At the very start of South Africa’s lockdown just over 480 days ago, I described a discomforting insight that has a direct bearing on the force of the liberal argument in South Africa, on the work and the impulses of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), and on criticisms of the Institute, the latest of which is published today

In that piece of 5 April 2020, I noted that ‘when we South Africans went home to self-isolate on the evening of Thursday 26 March, we slipped back, the vast majority of us, into a country we thought we’d last lived in in the 1980s. For all the change, the vast scale of the post-1994 reformation, the birthing of what used to be called the New South Africa, most of us – in the tens of millions – have gone separately to our homes in the teeming townships and the still streets of suburbia as if there remains a law that still separates us by the inerasable logic of apartheid.’

If there was no race law in the democratic era to divide South Africa in this way, there was no mistaking the impact of the ‘stubborn’ law of economics.

One of the best insights into its effects, I argued, was the Quality of Life (QOLI) Index created by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the Institute of Race Relations in 2017 to benchmark, by province and by race, South Africa’s progress in improving the quality of life of its residents.

The index is based on ten weighted factors that illustrate the quality of life of a person or household, each indicator scored between 0 and 10, with lower scores indicating poor performance and scores closer to 10, better performance.

The basket of indicators are the matric pass rate; unemployment (based on the expanded definition); monthly expenditure levels of R10 000 or more; household tenure status (houses owned but not yet paid off to a bank); household access to piped water, electricity for cooking, and a basic sanitation facility; irregular or no waste removal, medical aid coverage and the murder rate.

The first index captured 2015/16 data. The second, published in November 2019, captures 2018 data.

It provides a stark picture: in both, white South Africans emerge with the highest quality-of-life score of 8.1 (when the murder data, not measurable by race but by province, is excluded) and 7.9 (when a nationally averaged murder rate is used). Outcomes were worst for black South Africans, with index scores in 2017 of 5.2 and 5.4 respectively, and 5.3 and 5.4 in 2019.

Indicators in which white South Africans had the best outcomes in both indexes include the matric pass rate, unemployment, expenditure exceeding R10 000 per month, mortgaged houses, waste removal, medical aid coverage and access to a basic sanitation facility. The outcomes were worst for black people on all indicators.

The QOLI index is just one of many research initiatives sustained by the IRR with the combined objective of providing a reliable, unsentimental account of the South African reality, and of advancing constructive, practicable policy alternatives rooted in the simple idea that all citizens’ rights and interests are indivisible.

Only by the most strenuous intellectual contortion would it be possible to suggest that this work was the product of an ‘extremist libertarian misinformation machine’.

Yet this is among several overblown charges made today in their forthright letter in which Kathy Brookes, Professor Heather Brookes, and Professor David Brookes – the grandchildren of Edgar Brookes, a founder and president of the Institute of Race Relations – write of their ‘great sadness’ at the ‘decline of the IRR’ and its seeming abandonment of ‘liberal-humanist values’.

They argue:

Neither the IRR [of the past] 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”.

Invoking that 1961 statement – especially the qualified ‘some redistribution of wealth and political privilege’ – in 2021 does hint at the difficulty of rummaging through history in the hope of extracting proof of an unimpeachable moral virtue to justify a perhaps lofty self-regard.

In our contemporary democratic setting, there is nothing pallid or qualified about the IRR’s solidly liberal argument for a thorough-going overhaul of the conditions determining socio-economic relations – and its liberal argument is nothing less than a celebration of the complete political overhaul, including the redistribution of wealth and political privilege, achieved in 1994. Today, the IRR continues to advocate for social progress through responsible taxation and efficient government action that gives citizens a fair shot at making the most of their lives.

Yet, the Brookes grandchildren are anxious that we have parted ways with liberal verities – suggesting that the IRR, having been ‘founded on the principles of truth and justice’, and having ‘accurately researched, reported on, and addressed the inequalities and injustices in South Africa’ is today guilty of preferring to ‘manipulate and deliberately distort the facts’ and thus demonstrate a ‘lack of intellectual integrity’. 

One does wonder, could any of the Brookes grandchildren seek to defend their status, whether in the academy or in society; the salaries they earn; the homes they live in; the possessions they own; their right to a voice; their right to choose how and where to live, how and where their children should be educated; to what ends their creditable inheritance should be expended, and, in short, their belonging in South Africa as equal citizens – as worthy of all these rights as any other – without their having to depend on the fundamental principles the IRR argues for today?

Unignorably, those principles are advanced not to protect and expand merely the well-being and success of a privileged middle class that has self-evidently benefited so greatly from the best society has to offer, but of all South Africans – for the bulk of whom, through no fault of their own, well-being and success remain a tantalising but unrealised promise.

Testing questions arise from the argument. It is not merely sententious to point out that nothing is stopping those who advocate redistribution from giving away what they own and what they have earned, and vacating the prominent positions they occupy, in order to benefit those who remain excluded, burdened by the consequences of apartheid, many if not most reinforced over the more than a quarter of a century since by the failure of policy to address them.

