The Institute of Race Relations is on the same long, hard path as it always was — the path of classical liberalism - Daily Maverick

7 September 2021 - It was a pleasure to read J Brooks Spector’s comments on the Institute of Race Relations (“A window into the proud history of the SA Institute of Race Relations — and its sometimes perplexing new path,” Daily Maverick 26 August 2021).

Terence Corrigan
It was a pleasure to read J Brooks Spector’s comments on the Institute of Race Relations (“A window into the proud history of the SA Institute of Race Relations — and its sometimes perplexing new path,” Daily Maverick 26 August 2021).

His contribution is the latest in a recent spate of critiques and criticisms of the institute, but unlike many of our detractors — including in Daily Maverick — he shows some understanding of (and interest in) our history, work and mission. It invites a considered and respectful response.

Spector feels that the institute is, if not losing its way, then at least meandering off the path on which it built its reputation. As the heading of the piece puts it, the institute is on a “perplexing new path”. “In recent years,” he writes, “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.”

We accept this criticism as a mark of honour. There is also nothing new in it.

Institute of Race Relations ‘agenda’

Some years ago, I was interviewed on radio, and in an apparent gotcha moment, my interlocutor demanded to know about our “agenda”. The answer is simple, carried on our website and was (when we had physical premises) displayed prominently in our offices: “We stand for classical liberalism — 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.” That is what animates our work. It is not always well received.

For most of our history we have stood outside “broadly accepted South African ideas” — or at any rate, ideas which are presumed to be so owing to their influence. The idea of a non-racial future was significantly outside what apartheid-era officialdom considered acceptable, and, for that, a number of our publications were banned and we were investigated by the Schlebusch Commission (parts of its report about the nefarious influence of some within the institute take on a tone that would not be unfamiliar to anyone who has followed our contemporary critics).

At the same time, we refused to buckle under the considerable moral pressure to accept, if not endorse, the conduct and objectives of the liberation movement. Many in the broad liberal community were willing to overlook very troubling phenomena in the interests of liberation — which our former colleague Jill Wentzel described in her book The Liberal Slideaway. The late Allister Sparks wrote in 1991 that liberals needed to “go the whole hog” and that their only role was to build bridges with the ANC. Here too, we were happy to be out of sync.

This is the approach we carried into the post-1994 era. We celebrated the transition to democracy and then turned to the work of promoting a free, non-racial and prosperous society — in line with our values. Our former CEO, John Kane-Berman, puts it thus: “Post 1994, I got the impression that what irritated many diplomats is that we remained outside the mainstream: they were part of a mainstream that turned a blind eye to many unsavoury aspects of the ANC, but we did not. For a very long time after 1994, diplomats, business, NGOs, and media were part of a mainstream that looked at the ANC through rose-tinted spectacles. Not us.”

And from this came a willingness to take positions that were out of sync with what was broadly accepted (or at least dominant in policy circles) in South Africa. An early example was the draft Non-Profit Bill of 1995, which would have created extensive latitude for the government to interfere in the management and operation of NGOs. This was withdrawn thanks to pressure from the IRR and others, though it was enlightening that a number of other democracy-oriented organisations could not be persuaded to join us in our stand. One wonders what the civil society landscape would have looked like if we had not done so.

Labour regime

We also opposed the emerging labour regime, the growing body of race-based legislation and the politicisation of the state, and took stances outside the accepted conventional wisdom on any number of other issues. Among other things, this was premised on our analysis that these measures would undermine growth and keep South Africa’s poor out of the job market. Positions like these regularly brought down a chorus of opprobrium. The present-day barrage of accusations against us mirrors the “New Right” appellation that our critics threw at us in the 1990s.

By the way, my own association with the institute began at this time. I entered what were then its offices in De Korte Street on 2 February 1997 as a novice researcher. For what it’s worth, one thing I took away from this part of my life was just how shallow and contrived so much “debate” in South Africa is.

For me, the seminal moment was when my colleague Anthea Jeffery produced a meticulously researched analysis of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, The Truth about the Truth Commission. (As it happens, I was rather more sympathetic to the TRC than the institute as a whole…). It ignited a firestorm of criticism with all manner of journalists and intellectuals damning it while failing to offer any substantive refutation. By my recollection, no more than two of the dozens of attacks even tried to engage with the substance of her work.

