We write in response to Martin van Staden’s mischaracterisation of the South African liberal tradition upon which the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) was founded and the misuse of our grandfather, Edgar Brookes’ legacy as a founder and former president of the IRR.

In his response to Roger Southall’s concerns (Business Day, 24/6/21) that the IRR has abandoned its liberal tradition and is promoting American right-wing policies , Van Staden claims that IRR is continuing the liberal traditions of its founders and has, in fact, become even more liberal in its current attitudes and policies.

Van Staden implies that the IRR’s current understanding of economic liberty, as that of a free-market economy, is in line with Brookes and MacAuley’s notion of civil liberties and their opposition to excessive state power in Civil Liberty in South Africa. This is an ahistorical and disingenuous misreading. Neither the IRR nor Edgar Brookes promoted economic liberty in the sense of the libertarian concept of an unfettered free-market economy and minimal government. On the contrary, they objected to excessive state power, wielded to economically oppress black South Africans during apartheid. They were concerned with inequalities of all kinds in every political system and the proper functioning of the state to protect its citizens from all forms of exploitation. Indeed, Edgar Brookes advocated the redistribution of wealth and land which was also the policy of the Liberal Party during his chairmanship. In his address to the Natal Convention against apartheid on 17th April 1961 he said, “It would be self-deception if we who belong to the privileged classes did not face the fact that this [a political solution] cannot be done without some redistribution of wealth and political privilege”.

Van Staden claims that Brookes and MacAuley’s use of the terms, and opposition to, ultra-radical and semi-fascist authoritarianism are equivalent to present day populist notions of left and right wing. Anyone with knowledge of South Africa’s liberal tradition and Edgar Brookes’ writing will know that his opposition to ‘ultra-radical authoritarianism’ was a rejection of the rigid imposition of social change without individual change and collective dialogue, not a rejection of ‘the left wing.’ Van Staden’s analysis denies the complex relations and discussions among anti-apartheid groups at the time on how best to address injustice and inequality and bring those for and against apartheid to the table.

Clearly Van Staden either does not understand the difference between traditional liberal values and current libertarianism or chooses to conflate the two in order to lend a veneer of respectability to the IRR’s adoption of an extreme radical notion of economic and individual freedoms. In the US, the term liberalism has been purposefully co-opted by libertarian groups who advocate the extreme limitation or removal of the state from regulating the economy and society in any way. This form of libertarianism has nothing to do with liberalism and is an insidious co-option of a liberal humanist philosophy by US extremists to muddy the waters. The IRR is now importing these libertarian ideas under the guise of so-called ‘freedom.’ Libertarianism has nothing to do with our grandfather’s liberal-humanist philosophy that recognised the inevitable and necessary tension between the state and individual rights and freedoms.

Van Staden not only attempts to rewrite the history of liberal thought, he casts gun control laws as an assault on freedom and uses Davidson Jabavu’s criticism of the disarming of black South Africans during colonialism and apartheid as support for gun ownership rights. He equates apartheid (a crime against humanity) to the so-called ‘radical left’ as two equivalent opposing evils and labels criticism of the IRR as simply left wing ideologues’ imposition of political correctness. These are morally and intellectually bankrupt arguments.

Edgar Brookes would have been astounded at the IRR’s advocating personal ‘gun rights’ as a solution to social ills. His notion of individual liberties did not extend to the personal right to use force. As he writes in his autobiography, “I feel that the most important thing is not to demonstrate the evils of force, but rather the almost untapped strengths and possibilities of intellectual and spiritual action”.

In the best liberal tradition, our grandfather respected the positions and experiences of others, even of those with whom he disagreed. The irony of accusing Roger Southall of being an ideologue will not be lost on readers: Van Staden’s article ‘The Liberal Tradition in South Africa, 1910-2019’ in Econ Journal Watch is an exemplar of rewriting history to suit a particular ideology. EJW is not a credible academic journal. It openly states on its website that its aim is to be a “forum for criticizing pro-liberalization articles, particularly if they appear in prestigious journals”. The journal is the mouthpiece of the Fraser Institute, a think-tank whose agenda includes defunding public health care, restricting workers’ rights, and opposing gun control laws and environmental protections in Canada.

It is with great sadness that we have observed the decline of the IRR from an important part of the broader anti-apartheid and human rights movements imbued with liberal-humanist values, to the extremist libertarian misinformation machine of the present. One only has to glance at its ‘news’ site, “The Daily Friend”, to see this. The IRR was founded on the principles of truth and justice. It accurately researched, reported on, and addressed the inequalities and injustices in South Africa. It actively advocated for the equal rights of black South Africans and their equal access to the economy. It was not founded to promote one ideological position over another and to manipulate and deliberately distort the facts for any agenda. Edgar Brookes would have been horrified by the current positions of the IRR and its lack of intellectual integrity. Today, it no longer upholds the principles of humanism and truth for which he stood and which drove his strong opposition to apartheid, his advocacy for the rights of black South Africans and the economically dispossessed. The IRR and its polemical positions do not play a constructive role in promoting race relations in our country nor, in fact, promoting good relations or constructive, thoughtful dialogue of any kind. The Institute of Race Relations should eschew its name, and its board members should refrain from misusing our grandfather’s legacy.

Kathy Brookes

Professor Heather Brookes

Professor David Brookes

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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