But there is a far more serious point to be made.

The bald reality is that there is simply not enough to redistribute, if the ambition is to help make a fairer society that can be said to have overcome the heavy penalties of history.

The harder truth is that those penalties are not capable of being overcome by a reapportionment of assets or by largesse (beyond the extensive social support the IRR acknowledges as being integral to a civilised state). This is so, if only because the redistributive impulse misperceives wha.t was most egregious about apartheid’s decades of racial policy, and so only deepens rather than relieves the patronising assumption that a good South Africa is one in which a privileged urban elite can revel in its success, be applauded for its fine-sounding sentiments and continue to imagine that a poor and under-served majority must be content to remain dependent on generosity, and the feckless efforts of a venal state that has failed its people.

And this is a failure, lest it be mistaken, that arises in large part from emphatically redistributive policies that have chiefly enriched ruling party cronies, enhanced state power, and which have failed to give people what they actually need to be the agents of their own destiny, and so have magnified their dependency.

This is where the IRR finds itself in 2021 – making the case for a decisive, effective and willing state capable of enabling the great power of society – free people – to flourish.

As I wrote last April, there is ‘no doubt that the democratic project has brought immense benefits not only to the millions of people cheated of dignity, rights and opportunities by apartheid, but also to those who benefited. But look around South Africa today – where we live, how we live, how separate we remain in our inherited condition – and there is no evading the damning political negligence of the past quarter of a century.’

If making this argument with all the force at our disposal is mistaken to mean that, as the Brookes grandchildren put it, 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’, we will not allow such obvious misapprehension to distract us from pressing the case all the more vigorously.

We have argued for years that South Africa has doggedly pursued a path of gathering failure by ignoring the very things that would guarantee a future of fairness, stability and rising prosperity – good schooling delivering people willing and able to succeed; economic policies that grow the economy, generating jobs and opportunities; empowerment policies that address disadvantage where it exists, and employment policies that match economic not ideological demands.

Just last week we saw a visceral expression of the absence of these good things.

Elsewhere in the Daily Friend today, my senior colleague, Dr Anthea Jeffery, sets out the IRR’s position on the risks South Africa faces in misappreciating the folly of the state’s eroding its people’s rights in the name of what is suggested to be redistributive justice:

The Bill profoundly threatens the property rights of all South Africans. It will take away all hope of acquiring ownership from those yet to enjoy the benefits of this fundamental right. In time, it will also remove existing ownership rights from:

  • the 1 million white families who own houses;
  • the 10 million black, coloured and Indian families who also own homes, though often without the formal title deeds the government should by now have provided;
  • the 18 million or so black people with customary plots; and
  • the thousands of black South Africans who have bought more than 6 million hectares of land in both urban and rural areas since the repeal of the Land Acts in 1991.

The Bill will hurt the struggling economy. It will further torpedo business confidence, deter fixed investment, undermine the banking sector, and prompt a still faster flight of capital and skills. This will cripple growth, curtail tax revenues, increase public debt, raise borrowing costs, worsen the unemployment crisis, and push millions more people into poverty.

This is just one example – I could offer a different published example on any given day – of arguments that recognise the indivisibility of the South African condition, and the stamina and force of reason in the IRR’s determination to make them with effect.

And what is inseparable from these insights and warnings is a body of research and detailed, constructive policy proposals that demonstrate the credible alternative by harnessing the power of free people, whoever they are, in achieving a genuine national transformation.

Few influential voices in the country seem as prepared as the IRR to make such efforts, to take the trouble to research and investigate the implications of policy, or to offer practical alternatives in speaking up for the kind of society that could be said to represent the fruits of ‘humanism and truth’.

Against this background, the Brookes grandchildren’s snide reference to the decline of the IRR from an exalted status of the past to the extremist libertarian misinformation machine of the present’ (they add tartly, ‘One only has to glance at its “news” site, “The Daily Friend”, to see this.’) betrays an anxiety – common to many who actually live by liberal standards and expectations, but lack the courage to make the case for them in public – which is founded on an argument that is groundless, ironic, and misplaced.

The Daily Friend is not, in any event, so awful a platform that they could not bring themselves to exploit it in order, perversely, to distance themselves from initiatives that are expressly aimed at undoing the very status quo they contrive to suggest the Institute is, at best, content to ignore. (It goes without saying, that we welcome the debate.)

I conclude as I began, with that April 2020 glimpse of an unfinished South African reformation.

 ‘The strange unreality of the lockdown,’ I wrote, ‘is less the seeming desertedness of usually bustling places … but the default segregation of communities to a degree that is commensurate with the failure to genuinely turn South Africa into a modern, free, prospering state, for all its people.’

I could not imagine Edgar Brookes identifying the deficiency any differently, or being anything less than approving of humanist, truthful solution-seeking that places the individual, free to exercise his or her agency, and dignified by the effort, at the centre of a project that enjoins state and society to cooperate in making that possible.

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