1929: South Africa was a relatively new but established member of the international community. It had survived a number of extreme stresses, including participation in the Great War – during which it faced a very serious domestic revolt – and the 1922 Rand Uprising. A new flag had been adopted the previous year. Minerals, the foundation of the country’s wealth, were powering a modernising economy. Railways were expanding, and in was in this year that Union Airways – later South African Airways – was established.

At this time, King George V sat on the British throne, and in this role was South Africa’s head of state; his representative in South Africa as Governor General was the Earl of Athlone. Yet if the king sat comfortably on his throne in London, the imperial connection sat uncomfortably on many in South Africa. The Prime Minister at the time (his mandate was renewed in the election held that year) was Barry Hertzog, whose party sought to articulate the nationalist aspirations of the Afrikaner population. This was the National Party, whose role in South Africa’s history would be profound, if not decisive  

It was also in this year that the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) was founded. It arose from the great failing of the creation of modern South Africa: the failure to recognise the legitimate rights to citizenship and political participation of the majority of South Africa’s population.  It bears mentioning that South Africa’s white population was confident in its dominance of the country, even if limited political rights were held by some African and Coloured people, mostly in the Cape Province. And while black people were organising to press for their rights – the South African National Native Congress (later the African National Congress) had been founded in 1912 – their status and well-being remained of secondary importance to the political white establishment.


Nevertheless, there were some who evinced concerns for black people’s welfare, cross-racial amity and for the need to find an honourable and durable arrangement for the country as a whole. Welfare bodies looking to the interests of black people (although comprised of white people) had existed for some time. In the 1920s, embryonic, localised bodies bringing together representatives of different communities – Joint Councils – began to be established. Their record was not particularly impressive, but they demonstrated that co-operation was possible and that such bodies were a forum for mutual learning.

The IRR arose from these predecessors. With financial commitments from philanthropic bodies, a conference among interested parties was convened in 1929, which resolved to establish a national organisation to co-ordinate efforts aimed at bettering race relations. The redoubtable John David Rheinallt Jones was named Secretary (later Director), with Dr Charles Loram, a senior civil servant, as Chairman.

The Institute was supported with offices at the University of Witwatersrand until it was able to move into a property of its own in 1956. This was Auden House, located on De Korte Street in Johannesburg, which housed the Institute for the next half-century.

Formal goals

The formal goals of the Institute were articulated in its 1932 Constitution:

  1. To work for peace, goodwill and practical co-operation between the various sections of the populations of South Africa; and
  2. 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 that should subsist between them.

Of these, the second was in a sense the more important. The Institute attempted to fortify public debate by providing well-researched and accurate information. By taking this into account, the thinking went, public policy would adjust to reflect realities.

Dr Ellen Hellman, one-time president of the Institute and a renowned anthropologist, wrote in a 1979 history of the Institute:

The Institute commenced its work with neither a pre-conceived programme nor ready-made policy. It believed in the pursuit of truth as a value in itself. It believed that the systematic seeking out of facts relating to the conditions which determine the quality of life of disadvantaged groups in South Africa would increase public awareness and promote interracial understanding, an understanding without which there could be no peaceful future for South Africa. It recognised the inherent worth and dignity of every human being and the right to the full development of his innate potential. It affirmed the values of democratic society, with its accepted rights and duties, together with respect for the rule of law and the safeguarding of individual liberty. It pledged itself to pay due regard to opposing views sincerely held.

That is a profoundly important observation. It not only highlights the importance of research and the accurate collation of facts, but explains the Institute’s overall positioning within the liberal ideological tradition, a belief in the individual as the ultimate bearer of rights.

The Institute attempted at first to steer an essentially apolitical course. Its position in the early years was to distinguish between issues that were ‘political’ and those that were not, and to avoid comment on the former. For this reason, it initially refrained from direct comment on some of the seminal legislative efforts of the 1930s, the so-called Hertzog Bills, these being the Representation of Natives Bill and The Natives’ Trust and Land Act Bill. (The first of these removed African voters from the common voters’ roll in the Cape, the second restricted African property ownership.) The Institute responded at first by providing copious research into the likely outcomes of these measures.

