid family, which would give our opinions more weight. But we shouldn’t feel too much self-pity if we got more than our fair share of criticism, because we handed out plenty ourselves.”

In the final chapter of his memoirs, Kane-Berman summed things up for the country’s future, when he wrote:

“The question now facing South Africa is whether the ANC can reform itself as the NP reformed itself. Does it have an FW de Klerk? Does it even have a John Vorster or a PW Botha? As this memoir has shown, they too played a role in dismantling apartheid. The NP was under immense pressure from all sides. The ANC is not — not yet anyway. Although pressure for Mr Zuma to resign has been growing following the strictures by the courts and the unceasing flow of reports of malfeasance on his part, there is little pressure for fundamental change in ANC policy.

“More than 50 years ago, when I joined the battle of ideas as a school-boy, the ruling party and prevailing ideology seemed monolithic, and impregnable. But they were not. The NP was compelled to abandon its own ideology. The ANC will have to do likewise. It will eventually have to liberalise economically, just as the NP had to liberalise. Even the communists in the ANC and the government will find themselves having to search for pragmatic solutions. The question is whether they can be prevented from doing more damage before they begin the retreat from revolutionary ideology into liberal pragmatism.”

One hopes that at least some of what Kane-Berman had hoped for in those closing words, written half a decade earlier, will come to fruition in the future for South Africa and in meeting its citizens’ hopes for better days to come. If so, then John Kane-Berman’s lifetime of dogged determination in advocating liberal values, come what may in the way of criticism towards him, will have served its purpose well. 

Farewell, John. DM

*  This article was updated at 1.30pm on 1 August 2022 to correct a quote attribution.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mark Loudon says:

    In the country of the blind… John saw things so clearly, and tried for so long to explain them to those who simply will not see. I’m struck, reading Tim Cohen’s “After the Bell” this evening, that others are shouting the same truth… at those who will not hear. As a nation we seem determined not to learn from the mistakes of others. We seem to believe that it must get better, simply because it’s inconceivable that it could get worse. But it can, and it probably will, because like the blind villagers in Wells’ short story, those in charge have no concept of sight, and no desire to be enlightened – only enriched. So they threaten those who question their hegemony and demand blind loyalty from those inside the tent. I’m sorry to lose you, John, but I’m glad you won’t be here to see what happens next.

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