Tributes from across the spectrum illuminate the high regard that former IRR chief executive John Kane-Berman earned in a lifetime devoted to fearlessly championing freedom and fairness.
Kane-Berman, who died after a short illness on Wednesday, is remembered as an incisive analyst, gifted writer and skilled manager, especially during his tenure as IRR CEO between 1983 and 2014.
The following is a selection of edited tributes shared with the IRR, as well as excerpts from tributes published elsewhere on the Daily Friend:
The Rhodes Scholarship community was deeply saddened to hear about John’s passing on 27 July 2022, after a short illness. John will be remembered as a remarkable Rhodes Scholar, brilliant and determined, courageous and devoted to the greater good. His principled leadership of the SAIRR through the difficult years of apartheid, highlighted his resolve and resilience, and his deeply held beliefs in social justice.
All at the Rhodes Trust mourn John’s passing. The Rhodes Scholars in Southern Africa have placed an obituary on their website: Alumni Southern Africa (ox.ac.uk); and the Rhodes Trust in Oxford have been informed of John’s death. John will be remembered on the Trust’s website too.
We at the Rhodes Trust and National Secretariat were saddened to hear the news of John Kane-Berman’s passing on 27 July 2022.
John lived a full and extraordinary life. He has been lauded as a gifted academic and political researcher; a courageous and ethical leader, who led the South African Institute of Race Relations with distinction and resilience through the turbulent years of apartheid. With a quiet determination, John contributed significantly to the fight to end apartheid and create a more just society for all in our beloved country. We give thanks for his selfless service and a life well lived.
What sad news and a loss to all of us. John’s contribution to SA was unique and his articles hugely informative.
Helen was always grateful for his help in galvanizing the Young Progs in the 1960s.
Sakeliga is saddened by the passing of John Kane-Berman, former chief executive of the Institute of Race Relations.
Sakeliga drew on Kane-Berman’s insights and his work at the IRR and was honoured to host him on several occasions as a speaker since 2011. Kane-Berman could be depended upon to offer incisive and erudite social analysis, not swept along in fashionable political trends or fleeting government visions and plans. Over the course of many decades, before and after 1994, he steadfastly maintained his distance from the politics of the day and secured the IRR as an independent institute supporting independent thought and reform.
We take encouragement from Kane-Berman’s kind words for Sakeliga’s work over the years and will remember him with fondness and respect.
Flip Buys (Solidarity):
The Solidarity Movement mourns the death of John Kane-Berman and expressed condolences to his next of kin today.
According to Solidarity Movement Chairperson Flip Buys, several institutions of the Solidarity Movement had regular contact with Kane-Berman, and his opinions and input were always held in high regard and considered extremely valuable.
“Kane-Berman will be remembered for devoting his life to opposing the abuse of state power, which was an invaluable contribution,” Buys said.
J Brooks Spector:
After a lifetime defending the continuing relevance, potency and importance of classic liberal values in a South Africa fractured by ideological (and real) battles, John Kane-Berman has died at the age of 76.
Over a busy life, his contribution of leading the South African Institute of Race Relations during two contentious decades was critical for the survival of that institution and, simultaneously, for a respect of those classic liberal values. But his contribution in reporting on the country’s newly energised labour movement must also be remembered for its importance in shaping attitudes during a critical time in South Africa’s tumultuous political evolution.
John always fought his corner without restraint. If he believed in something, he marshalled the evidence and his arguments, and worked strenuously to convey the logic and importance of that view to readers and audiences — and, most especially, to those who might have disagreed with him. His absence leaves an empty space in South Africa’s public life, one immensely difficult to fill.
(Read the full obituary: John Kane-Berman – champion of liberal values and political and economic freedom for all)
As CEO of the SA Institute of Race Relations John Kane-Berman, who has died in Johannesburg at 76, exposed in relentless and damning detail the nuts and bolts of apartheid and its devastating impact on black lives.
The institute’s famous annual Survey, of which he was editor-in-chief for 30 years, provided a factual record of everything that happened under apartheid, including the implementation of security laws, deaths in detention, forced removals, the dumping of people in rural wastelands, child malnutrition, conditions in the homelands, influx control and the migrant labour system.
When whites subsequently claimed they never knew about the full horrors of apartheid, he retorted it was all there in the SAIRR’s annual Survey, the primary and most frequently cited source of information about apartheid for researchers, academics, commissions and journalists in SA and around the world.
(Read the full obituary: John Kane-Berman was a tireless, effective crusader against apartheid)
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi:
I am devastated by the passing of Mr John Kane-Berman. He was one of my truest friends, the likes of which I am never likely to see again. Despite my age and the difficulties, I now find in travelling, I knew that I had to be present to bid farewell. Without this moment of closure, the loss of such a dear friend would have been impossible to bear.