Many couldn’t spell her name correctly. Some baldly claimed not to have read the document, and that they had no intention of doing so, but attacked it anyway. One prominent political commentator promised to do a full review in due course. Two decades later, I am still waiting. It was a low point for public debate in South Africa. Our political culture needs to do a great deal better.

Given the course that South Africa has taken, we at the institute believe that our warnings were well and presciently made and that the country would have done well to heed them.

And if “broadly accepted South African ideas on economics or governance” should be taken to mean state-centric “development”, intrusive government, shrinking property rights, heavy-handed labour legislation, cadre deployment and race-based policy, then we stand enthusiastically and unapologetically apart. We would argue that it is precisely this foetid milieu of choices that has had no small role in producing the malaise in which the country finds itself.

US right wing

This also makes Spector’s concluding recommendations somewhat incongruous. The IRR, he says, should focus on addressing “grave national challenges”, rather than the “fevered preoccupations of US right-wing propagandists and polemicists”.

It is precisely those national challenges that our work addresses. Our research and data-gathering function continues apace. Spector mentions the South Africa Survey — this continues proudly to be produced by our excellent team. As someone who worked on a few editions of Survey in the 1990s, I see no evidence that its quality has in any way been compromised. Our information base is as solid as ever it was.

Our analytical and advocacy work follows from it. Economic growth and confronting South Africa’s unemployment crisis have been constant themes for decades. In August 2020, for example, we published Growth & Recovery: A Strategy to #GetSAWorking, which contained implementable recommendations to raise annual GDP growth to 7% by the end of the decade. This is far from the only such study.

My own work over the past few years has focused on property rights, their importance to South Africa’s future and the threats to them. We have argued steadily that the expropriation without compensation agenda is a major disincentive to investment — local and foreign — and stands foursquare against a prosperous future. Tinkering with the Bill of Rights to do so, even as no one less than the President has said that it is unnecessary, sets a dreadful precedent for constitutional governance. It also sets South Africa up for a renewed round of State Capture.

That being said, we have also advanced proposals to get land reform and rural development moving — Reaching the Promised Land: An alternative to the report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture, published in September 2019.

We advocate replacing the failed Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment model with one emphasising economic expansion and targeting socioeconomic disadvantage — Economic Empowerment of the Disadvantaged (EED). This has been the subject of a number of reports over the years.

This is in addition to numerous other studies on matters as diverse as electoral reform, civil liberties, LGBTQI+ rights, water provision, mining, healthcare and education. What we are not going to do is play court jester to the powers that be, “helping” them to carry out their plans “better”, since we simply do not believe that most of these can work — not least because of the nature of the state and its incumbent rulers that exist in actuality. Leave aside any normative considerations, South Africa lacks a state capable of executing any of this competently. The developmental state, for example, is a delusion.

Each of these research papers and policy proposals speaks directly to those challenges that Spector encourages us to devote our energies to. Actually, Spector should be familiar with our approach, as he conducted an interview with our outgoing CEO, Dr Frans Cronje, published in Daily Maverick on 8 October 2013: “Cronje speaks to some of the hot policy issues like land reform and BEE, and he argues that high growth is the real target to aim for, rather than simpler redistributionist policies. Similarly, when he discusses education, he argues that one of the most distressing statistics is the dreadfully low number of math and science-educated high school graduates — that, and the frightening number of unemployed young people in South Africa.”

That holds true today.

Critical race theory

We would also submit that Spector is mistaken in his reading of our stance on critical race theory (CRT). In this respect, he seems to believe that we have imported a talking point of the American Right into South Africa, setting up a big straw man where no real issue exists. It’s a charge made against us by others.

The institute has long recognised the power of ideas; they have been our currency since our founding. Ideas — or more accurately ideology — provide much of the explanation for why South Africa has come to the crisis it has and why no reform is likely. Whether or not CRT is an obsession among any faction in the US is of less importance than whether it is manifesting itself here.

