August 25, 2017

The man who kept the torch of South African liberalism alight

By Marian L. Tupy
Observing the Stalinist propensity to rewrite people and events in and out of history, and to distort historical facts to suit the Communist Party’s goals, British author George Orwell once famously quipped that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

There are very few fully-fledged communist regimes left in the world today, but communist parties – unlike their National Socialist intellectual cousins – still form a part of many a governing coalition.

Since 1994, South Africa has been run by a tripartite coalition consisting of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and two movements, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the African National Congress (ANC). The latter two have been gradually taken over by communists.

Over the past two decades, the South African comrades have been very busy rewriting the history of the struggle against apartheid. By trying to expunge liberal opposition to racial discrimination from the history books and monopolising the moral high ground in the fight for racial equality, the ANC hopes to secure a perpetual lock on power. Mercifully, a new book shines light on liberal efforts to bring about multi-racial democracy in South Africa, as well as the ongoing struggle to build a racially-blind and economically prosperous country.

John Kane-Berman’s memoir, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, which came out earlier this year, reflects on the career of one of the country’s preeminent writers, analysts and fighters for liberty.

As a gay man of (partly) Jewish heritage, Kane-Berman would have been at home on the far-left of South African politics. The National Party (NP), which ran South Africa between 1948 and 1994, was a movement inspired by Calvinist puritanism, while Jews were heavily over-represented in the leadership of the South African Communist Party.

Kane-Berman was not interested in identity politics. Instead, he spent his life searching for ways in which people of all colours and religions, as well as all personal and political preferences, could live alongside each other in peace and prosperity.

As such, he became a classical liberal, advocating for a free market economy and limited government, both of which were and are rejected by South Africa’s white and black nationalists – the two fires in the title of the memoir.

Kane-Berman was born in 1946 to a politically conscious family. His father, who loathed the NP and called its elected representatives “simply inhuman”, was the Chairman of the Torch Commando – an association of World War II veterans that attempted to prevent the NP from removing the Coloureds (mixed race South Africans) from the common voters’ roll in the Cape Province.

He was schooled at prestigious St John’s College in Houghton, a Johannesburg suburb represented for decades in the South African Parliament by the indomitable liberal MP Helen Suzman. He went to the University of the Witwatersrand, where, as a student leader, he led a protest against the government’s attempt to segregate racially-mixed English-speaking universities. He met Prime Minister, John Vorster, who berated Kane-Berman’s delegation as “little pink liberals.”

A Rhodes Scholarship and a stint at Oxford University followed. Always thirsty for knowledge, Kane-Berman joined both the Labour Club (to listen to Denis Healy) and the Conservative Association (to listen to Enoch Powell). He went to lectures by A.J.P. Taylor, A.J. Ayer and Isaiah Berlin, among others, and revelled in idyllic strolls though Magdalen College and Christ Church Meadows.

Kane-Berman’s academic career was cut short by the refusal of a vindictive NP officialdom to extend his passport, and so he returned to South Africa to rejoin the fight against apartheid in earnest. The year was 1971.

As a journalist for the Financial Mail, Kane-Berman wrote stories exposing the cruelties and absurdities of apartheid, and came close to being banished (i.e., prevented from exercising freedom of expression, travel and assembly) on a number of occasions.


It was during that time that he started developing his rather unconventional, if correct, view that South Africa’s expanding economy was a means towards racial integration. He saw that protection of white workers from black competition occasioned massive labor shortages. The government could either preside over economic stagnation or abandon workplace discrimination. The government chose the latter course and repealed the Colour Bar between 1973 and 1979.

New economic opportunities led to increased black urbanisation and enrichment. The wages of black South Africans skyrocketed (though they still lagging behind the white ones). Their new economic clout led to unionisation, which then snowballed into demands for political rights.

Far from exploiting the working class, as Communists and their fellow travellers maintained, capitalism had proved to be a catalyst to black emancipation. It is not for nothing that a succession of NP leaders roiled against “rootless capital” as a threat to white domination of South Africa.

Leaving a prodigious journalistic career behind, Kane-Berman took over as director of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) in 1983. Established in 1929, SAIRR was the country’s most prestigious liberal institution, committed, in equal measure, to racial integration and free market economics.

Unfortunately, the Institute was almost broke and Kane-Berman had the unenviable task of nursing it back to financial health. Fundraising was difficult, because most foreign donors refused to fund South Africa’s NGOs without the ANC’s imprimatur. But whereas the ANC wanted to bring the NP down through a combination of economic sanctions and violent confrontations, SAIRR was committed to growth and negotiations.

In thousands of opinion pieces, hundreds of studies and dozens of books, SAIRR courageously exposed the insanity and immorality of apartheid, but the uneasy relationship between the ANC and the Institute would persist to the present.

Just as the ANC was suspicious of all forms of liberalism, SAIRR was skeptical of the fullness of the ANC’s conversion from a Stalinist movement committed to a one-party state and socialism, to a governing party at ease with free markets and a pluralistic society. That scepticism proved to be correct after the ANC’s assumption of power in 1994.

Over the last two decades, the ANC has gradually undermined checks and balances that were devised by the country’s 1996 Constitution. It has created a client support base that thrives on corruption and nepotism. And, after a few years when it took government and delivery of public services seriously, the ANC today seems committed to little else than self-enrichment and remaining in power through cynical exploitation of racial resentments. Throughout that time, SAIRR remained steadfast in speaking truth to power.

The ANC has long since given up on improving the lives of ordinary people. Instead, it has turned to propaganda, which lionises the ANC’s role in ending apartheid, while belittling the efforts of other black political parties, like Inkatha, and white liberals. Kane-Berman’s memoir is, therefore, a welcome contribution to the literature dealing with the history of South Africa in the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the new millennium.

In 2013, Kane-Berman stepped down as head of SAIRR, although he continues to write for a variety of South African outlets. He lives in Johannesburg with his partner of 45 years, Pierre Roestorf. Let us hope that his intellectual engagement with politics and economics in South Africa continues for many years to come.

This first appeared in CapX.