I stand therefore with sorrow in my heart as I express my sympathies to John’s family, to Mr Pierre Roestorf, and to the many colleagues and friends who are grieving this untimely loss. It is comforting to see the number of mourners who have come to honour this intellectual giant; this gifted writer; this man of immoveable principle; this liberal par excellence.
It has been said many times that John was a liberal. But what is a liberal? In 1953, another of my great friends, Mr Alan Paton, defined a liberal in these words:
A generosity of spirit,
A tolerance of others,
An attempt to comprehend otherness,
A commitment to the rule of law,
A high ideal of the worth and dignity of man,
A repugnance for authoritarianism, and
A love of freedom.
That will forever be the portrait of John Kane-Berman.
John and I travelled a long journey together. We met in February 1975, when he visited Nongoma to interview me for the Financial Mail following a mass rally I had addressed in Soweto. I had been reporting on my discussions with Prime Minster John Vorster, and I remember telling this young journalist that I was terribly depressed by my conversation with the Prime Minister. Mr Kane-Berman listened intently and made copious notes. I was impressed by his insightful questions.
But I was even more impressed when his article came out, because it was the first of many articles which told the naked truth about me and about my role in the liberation struggle. He came to know me before the rift appeared between me and the ANC’s mission-in-exile. And when the floodgates of propaganda were opened against me a few years later, John refused to be swayed.
He was a respected journalist, and despite all the pressure on the media to attack and vilify me, he stood by me through and through, becoming the voice of truth in the mayhem.
When he became CEO of the Institute of Race Relations, he took the Institute to levels of authority that few could match. It is a great tribute to his skill and his character that the Institute not only remained through the transition and into democracy, but that it became ever more respected and authoritative under his continued leadership.
I always admired John for his courage. He was, of course, an avid writer and one could quote from a myriad of works he penned. But one that impressed me deeply was his booklet of 1991 titled Mau-Mauing the Media: A new censorship for a new South Africa.
He was courageous enough to expose the beginnings of brown envelope journalism and to decry its impact on journalistic integrity and the primacy of truth.
It was surprising to me to see someone of his calibre stand by me through all those years of vilification. The temptation to plunge the communal knife into my back was so strong that even those whom I considered close to me fell victim to the temptation. I cannot help but think of Mr Walter Felgate, whom I met at the same time as I met John Kane-Berman.
Mr Felgate abandoned me, like so many close associates. Yet John remained. He was not swayed by their averments, nor did he question my innocence when I was labelled a sell-out or some kind of supporter of apartheid and racism. In the mire in which I found myself, I never had a more faithful friend.
Indeed, I consider him among the likes of Alan Paton and Helen Suzman, who similarly were faithful friends.
Thus, his death has hit me hard. This is no mere passing of a long-term acquaintance. This is the devastating close of a chapter that I thought would remain open until my own journey’s end.
For whatever remains of my own life, I know that I will never meet the likes of John Kane-Berman again. And until my final breath I will thank God for bringing such a wonderful child of God into my life. He truly blessed me.
Our country is poorer now, for having lost John. But the intellectual capital he created will continue to enrich us as his words are read and his ideas shared. He will remain a role model of what liberalism is all about.
He will teach us and inspire us and prompt us to question our assumptions long into the future.
But he himself will not be present, and that breaks my heart. I will miss him dearly. My one consolation is that our separation will surely not be long. Until we meet again, I pray that he rests in peace.
May the Lord comfort us all with His grace, settling in our hearts His peace that passes all understanding.
All I have left to say is, thank you, my dear and faithful friend.
[From the early 1970s] South Africa was liberating herself from the ground up, integrating in every way. Yet most public commentators here and abroad could only see immovable ideological opponents in place, and so missed what was really happening. Kane-Berman, in contrast, realised this instinctively and chronicled and encouraged what he termed the ‘silent revolution’ that brought South Africa freedom.
He saw that it was not ideologues or political movements, but ordinary folk, who were the main heroes in this epic – unsung heroes everywhere among us.
It was a key insight he could hardly have attained had he focused too hard on formal political developments and law – where everything is politics and politics is everything. Human existence is far too complex for that.
Liberalism was John’s creed, although it’s not really an ‘ism’ at all, but contains elements of the Enlightenment where all people are seen as worthy of human rights, dignity, and common decency. That understanding always drove Kane-Berman’s approach to issues, rather than some simplistic pre-cooked ideological position.
(Read the full eulogy: ‘Daar gaan ‘n man verby’ – A reflection on John Kane-Berman)
He was an intellectual heavyweight, who spoke with conviction of the ideal of non-racial freedom towards which I had also gravitated. I was impressed, and not a little intimidated.
