The full text of the speech by Institute of Race Relations CEO Frans Cronje at Stellenbosch University, 13 March 2019

Ahead of this event a man wrote a letter to Business Day in which he implored the university to ban this event in order to silence us. The ideas that we would express here tonight were so unacceptable that they should not be heard at all. A newspaper took a similarly hostile line. In his brilliant rebuttal published in The Citizen newspaper earlier this month, my colleague Michael Morris wrote as follows:

“Today, confronting and overcoming South Africa’s mounting crises requires our society to find its courage and its voice. But that will not happen unless we defend the space for the widest range of opinions and an authentic conversation about our choices as a society. No excuse and no apology is needed to champion, and demonstrate, a commitment to doing so.

Those who only defend freedom of speech for opinions they agree with (and applaud when those whose opinions they don’t like are shamed and muzzled) merely reveal just how tepid and insecure their convictions really are. They think they are right, but not with a conviction sufficient to risk putting their thinking to the test.

The trouble is, the cost is not theirs alone.

This has been understood among intellectuals for a very long time. One of the most economical expressions of it appears in John Milton’s famous defence of free speech of 1644 in which he warned that a “fugitive and cloistered virtue” deserved no praise. “What purifies us is trial,” he said, “and trial is by what is contrary.”

Trial, it’s fair to say, is not for intellectual weaklings. For them, banishment, censorship, public humiliation and the depleting silence is sufficient for them to think they have won. But they, too, will have lost.

No free society is unanimous. We could turn, here, to the 2000-year-old insight of the former African slave who observed: “So many men, so many opinions; to each his own a law.” If Terence’s Rome is tantalisingly remote from our 2019 South African setting, we have only to consult Twitter or the latest live-feed from Parliament to appreciate the endurance of his wisdom.

And all the history between imperial Rome and the digital age is an object lesson; societies that surrender control over what they think and say – condemn themselves to the despair of tyranny, strife, and failure. It always begins with accommodation, the nodding unanimity that stifles dissent, the tacit approval of someone else determining what is permissible for us to think and say.

We know this from our own history, a history that illuminates the importance of a now nearly century-old wisdom that crisply summarises the IRR’s stance on free speech.

It is contained in the dissenting opinion in the 1929 US Supreme Court appearance of implacable Hungarian pacifist Rosika Schwimmer, who was denied citizenship for refusing to swear that she would take up arms to defend her adopted home.

In that opinion, ageing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Union soldier in the Civil War, thrice wounded and not given to mewling pacifism, declared that there was no principle “that more imperatively calls for attachment than … the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate”.

Take the example just this past week of the vile, racist, violent, and sexist hounding of the journalist Karima Brown – hardly a champion of IRR positions – for expressing views that the EFF disagreed with. The nature of Brown’s hounding (she was apparently threatened with rape among other things) was another in a series of prominent warnings of how far the tide of silencing dissenting opinion has advanced across our society.   

Just think about that; to be raped for your opinion – and you realise that Morris got it spot on when he wrote, “It’s not the ideas that threaten us but the inverse, the shutting down of conversations that preserve openness and independent-mindedness”.

It is a threat that we will not hesitate to expose and I expressly invited Mr Bullard here in part to draw out that threat so that we could see it for what it is and from whence it comes – and thereby to expose it to the full glare of our critical scrutiny. Because, too often, as is the case at this university, it is academics, civil society activists, and journalists – as much as if not more than the State – who champion the silencing of opinion they do not want to hear. 

Countering these threats is what we do. 

Established in the 1920s, the IRR rose to become the most influential anti-apartheid think-tank in the world and forged its unique methodology of using rigorous analysis, face-to-face lobbying, and media pressure to get politicians, government officials, and business leaders to abandon bad policies and adopt those that would advance South Africa’s future as a free and open society. It has throughout that history advocated for the rights of individuals to make decisions about their own lives, families, and businesses, free from unnecessary government, political, and bureaucratic interference – and it does so here tonight.

That some of the ideas we articulate are heretical is true – and you will not hear them elsewhere, not because they do not exist, and not because they are not thought, but because many people are afraid to express them.   

In her The South African Institute of Race Relations 1929-1979: A short history, published in 1979, Ellen Hellmann said “the essence of the Institute’s work, trying to influence the minds of men, is by its very nature imponderable. Many believe that the effort has been meaningful….and derive comfort from the fact that proposals that appeared at first heretical when expounded on Institute platforms have become commonplaces today”. 