Became clear

It rapidly became clear that most of what impacted race relations in South Africa was almost by definition political, and that the distinction it had tried to uphold was not tenable. A conference of interested organisations was convened in 1936 to discuss the Representation of Natives Bill. It was convened by an Institute official, in his capacity as secretary of the Consultative Committee of Joint Councils of Europeans and Africans. Organisations with an orientation different from that of the Institute were invited, but generally declined to attend. (The Institute was eager to engage and hear from those with different positions that were nonetheless sincerely held…) The conference resolved to oppose the Bill, an early break from the ‘apolitical’ stance.

In the ensuing periods, the Institute became increasingly bold in taking positions on political matters (or on matters perceived to be so). These encompassed a range of things: improved conditions and benefits to black service personnel during the Second World War; producing studies on the impact of discriminatory laws; and monitoring and protesting against security measures. The Institute made its positions known both in the country and abroad, presenting its work to policy makers, diplomats, journalists, and pretty much any other stakeholder who cared to hear it.

A brief note must be made here of the Native Laws Commission, established in 1946 and better known to history as the Fagan Commission. The Institute made a submission to this body, calling for a recognition of the permanency of the urban African population, freehold property rights and more. The Commission ultimately recommended significant changes along the lines proposed by the Institute. (Helen Suzman wrote a most useful summary of the Commission’s findings, published by the Institute.) While this would not have dismantled the country’s racial order, it held profound possibilities for a change of the country’s historical trajectory.

Not to be

It was, sadly, not to be. After the National Party’s victory in 1948, and its institution of the apartheid plan, the country turned its back firmly on these liberalising impulses. In 1951, the Institute sought a meeting with the then-minister of Native Affairs, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. He refused to meet a racially mixed delegation, and ultimately the proposed meeting was cancelled.

If the Institute was increasingly willing to take a political stance, its real muscle was in its dogged determination to seek out information. This took the form of extensive desk and field research, often drawing on the expertise of sympathetic parliamentarians, officials, academics, and journalists. Its task was to understand, to explain and to bear witness.

Since the 1940s, the Institute has published the renowned Survey, its yearbook and compendium of information about South Africa. It is a convenient, one-stop statistical shop and an essential resource for any South Africa observer. Now focusing on statistical information, for many years it presented copious narrative about the year in review. Here one could read about such matters as the use of extra-judicial punishment of criminals by vigilantes, and a comment by a police commander that they should leave the combating of crime to the police (1979). Or about Conservative Party Leader, the late Dr Andries Treurnicht, declaring that the Third War of Freedom had begun, and that ‘we will not allow the government to force integration down our throats’ (1989/90). Or that while the centenary of the Anglo-Boer War was approaching, the government had not decided how to commemorate it. An MEC demanded that history be revisited to make it more inclusive, and an Afrikaner nationalist group rejected participating in any but its own commemorations, since it wished to remember a struggle for freedom and not ‘reconciliation’ (1997/98). The IRR is a repository of details large and small that might otherwise have disappeared.

There is no comprehensive list or final count of the publications that have been produced by or within the Institute, but the number runs into the thousands. These include studies of particular topics, analyses of legislation, reflections on the nature of liberalism and descriptions of economic and social trends. Some, such as Jill Wentzel’s The Liberal Slideaway, were deeply personal accounts of events in South Africa’s development, an important explanation of the path that the country’s politics have taken.


The Institute for much of its early period was active in providing support to like-minded institutions, and set up an array of community programmes, often with a welfare component. Yet this had diluted the organisation’s focus somewhat, and placed on it a significant administrative and financial burden.  During the 1980s, there was a refocusing of effort – under the then-new Chief Executive John Kane-Berman – with research and bursaries. (Incidentally, our bursary programme can count a young Nelson Mandela among its alumni).

The 1980s were a turbulent time for both the country and the Institute. Ellen Hellman noted how the growing polarisation of the country and the increasing militancy of opposition to the state in previous decades had been difficult, with criticisms voiced from both its right and left. The 1980s saw South Africa descend into a state of low-key civil war, within which, as Hermann Giliomee once put it, ‘the high moral ground was always decisive.’

In this environment, the Institute came under suspicion and attack, domestically and abroad, for seeking to maintain an independent course of action. Its criticism of the liberation movement and its strategies – including its use of violence and calls for economic sanctions – was not well received in many quarters.


