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The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has long been regarded as one of the foremost guardians of liberal values in SA society. During the interwar years it promoted dialogue between the governments of the day and political organisations representing Africans, coloureds and Indians. After 1948, under the guiding hand of Muriell Horrell, it carefully and factually examined the policies and legislation of the apartheid government and assessed their impact.

From the early 1950s it began publishing its annual Survey of Race Relations, compiled from an extensive array of sources, which remain invaluable for historical enquiry. After 1994 the IRR continued to undertake important research and provide insightful assessments of government bills, policies, and direction. Even if one did not always agree with its conclusions, it remained a respected institution.

Today, things seem to be different. Increasingly 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. Rather than being an independent think-tank, it has aligned itself ever more closely with the DA, which itself is shifting from liberal to conservative. In recent weeks it has opted to stoke SA’s culture wars, launching attacks upon critical race theory and defending, and I quote, “the gun-owning rights of law-abiding citizens”. What Donald Trump did yesterday, apparently, the IRR will do tomorrow. What’s next: advocating the restriction of voting rights?

The research the IRR does is still of a high order. Its annual surveys provide a compilation of facts and figures, much of it gleaned from government sources, which remains unequalled. Sadly, however, the increasing politicisation of the IRR is likely to undo its reputation and undermine the reputation of its research for probity and the reliability. I wonder if other Business Day readers share my concerns.

Roger Southall, Cape Town

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