Our correspondent in Business Day argued that among the reasons this event should be banned is that it would play to “white fears of a dystopian future” in addressing questions such as whether the decline of our universities will be arrested – and suggesting that our country was on the verge of a catastrophe.  

White fears – you hear that a lot in the media. Let us test the idea:

  • Today less than half of young people have work – and on current trends will never work
  • There are now more people in welfare than in employment 
  • The quality of maths and science education in schools is rated at 128 out of 140 countries 
  • Roughly 5 of every 100 children will go on to pass maths in matric with a grade of 50%
  • Half a million of our fellow countrymen have been murdered since 1994 at a rate which is today 30 times higher than in most civilised societies 

Who are the people who suffer from these scourges? The whites? Black people do not suffer from violent crime? Unemployment is a white fear? No sir, it is not. Some white people are unemployed and thousands have been murdered, but across our society it is poor people, the majority of whom happen to be black, who carry the bulk of the burden of bad schools, failing universities, hopeless policing, and a laggard economy. There is no such thing as ‘white fears’ or ‘black fears’ – only the collective fear that our country is in no state to offer the majority of its citizens the chance of a safe, stable, and prosperous future. 

And on current trends there is little reason to believe that we are headed for such a future. In fact, I will tell you that we are headed in the wrong direction.  

Is that white pessimism – the cousin of white fear? No, it is not. It is the product of hard analysis of economic data.

  • Government debt levels have doubled over the past decade, the deficit again plumbs apartheid-era lows, and the state is fast running of money 
  • Even if Treasury forecasts are realised, South Africa remains an emerging market laggard in terms of rates of economic growth  
  • South Africa has created on average 100 000 net new jobs per point of GDP growth per year since 1994. To reduce the black unemployment rate to the white rate requires doubling the number of black people with jobs – or creating a million net new jobs per year for a decade. But the latest Treasury forecast suggests that we will be fortunate to reach 20% of that figure.   

Only a fool would think this was not a catastrophe in the making – not just from an economic perspective but also from a civil rights perspective. 

As the fiscal and political pressure builds, the ruling party displays ever more dangerous behaviour; it turns with ease to hate-filled racial nationalist rhetoric, it sides too comfortably with the worst pariah regimes the world has to offer; it proposes media tribunals and hate speech laws in order to ‘foster social cohesion’; in response to depressed economic conditions, it offers more state encroachment; there will be state-owned mining, and banking, and even pharmaceutical firms, poverty will be addressed via redistribution, historical injustices via expropriation, racial divisions via the stricter enforcement of racial quotas,  jobs will be created by stricter labour laws and higher minimum wages,  and its moves, now so swift, towards eroding the property rights that anchor human liberty in all free societies open the law to the further erosion of civil rights and the rule of law.  

Too many analysts try to rationalise or normalise this behaviour to the point that they would have us believe that what we see with our own eyes is not really happening; that there is nothing to be concerned about, it is all part of an elaborate ‘long game’ that ends with a ‘new dawn’. The argument goes something like this; ‘the State/ruling party only assaults property rights/racial minorities/conservative blacks/Western democracies/the market economy/freedom of speech and the rule of law in order to outwit those who would otherwise do so. And that in order to prevent such assaults you must support those leading the assaults, and even join in the assaults, because only if those now driving the assaults become even more powerful will they stop doing that which they are already so far advanced in doing. Give them a bigger electoral mandate therefore and the processes now in train will miraculously reverse themselves to produce a new dawn where property rights are secure, race and social relations are sound the private sector rebuilds the economy, and civil rights and the rule of law are secured.  

It is all quite, completely, and utterly mad. 

In his famous speech in Birmingham, in England, in 1968 the conservative MP Enoch Powell (whose 1959 speech on the Hola killings in Kenya would later be described ‘the strongest statement on principle about Britain’s relationship with Africa ever made in the House of Commons) said, “The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils”. The trouble he said was that “such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary” and that “people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: “If only,” they love to think, “if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen.” 

It is a sentiment we are confronted with every day. 

Powell went on to tell the following story, “A week ago I fell into conversation with a constituent, a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man…. After a sentence or two about the weather, he suddenly said: “If I had the money to go, I wouldn’t stay in this country…I have three children, all of them been through grammar school and two of them married now, with family. I shan’t be satisfied till I have seen them all settled overseas. In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

Join is in rejecting the vile black man/white man analogy and replace it instead with the ‘whip hand of the State’, and I can assure you that there are great numbers of South Africans, black and white, rich and poor, spread across the length and breadth of the country who fear for their futures and those of their children. Argue the point and we will show you polling data.

