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Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

I was a member of the collective that wrote the recent letter stating that the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has betrayed its historical legacy (IRR betrays the legacy of its founders”, September 20).

I will not make any secret of the fact that there was some resistance to inclusion of the reference the letter makes to the IRR's annual survey retaining its integrity today, despite the overall political direction it has taken.

One prominent academic, who has written extraordinarily knowledgeably and sympathetically about liberalism under apartheid, stated bluntly that he would not touch the survey with a barge pole, because its publication by the IRR meant it simply could not be trusted. However much that reaction may have been wrong-headed, it was widespread, and the IRR needs to seriously question why.

It is this need for the IRR to self-reflect that makes the reply to our letter by John Endres (“IRR holds the liberal line against the Left”, September 21) so revealing. Its content and argument - that the IRR is a lonely and courageous champion of liberal virtues besieged simultaneously from the Left and the Right - is thoroughly predictable. In fact, Endres’ letter deals only with perceived threats from the Left, past and present, and cites no discussion of threats from the Right at all. Perhaps this is because there are none, for as Endres knows well from the time the IRR was hobnobbing with Inkatha during the 1980s and into the 1990s, through to its present association with bodies such as the Atlas Foundation and Heritage Foundation in the US, it is highly regarded in conservative quarters.

In contrast, the IRR’s critics are portrayed, if not as disgruntled former employees and members, as unthinking running dogs of the ANC, intent on “shepherding the institute into the Left’s hegemonic field”. Of course, he may be right. Perhaps, indeed, signatories to our letter such as the distinguished international jurist and former president of the IRR John Dugard, former president of the Black Sash and Truth & Reconciliation commissioner Mary Burton, and Bishop Michael Nuttall, are actually covert Stalinists intent on furthering the national democratic revolution. But on balance, I rather think not.

The IRR would do well to give careful consideration to the character of the signatories to our letter. Overwhelmingly, they come from the sort of constituency you would think would be lending strong support to a body such as the IRR. They are lawyers, professionals, civil society activists, researchers and academics, many of them eminent in their respective fields, constitutionalists to the core. Politically, they are quite a mix. Virtually all are highly critical of the way the ANC has run the country, both politically and economically, since 1994. So why is it that so many of them have left the IRR in recent years?

My personal guess is that the fundamental problem with the IRR is that it has lost its sense of moral outrage. It was this that drove people like Ellen Hellmann, Fred van Wyk and Muriel Horrell. They were horrified not just at the brutal discriminations and humiliations heaped on the black majority of the country’s citizens by apartheid, but also by the desperate poverty, malnutrition, hunger and unemployment and sheer desperation among them that it caused. That anger seems to have all but disappeared within the IRR, replaced only by ideological zealotry and hatred of the ANC.

There may be considerable purchase in the IRR’s market-based critiques of ANC economic policies.  A strong argument can be made that they are a contributory cause of SA’s present economic desolation. However, there are plenty of other bodies, such as the Centre for Development Enterprise, putting forward those arguments, and frankly doing a better job than the IRR. Rather than its present chosen role as a free enterprise think-tank, the IRR would do us a far greater service by honouring its legacy and specialising in delving into the parlous conditions of the poor and historically disadvantaged.

The IRR is free to proceed on its present way. Yet it should be sufficiently self-aware to grasp that it is behaving ever more like an updated version of the United Party, roundly criticising the government of the day and then veering to the Right whenever it wants to garner support. Unless it uses the opportunity of the present debate to query why today it has aroused such antipathy, and lost so much influence in present-day SA, it will remain on a journey to nowhere.

Roger Southall, Via email

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