It is, even if it might not always present itself under that name. Understand it as an intellectual discipline that essentialises race: racism is ever present, built into every structure of society, and conferring corresponding attributes on people on the grounds of their race. Elements of it have been on display since at least the Fallist protests — indeed, it provides a handy justification for racial ideology that existed beforehand, such as the imperative of demographic representivity in all things.

We have taken a specific interest in the phenomenon as it appears in schools under the guise of combating racism. We have been alerted to cases in which children have been separated by race to discuss typical CRT talking points, where texts and videos by recognised thinkers in the CRT field are recommended. How widespread this is, is unclear — we certainly hope it is limited and can be combated — but its presence cannot be denied.

In fact, acknowledgement of the growing stature of CRT is not confined to feverish Americanophile right-wingers. Consider this: “classical liberalism’s dismissal of race stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing approach in academe and public discourse where critical race theory places race as central to socioeconomic power relations in society. And this approach recognises systemic institutional racism to explain the exclusion of black persons from, for example, quality jobs and healthcare, or the exclusion from positive public representation.”

Note the description of CRT as the “prevailing approach in academe and public discourse”. This was written by Spector’s colleague at Daily Maverick, Marianne Merten, in a piece titled “False Construct? DA’s Trumpian turn on race issues”, published on 9 September 2020. One may, of course, take issue with her views, but they illustrate that CRT has its adherents who recognise and relish its reach. If CRT really is a “boutique” perhaps we can conclude that it is a boutique servicing a diverse and influential clientele — many of whom have a taste for its offerings.

For our part, we believe that CRT risks helping to reproduce race-based resentments, placing strain on interracial relationships and intruding into economic and social policy- and decision-making to the detriment of the country as a whole.  


Hence, in part, our campaign that racism is not the problem. We are not saying that racism is not a problem, still less that racism played no role in creating the battery of socioeconomic and political problems we wrestle with today. But what it draws attention to — successfully, it seems — is that racism is nowhere near the priority that so much public commentary assumes. Commendably, Spector seems to understand how polls are conducted — more than can be said for some of our other detractors — and concedes that this may well be correct. This matters.

It matters for how particular problems are approached. Does the economy need more space to grow, or should whatever growth it experiences be targeted at specific beneficiary groups? Is it important to ordinary South Africans whether or not their children are taught by teachers of a given hue? Is South Africa really seething with racial hatred, or do its people take a pragmatic and accommodating view of the realities of a multiracial society? The choices we make will influence the policies that become possible.

Our own view is that history notwithstanding, most South Africans hold what might be called moderate views, accepting their fellow South Africans, and prioritising their material wellbeing and the prospects for their children.

And since Spector helpfully invokes polling from other sources to support our findings, allow me to do likewise. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s 2019 SA Reconciliation Barometer reported that just shy of 73% of the respondents to its survey believed that “reconciliation is impossible as long as we continue using race categories to measure transformation”. This is a sizeable majority, and is around the same as those stating that “reconciliation is impossible as long as people who were disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor” (73%), and “as long as gender-based violence continues in our society” (72%). Interestingly, it is larger than the proportion who say reconciliation is impossible “as long as we do not address racism in our society” (66%) and smaller than those who see reconciliation as being compromised by corruption (84%) and the exploitation of social divisions by political parties (74%).

Incidentally, as this response was being written, Business Maverick ran an article by associate editor Sasha Planting about the unemployment crisis. The whole thing is worth reading, but the conclusion is particularly powerful: “Every decision made (by the best possible people in the job) should be made on the basis of whether it will have a positive outcome for job creation — nothing else. Because we are damned if we don’t.” Just so.

Spector is quite right to raise concerns about the durability of democracy under South Africa’s current stressful conditions — I have in my work also referred to polling that shows a willingness to surrender democracy and freedom for socioeconomic upliftment and security. It is a seductive siren call, and a deeply concerning one. Perhaps what we might reluctantly wish to conclude from the progression of national trauma that we have experienced over the past decade (and the past few months) is testimony to the very real risk that South Africa’s future as a free society, a constitutional democracy and even a functioning state, is at risk.

We at the institute are committed to preventing that failure. This is the path we have trodden in the past, and the path we choose now. There is nothing perplexing about it. 

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the IRR