Powell continued by asking himself “How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation?”

How dare we do so tonight?

His answer he said is that, ‘’I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that his country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else. What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking…”

And the same is true in our country today. 

I travel very widely and am daily confronted by ordinary decent hard-working South Africans – black and white – who see through the faux confidence of the organised business community, express their disgust at the corruption and ineptitude of the ANC, their disappointment at the lack of courage of the DA, their revulsion at the racism and violence of the EFF, and their hope and desire that someone will speak for them and their aspirations to live in a country that is  prosperous and peaceful and where people are free to choose how they want to live.  

So we are here tonight to warn about catastrophe because we have no right not to do so. And even more so, compellingly more, because for a significant proportion of our fellow countrymen who do not have jobs, and homes, and prospects their lives are already a catastrophe – only a racist could deny it – and for moral reasons alone we are compelled to confront that fact and address it.  

In doing so we expose the watershed between those who will tell the truth about where our country finds itself and those who will lobby for the truth to be cowed into silence. But there is an even more important watershed between those who understand why this is the truth – a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid – and those who feign ignorance of the deeper reason for the problem. And that latter watershed is marked by a proper understating of the ideological currents that have shaped our country over the past 100 years. 

In explaining the ideology, our departure point, for the purposes of this evening, is in 1912 with the establishment of what will become the African National Congress.  Moderate and conservative relative to what was to come, the party will pass through the 1920s, and 1930s, even suspending some of its liberation demands in pursuit of supporting Smuts’ efforts in the Second World War. But 1948 would herald Smuts’ defeat and, as white South Africa hurtled towards apartheid, the ANC was hounded into the arms of the Soviets and the East Germans whose embrace would infuse the party with much hard-left ideology, particularly after the adoption in 1962 of the doctrine of National Democratic Revolution by the South African Communist Party, whose lobbying efforts would see the ANC adopt the doctrine at its conference at Morogoro in Tanzania in 1969.    

The doctrine of NDR was based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which held that the wealth of the colonial powers arose solely from their oppression and exploitation of the colonised. From this foundation, Lenin argued that the purpose of anti-colonial revolutions must always be to dispossess the coloniser – and then embrace communism – failing which the colonised could never be free. The SACP made this theory applicable to South Africa by developing the notion of ‘colonialism of a special type’ – to mean that both the coloniser and the colonised lived together inside the same country, into which the coloniser had become permanently integrated. But despite that integration, white/capitalist prosperity remained solely the result of the oppression and exploitation of the black majority, and indeed prolonged that poverty – and that the coloniser, despite his integration, would have to be dispossessed if the colonised were ever to be free. The ANC has annually recommitted to the NDR, right up to this year. 

Matters took a turn in Davos in 1991, when Nelson Mandela delivered an address in which he appeared to jettison such revolutionary dogma (the backstory is that he rewrote the paragraphs of the address prepared for him on economic policy – a great risk for him, as the ANC was yet to convene a major policy conference). 

He emerged from Davos to tell his party that Afro-socialist experiments had failed and that South Africa would pursue a more pragmatic path. That, in turn, set in motion the chain of events that would isolate the hard-left in the tripartite alliance and culminate in the Growth Employment and Redistribution, or GEAR, policy that sought to drive socio-economic upliftment through investment-driven growth. 

Matched with the good fortune of interest rates that were cut in half, cheap surplus electricity, relatively low household debt levels, and the commodity boom, South Africa under Mr Mbeki initially made some progress. The number of people with jobs doubled. Ten formal houses were built for every new shack being erected. The number of university students doubled. The murder rate was cut in half. The number of black buyers of suburban property rose to rival the number of white buyers. In some private schools, black enrolment in lower grades came to exceed white enrolment. Economic growth rose to average 5% between 1994 and 2007 (the first time it had done so for that number of years since 1970). Government debt levels halved and a budget surplus was recorded – something the ANC never received due credit or recognition for. Today there are more black than white households in the top monthly expenditure bracket recorded by StatsSA.

It is a lie to say that the IRR peddles pessimism. The IRR – alone, and in the face of great criticism – used its series of Hope Reports to publish research showing how by working together South Africans have done far more to improve their collective living standards than is commonly understood. And there were many, I can assure you, who tried to silence that opinion. 

Had we maintained the trajectory we were on in the years to 2007 we would have become a middle income society within 20 years with an unemployment rate of below 10%. 