From this came the ‘right wing’ or ‘moved to the right’ or (more recently) ‘alt-right’ accusation, implying that the Institute was in sympathy with ‘reactionary’ groups and agendas. Part of this seems to have stemmed from the Institute’s refusal to endorse the narrative of the African National Congress, which claimed to have a long-established commitment to democracy, non-racialism, and civil liberties and to have been relatively blameless in political violence. That the ANC fought hard against the unconscionable abuses of the previous regime was true: that it would be a worthy steward of a post-apartheid society remained open to question. For that matter, what the character of that post-apartheid society would be was itself also open to question.

As John Kane-Berman put it to me: ‘Post 1994, I got the impression that what irritated many diplomats is that we remained outside the mainstream: they were part of a mainstream that turned a blind eye to many unsavoury aspects of the ANC, but we did not. For a very long time after 1994, diplomats, business, NGOs, and media were part of a mainstream that looked at the ANC through rose-tinted spectacles. Not us.’

Nevertheless, criticism is something that we are comfortable with. It’s a tax on the work we do. In 1972, the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Organisations – better known as the Schlebusch Commission in reference to the name of its chairman, National Party MP Alwyn Schlebusch – was instituted to investigate a number of anti-apartheid organisations. These included the Institute.

The Schlebusch Commission set the scene for the Affected Organisation Act of 1974, which enabled the state to severely restrict troublesome organisations. The Institute was exonerated after a fashion – it was not ultimately deemed an ‘affected organisation’ – but as Christopher Merret wrote, its fourth report ‘[branded] its publications propaganda.’


There is an interesting symmetry between the form taken by that attack, and what has recently been said of us by our contemporary detractors. The ANC has accused the Institute of being part of a nefarious counter-revolutionary assault. More recently, the IRR has been accused of having ‘opted to stoke South Africa’s culture wars’ and that ‘the IRR uses misinformation and hyperbole to foster fear, confusion and conflict.’ (However Prof Roger Southall, who was probably the most audible voice in this, did state that: ‘The research the IRR does is still of a high order. Its annual surveys provide a compilation of facts and figures, much of it gleaned from government sources, which remains unequalled.’)

We responded at length to these and other attacks; it is up to the observer to determine whether these responses were convincing and whether our work is credible.

It is important to note that critics must be taken seriously. When the accuracy of the Institute’s information is questioned, such charges must be answered – it remains the Institute’s foremost priority to ensure that the factual basis on which it conducts its analysis is impeccable. Where its arguments are contested, it must push back and argue its corner.

Some of its critics are highly knowledgeable, and hold opposing views sincerely. And at times, some of its detractors can sink to the bizarre and dishonest; there is a limit to what one can do in this respect. It’s part of the skill of public debate to know how to disaggregate these various groups and to engage with each appropriately.

Perhaps it is worth noting some context here. Daily Maverick commentator Brooks Spector penned a very readable piece during a spate of attacks on the Institute last year, in which he commented: ‘In recent years there has been growing criticism of the SAIRR that its research fellows and senior staffers have authored views significantly out of sync with more broadly accepted South African ideas on economics or governance.’

This, as we commented at the time, is perhaps the kernel of the Institute’s approach: to be willing to stand outside of what is ‘broadly accepted’. What is popular, or what is dearly held may not be true or what is most advisable. The great American astrophysicist, the late Carl Sagan, wrote: ‘Whatever is inconsistent with the facts, no matter how fond of it we are, must be discarded or revised.’ These words might have been written for the Institute, and it must always be true to their spirit.

The Institute’s role has historically been one that combines research and advocacy. This is summarised in the notion of the Battle of Ideas. Simply put, it holds that the party that injects the largest volume of accurate and compelling argument into the public debate will be able to pivot public and official opinion. Dr Hellman observed:

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 commonplace today.

Indeed.  At points of crisis, ideas that might once have seemed unthinkable can become compelling…

2022: South Africa’s democracy is close to three decades old. Over a third of the workforce is unemployed, and poverty is widespread. The dislocation of a pandemic and long-term economic retardation weigh heavily on the country. Public debate is rancorous, often angry. Violent crime gnaws at people’s sense of personal security. A failing state struggles to perform some of its most basic functions. There is a palpable sense of frustration, even despair across the country.

But there are also bountiful opportunities to change direction.

This article is based on a talk given to an Institute conference.

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

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.