Image: 123RF
Image: 123RF

We write as current and former members of the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and other concerned citizens to express our disquiet at the direction the IRR has taken and its current role in SA.

The IRR was once a major player in the human rights movement in SA. According to its own historian, Ellen Hellmann (The South African Institute of Race Relations 1929-1979: A short history), it was “specifically established to promote interracial goodwill and to conduct investigations bearing upon race relations”.

“The two main objectives of its constitution, adopted in 1932, read: (a) To work for peace, goodwill and practical co-operation between the various sections of the populations of SA. (b) To initiate, support, assist and encourage investigations that may lead to greater knowledge and understanding of the racial groups and of the relations that subsist or should subsist between them.”

Research in the field of race relations was central to the work of the IRR. Over the years the IRR’s annual survey and reports made an enormous contribution to greater awareness about the social and economic conditions in which black, coloured and Indian South Africans lived. Its research provided detailed data on a host of matters, such as social welfare, wage levels, cost of living, child malnutrition, transport costs and conditions in the so-called African reserves and homelands.

It made detailed submissions to official commissions, it was regularly consulted and its research cited by universities and other bodies, international as well as national, wanting reliable information on SA. Today, all that is left of that legacy is the annual survey, which remains a valuable source of statistics and data drawn from such bodies as Statistics SA, the SA Reserve Bank, government departments and international bodies — but only because they are published without comment.

Under apartheid the IRR was a leading voice in civil society. Prior to the creation of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights in the 1970s, it was one of the leading advocates of human rights, working in close association with bodies that opposed apartheid, such as the SA Council of Churches and the Christian Institute.

Its committees and leadership included prominent South Africans such as Ezekiel Mahabane, William Nkomo, Stanley Mogoba, archbishop Denis Hurley, Alan Paton and Helen Suzman; Mahabane, Nkomo and Mogoba serving as presidents in the 1970s and 1980s. Ina Perlman launched Operation Hunger from the IRR in 1981. Nor should we forget that Desmond Tutu, then bishop of Johannesburg, also worked closely with the institute.

It was simultaneously activist and informative in its opposition to apartheid and injustice, and played a different role in society to its present successor, which has become an entirely different enterprise. Its work was so effective that it was investigated by the apartheid government’s Schlebusch commission in the early 1970s. The IRR’s objectivity and credibility were built on its accountability to regional committees and an alliance of organisations of civil society, including churches and the Black Sash.

In the 1980s, the IRR underwent a major change in direction. It ceased to work with or concern itself with community-based organisations and civil society, allowing those who led it to promulgate their ideas without checks or balances. The IRR was one of only three organisations (with the Free Market Foundation and the Gauteng Chamber of Commerce & Industry) that approached the Constitutional Court in 1995 to object to the inclusion of social and economic rights in the Bill of Rights of the 1996 constitution (their objection being rejected by the Constitutional Court in its first certification judgment).

We do not dispute the right of individuals to promote their own political and economic beliefs, but note that the IRR fosters a “free-market, small state” agenda while representing itself as a human rights research organisation devoted to impartial fact-based analysis. This testifies to its open association with northern libertarian groups such as the Atlas Network and the Heritage Foundation, the latter supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns.

Furthermore, although the IRR’s founding constitution “explicitly excluded the institute from identifying or associating itself with any organised political party”, the IRR has increasingly identified itself with the DA. Through its news website, the Daily Friend, and its @Liberty policy bulletins, the IRR has obfuscated or denied the role of humans in causing climate change, attacked SA medical scientists, offered unscientific advice about Covid-19 vaccines and other mitigation measures, and attacked analyses of the societal production of racism and racial inequality as inherently “race essentialist”.

Furthermore, in a society where about 30 people were shot in recent civilian conflicts in Durban, it has objected to proposed government legislation tightening access to firearms. Instead, it equates “gun rights” with self-defence and personal property rights, despite the Constitutional Court (along with a majority of other countries) having ruled that gun ownership is a privilege and not a right.

These issues reflect the concerns of the board of an institute which, nearly three decades after the end of apartheid, remains engaged primarily with the interests of an overwhelmingly white, elite, and “big business” constituency.

The institute prioritises its own ideological predilections, rather than devoting itself to the betterment of race relations. Despite this, the IRR claims to be representing the concerns of all South Africans and that its policies and campaigns continue its human rights legacy.

Any ideas that do not serve the interests of unfettered free market economics are framed as an assault on individual freedoms, human rights and inequality. Through the Daily Friend’s opinion columns, and in its campaigns and reports, the IRR uses misinformation and hyperbole to foster fear, confusion and conflict rather than logical and constructive public dialogue based in solid empirical research.

The Daily Friend is not a member of the Press Council of SA, and hence not subject to its jurisdiction nor the media code of ethics. The IRR’s present direction is contrary to the original core aims of the institute as recorded by Hellmann, that the IRR “believed in the pursuit of the truth as a value in itself” and did not pursue its work with “a preconceived programme nor ready-made policy”.

“It believed that the systematic seeking out of facts relating to the conditions which determine the quality of life of the disadvantaged groups in SA would increase public awareness and promote inter-racial understanding, an understanding without which there could be no peaceful future for SA.”

It actively acknowledged the central role racial inequality played in economic and other spheres. The IRR’s excellent body of work in previous decades is a testament to the dedication and integrity of the many researchers who worked for it and upheld its ideals.

We believe the IRR’s current approach betrays the legacy of its founders and does a disservice to the people of SA. We urge the IRR’s members and its funders to call it to account and support work that upholds the values of truth and justice and promotes the interests of the most vulnerable in our society. If it does not, it is time for the IRR to change its name and eschew any mention of or reference to the original human rights organisation that it no longer represents.

Concerned Citizens

John Aitcheson; Samantha Ashman; Emily Bacon (née Dyer); Omar Badsha; Di Bishop/Oliver; Andrew Boraine; Jeremy Boraine; Heidi Brookes; John Brookes; Katherine Brookes; Heather Brookes; David Brookes; Debbie Budlender; Geoff Budlender SC; Mary Burton, Coco Cachalia; David Cooper; Hugh Corder; Bishop Geoff Davies; Kate Davies; John de Gruchy; Rosemary de Waal; Uma Dhupelia Mesthrie; John Dugard; Jackie Dugard; Dorothy Dyer; Rob Dyer; George Ellis; David Everatt; Ilse Fischer Wilson; Drew Forrest; Ela Gandhi; Michael Gardiner; Nazim Gani; Keith Gottschalk; Adrian Guelke; Peter Hain; David Hemson; Douglas Irvine; Peter Kallaway; Joan Kerchoff; Rosalie Kingwill; Mary Kleinenberg; Horst Kleinschmidt; Sue Krige; Merle Lipton; John MacRobert; Anne Mager; Itumeleng Mahabane; Anwar Suleman Mall; Andrew Manson; Dale McKinley; Kirti Menon; Christopher Merret; Rajend Mesthrie; Sibongiseni Mkhize; Mavuso Msimang; Lawson Naidoo; Bill Nasson; Amuzweni Ngoma; Noor Nieftagodien; Bishop Michael Nuttall; Nic Paton; Anthony Paton; Pam Paton-Mills; Devan Pillay; Barney Pityana; Max Price; Beverley Roos-Muller; Alan Rycroft; Bridget-Nomonde Scoble; Crain Soudien; Roger Southall; Andrew Spiegel; Jane Tempest; Karl von Holdt; David Welsh; Michelle Williams; Francis Wilson; Lindy Wilson; Tim Wilson; Nan Yeld

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