But even as Mr Mbeki was driving a socio-economic recovery he was planting the seeds of its collapse. His cruel health policies killed hundreds of thousands (remember when you were not allowed to say that on the SABC) and saw life expectancy fall by 10 years; it was under his watch that the arms deal corruption set the precedent for the looting of the Gupta family, VBS bank, BOSASA and the many other horrors that lie waiting to be uncovered; it was during Mr Mbeki’s presidency, analysts forget, that South Africa first ran out of electricity; his Cabinet was instrumental in seeing merit give way to race in the civil service which in turn set up the collapse of so many government functions, and it was his own unconscionable diplomacy towards Zimbabwe that enabled the collapse of both the rule of law and the economy in that country – and marked South Africa’s departure as a foreign policy peer of liberal democracies.    

As Mr Mandela’s influence faded, Mr Mbeki would make two further, now politically fatal, blunders that later intersected to prematurely end his own political career. The first was to send the charismatic Jacob Zuma to wrest the rural Zulu nationalist vote from Inkatha, without appreciating that if Mr Zuma succeeded (where both Mbeki and Mandela had failed) he would come to inherit the mantle of Zulu nationalism and wield it as a weapon in the ANC – exactly as came to pass. The second was on HIV and AIDS. Here, Mr Mbeki’s missteps allowed the long-isolated Left within the ANC to regroup, fundraise, and develop platforms of influence around the AIDS pandemic that they later used to stunning effect to attack Mr Mbeki’s economic policy and to turn public and popular opinion against him.

Those two mistakes led to Mr Mbeki’s defeat at Polokwane in 2007. 

The Left was happy to exploit Mr Zuma’s populism to eject Mr Mbeki, while Mr Zuma was happy to ride the wave of ideologically inspired anti-Mbeki media sentiment crafted by the Left. After Polokwane, the Zuma camp would go on to loot the state, while the Left clawed back, to use the revolutionary term, ‘the levers of policy influence’ denied to them since Davos in 1991. And with those levers in hand they turned the policy clock back to the socialist dogma of 1969, cancelling more than ten bilateral investment treaties, introducing mad immigration rules, the even madder National Health Insurance proposal, hiking minimum wage levels, the draft mining charter, and turning the screws of ever more onerous racial edicts. 

That these shifts further coincided with the global financial crisis in 2008 created the perfect governance, policy, and economic storm best highlighted in South Africa’s rate of economic growth peeling away from the global average in a pattern last seen in the late 1970s in unison with declining levels of job creation and declining popular confidence in the future.   

Those consequences generated the once unthinkable proposition, for ANC leaders, of the ANC surrendering its national majority. That fear triggered an internal power struggle between the ‘leftists’ and the ‘looters’, the victors at Polokwane, as both sides sought to escape responsibility for the ANC’s reversals – a struggle in which the Left ultimately prevailed by using the thesis of ‘state capture’ to discredit Mr Zuma sufficiently to bring Cyril Ramaphosa to power as ANC leader. However, this was by the narrowest of margins – 179 votes out of over 4 700 delegates. And while state capture had undoubtedly done much damage, it was only a part of the problem – and in our judgement not the leading part.

Today the ideologues whose policies were central to the disaster of the past decade are still in the ruling party and the government, pressing ahead with many of the same policies – a primary target of which remains the erosion of property rights, now the single most serious threat faced by our country given that property rights anchor civil rights in every free and open society. Surrender those rights and you open the door to the erosion of constitutional safeguards and the rule of law – exactly as happened in Zimbabwe and Venezuela.  

Do not doubt that there are leaders in the ANC who are planning to erode those same safeguards because they know that their party is coming to the end of its road. While the ANC will do well in this pending election, less than half of people with matric or higher will vote for the party and less than a quarter of university graduates. Fractionally over half of young people are inclined to vote for it and just over half of its votes will come from urban areas. In this election the ANC will test whether it has lost the younger, better-educated urban vote. And demographic trends alone, that now replicate those that were faced by Zanu-PF 15 years ago, may therefore be sufficient to make the call that the ANC may well surrender political control of the country by the end of the next decade. 

This is before you consider – as we have long established – that improvements in the material circumstances of people was central to sustaining the ANC’s strong majorities of the past 20 years. But without profound ideological modernisation, the economy will not allow for further improvements and living standards will slip, accelerating the party’s demise. 

And even with a 60% majority, that modernisation is far from assured as such a strong showing will strengthen the hand of the ideologues in the party as much as the reformers. The 60% thesis also ignores that pressure delivers change and that by relieving the political pressure on the ANC you remove the most likely inducement for ideological modernisation – and further ignores that nearly 70% of Cabinet ministers are first and foremost members of the NEC, many of whom are life-long ideologues and deeply implicated in state capture, and that ideological modernisation therefore presupposes that the Cabinet will reform itself.  

