Sociologist Roger Southall writes “IRR now a right-wing agitator” in Business Day. After reminiscing about the apparent golden years of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) before and right after 1994, Southall claims that “the IRR has moved to the right and seems to have switched from the defence of the rights of people to those of the rights of property.” He implies that, alongside the Democratic Alliance, the IRR is shifting from liberalism to “conservatism” because of their contemporary focus on property and firearm rights. This Southall sees as just a stone’s throw away from undemocratic restrictions on franchise.
During 2019, I undertook an intensive study of the history of the liberal movement in South Africa. This was eventually published in the peer-reviewed journal of the Fraser Institute in Canada, Econ Journal Watch, as part of a special series on liberal movements around the world. I encourage anyone with an interest in South African history and the history of this particular movement to read “The Liberal Tradition in South Africa, 1910-2019”.
The ostensible “shift” of the IRR from liberal to conservative, or from left to right, is a clear fabrication. In fact, the IRR has remained remarkably consistent and, if anything, has become more liberal than it was in the early years. Charles Loram, a co-founder of the IRR in 1929, for instance, held quite paternalistic views about race relations that would be unacceptable today.
Above all, however, Southall’s chronology is out of whack. If there ever was a shift in the ideology of the IRR, it certainly was not around 1994.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the IRR was accused by the left of being “capitalist”. The division between radical progressives and so-called “conservative” liberals had by this point already begun.
In 1958, the IRR sponsored the publication of what I regard as one of the most important books on the nature of Apartheid: Civil Liberty in South Africa by Edgar Harry Brookes (at one time President of the IRR) and JB MacAulay. Among its wealth of important information characterising the Apartheid state’s denial of freedom to black South Africans, the authors write (and condemn) in the chapter “Economic Freedom” in detail how property rights and freedom of economic activity were denied to blacks by the State. The book concludes with the authors writing:
“Ultra-radical [i.e., ‘left-wing’] authoritarianism is no more acceptable than semi-fascist [i.e., ‘right-wing’] authoritarianism. Whether a privileged minority or a majority holds the reins of government, the State should be limited to its proper functions, and the liberties of the individuals and social groups within the body politic preserved.”
In his 1984 book, White Power and the Liberal Conscience: Racial Segregation and South African Liberalism, 1921-60, Paul B Rich throughout refers to the IRR as a “conservative liberal” organisation, as distinguished from “left-” or “radical liberals” like Margaret Ballinger. The IRR has never been revolutionary and has trusted in the sustainability of gradual change in favour of liberty, as opposed to the violent means adopted by other opponents of Apartheid. That it opposed the authoritarian proposals of leftist opponents of Apartheid should be evident from Brookes’ and MacAulay’s work. John Kane-Berman, too, would later condemn revolutionary violence.
In 1995, Jill Wentzel in her book documenting the leftist slideaway of liberals in South Africa into political correctness during the 1980s, The Liberal Slideaway, named the IRR as one of the liberal organisations that has not abandoned its liberal roots. In fact, in 1999, the IRR and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation co-hosted a conference and co-published a book about the toxicity of political correctness then infecting broader South African society.
The contemporary “shift” by the IRR, in other words, is a mischaracterisation. If there had been a shift, it was likely very early in the organisation’s history, because at least since the mid-1950s, the IRR had condemned leftist radicalism, as it does today, just as it condemned Apartheid. The organisation has always had more liberal and less liberal people involved, and like all membership-based entities has had slight changes in its identity over the years. The IRR’s dedication to individual liberty, understood to include economic liberty, has however not been shaken to any notable extent.
And it is on this conceptualisation of individual liberty that one must further question Southall’s bona fides in this discourse.
To treat property rights and firearms rights as somehow separate from individual rights is to completely misunderstand the concepts at play. An individual without the right to freely own and alienate property, or the right to defend themselves in a country with no police service whatsoever to speak of, is not an individual with recognised rights. Black South Africans were denied property rights and that, quite directly, condemned them to a century of poverty.
Black South Africans were also progressively disarmed by successive regimes, mostly prior to the unification of South Africa. Gideon Joubert documents in Paratus these successive clampdowns by governments on black firearm ownership. He also mentions a letter by John Tengo Jabavu to the Cape Argus about a disarmament law. Jabavu wrote:
“From the very outset the natives knew that it has been the intention of the present government to disarm every black man, merely because he is black, to gain popularity from a section of the colonists, whose aim it is to reduce the natives to non-entity for its own selfish ends. Let the press, politicians and constituencies guard against this despotism.”
Jabavu’s son, Davidson, was one of the co-founders of the IRR.
The IRR has never cowed to political correctness. It did not back off when the Apartheid government’s intellectuals accused it of “socialism” and it will not back off when the Transformationist government’s intellectuals accuse it of “conservatism”.
That is, after all, the lot of the liberal: The left thinks we are “right” and the right thinks we are “left”. This does not place us in the centre, but on a completely different political paradigm that is completely incomprehensible to statist ideologues like Southall. This political paradigm, to the shock of many, simply observes that people are inborn with an entitlement to be free, and this inborn entitlement nobody may take away.
* Note: The author, Martin van Staden, is a member of the Council of the Institute of Race Relations. This article was however not prompted by the IRR.