And when you think that such things cannot happen, remember this; that no liberation government that came to power through armed struggle in southern Africa has ever lost power – the MPLA in Angola, SWAPO in Namibia, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe – and, again, you dare not doubt that there are political leaders in this country who despite the terror, and the poverty, and the food/medicine shortages of Zimbabwe, see only one thing – that, 39 years later, Zanu-PF is still in charge and they see that as a success and think that maybe they may be successful too. And more than that, that in much of society conceding the sanctity of property rights they have been given the means to do so. 

Surely we are mad? Zimbabwe, South Africa as the world’s next Venezuela?

Well, here is the ANC, in 2019, in a statement issued in the name of the head of Mr Ramaphosa’s office in the party responding to a perfectly reasonable observation, from five of South Africa’s most significant trading partners, that there are serious policy obstacles to investment. 

The African National Congress (ANC) has noted with deep concern the interference by the Western imperialist forces like the USA, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland into the affairs of South Africa … the ANC condemns this dramatic holier than thou stance of these former colonisers and we would not like to relate to them on the history of master slave relations … we do not appreciate a threatening and bullying tone … they leaked their letters to the media, suggesting they had less than honourable intentions….The ANC wants to be clearly understood that we will not be fooled into swapping one attempt of state capture and corruption for another! This is how we view the interference of these five countries, as just another form of state capture. The ANC shall not allow South Africa’s constitution and sovereignty to be undermined by these latter day colonialists.

These are countries whose companies and their share-holders are trying to invest in our country to create jobs and the like – that could be created anywhere else in the world. And with its back to wall, and the state running out of money, this is how the party responds. If it will behave like that towards such influential and powerful actors, how may it one day behave towards us – the little people, whose only recourse in the face of impending tyranny will be to stand up and speak freely? Deny us that and we have nothing, like lambs to the political slaughter we will go – the silencing will be complete.  

Whether the dangers can be countered and later reversed depends on one thing alone; the ability to force a new balance of power in South Africa’s battle of ideas. ‘Battle-of-ideas’ theory, in which we are much practised, holds that the winner in any great ideological struggle will ultimately be the side that injects the greatest volume of compelling argument into the public domain. Our methods are aligned very closely to the idea that the war in Vietnam was lost in America’s living rooms and on the streets of Washington and not in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Put differently, it is the ability to shape and command public opinion that determines public policy. 

Central to all of this for the IRR is the unambiguous rejection of race as the basis of government policy. It is good and right for society to help those who are disadvantaged, particularly given our history, so that any child born in our country can rightly aspire to a middle class standard of living. But it must be done not on the basis of their race but on the basis of their disadvantage. Given patterns of poverty and inequality, the great majority of beneficiaries will be black but not because they are black but because they are poor. It is a subtle but profoundly important distinction – and the most heretical thing you can say in our country today. 

And, for the time being, this distinction, let alone the idea that race should not be the basis of policy, will remain heretical. Our objective is to change that and to ensure that in time the acceptance of the distinction, and the policy implications that flow from it, will become commonplace. Only if that happens does the ideological modernisation become possible that will in turn sweep away the raft of policies that stand between South Africa and its potential as a free, prosperous, and open society. 

In this fight, we have one great asset that – contrary to what is seen on social media and promoted in much of the mainstream media – South Africa is not a society divided against itself. Racism is not South Africa’s greatest problem. It stands out in our polling time and again that a comfortable eight out of ten South Africans, across lines of race and class, respect one another and remain much invested in the others’ success, while sharing a surprising degree of common ground on the importance of individual choice, property rights, a market economy, and the rule of law. The great unmet challenge of South African politics is to unite the middle of good, hard-working, law and order South Africans – black and white. That unity has threatened every government that has ruled our country and with your help it is a threat we can make materialise. 

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Frans Cronje was educated at St John’s College in Houghton and holds a PHD in scenario planning. He has been at the IRR for 15 years and established its Centre for Risk Analysis as a scenario focused research unit servicing the strategic intelligence needs of corporate and government clients. It uses deep-dive data analysis and first hand political and policy information to advise groups with interests in South Africa on the likely long term economic, social, and political evolution of the country. He has advised several hundred South African corporations, foreign investors, and policy shapers. He is the author of two books on South Africa’s future and scenarios from those books have been presented to an estimated 30 000 people. He writes a weekly column for Rapport and teaches scenario based strategy at the business school of the University of the Free State.