Kane-Berman was as principled in his liberal critique of ANC governance as he had been as a vocal and highly influential critic of the apartheid government.
This was refreshing, in the face of what Jill Wentzel had called the ‘liberal slideaway’ of the 1980s, when anti-apartheid liberals were loath to be seen criticising the new, democratic government, for fear of being painted as right-wingers or unreconstructed racial nationalists.
(Read the full tribute: John Kane-Berman: A giant has fallen)
John Kane-Berman, who was born on the eve of apartheid and devoted his life to vigorously opposing the race nationalism of apartheid’s ideologues and, at their defeat, the illiberal impulses of their successors, has died aged 76.
His conviction in the power of ideas was central to his long association with the South African Institute of Race Relations. It remains a profound and lasting influence on the liberal cause, and the continuing efforts to achieve a fairer, prospering South Africa.
Said John Endres, CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations: “John Kane-Berman leaves a profound legacy. As CEO of the Institute from 1983 until 2014, he was a fearless proponent of liberalism before, during and after South Africa’s democratic transition. He sharpened the SAIRR’s focus, put it on a sound financial footing and set it on the path that turned it into the potent force that it is today.
“His brave and unstinting commitment to the liberal cause inspired legions of South African liberals, myself included. John Kane-Berman was known for his eloquent presentation, exceptional memory, thorough command of his subject matter and exemplary discipline. He was demanding, setting the highest standards for himself and others, because he realised the importance of the project he was engaged in: to insist that nothing less than true non-racialism and personal freedom would allow the dignity and prosperity of all South Africans to flourish.”
(Read the full obituary: In Memoriam: John Kane-Berman 1946-2022)
My greatest condolences to everyone at IRR who mourn John’s passing. I knew him for almost thirty years. He was absolutely steadfast in his commitment to individual liberty and democratic rule. He was one of the most forcefully eloquent and intellectual people I ever knew. He will be missed by all of us who love South Africa.
Brian Doctor QC:
A very great man has gone, and so young. I’ve known him since he made a speech at Wits when I was a first-year student, and I was struck then by his implacable commitment to principle and decency. This is such a loss for Pierre, and for all of us. He was always fantastically good company and a wonderful friend. I shall miss him terribly. Even though we have had little contact in the past year (since a Covid Zoom session) I’d always just assumed he would always be there, a rock of sanity and straightforward thinking, in a South Africa that has gone mad on more than one occasion.
Johannes van der Horst:
Thanks for your excellent piece about John, which captured the constant courage, richness and productivity of his life. I once had the pleasure of sharing lunch with him, and always devoured his articles. It’s a great heritage that you are taking forward at the IRR, and as usual the stakes are high.
It was a privilege to have followed John’s analyses and arguments since he became CEO of the IRR many years ago. I was honoured to get to know him personally during my time on the IRR Council. We shared some travel experiences, including a reference for a personal tour guide in St Petersburg. He will be remembered as one of South Africa’s intellectual greats.
Barry D. Wood:
John Kane-Berman changed the course of my life. For that I am eternally grateful.
In need of work after two frustrating months in an alien land, in November 1974 a friend suggested I speak to John about joining the Financial Mail. We met in his tidy book-lined office at FM offices on the 9th floor of Carlton Centre. We talked amicably about student protests and apartheid and after some time John called in Graham Hatton, the assistant editor, whose office was next door.
John and Graham became my advocates, cajoling editor George Palmer to give a young American a chance. Not sure if I could do journalism, they gave me a test. Go out and interview the Tswana homeland chief, Lucas Mangope, who was in Johannesburg, and turn in the copy within 48-hours. I did and the interview ran. I was hired on a four-month trial at R600 per month.
In 1975 amid tension as Mozambique approached the June 25th date for independence from Portugal, John—the labour editor– suggested that we visit a workers’ hostel at City Deep near Joburg. We departed after dark, John driving the FM’s Peugeot company car. We finagled our way past the guard’s post, parked, and made our way into the hostel. Identifying ourselves as FM journalists, we were greeted with cordiality by the several dozen miners who lived in the cramped quarters. We asked questions about living and work conditions, took photographs of the multi-tiered bunks, drying clothes hanging from the rafters. Our work done, we departed. Some days later George Palmer shared with John the letter he received from the irate manager at City Deep. Palmer was informed that two of his employees had seriously violated rules, first by trespassing, and then by entering an African hostel. He went so far as to identify the people we talked to…but they had no names, only five-digit numbers. To his credit Palmer defended his reporters and John’s story and our photos appeared in the next issue.
No one doubts John’s courage. He fearlessly stood up to the Nats, meticulously marshalling facts that gave the lie to the government’s fatuous claims about separate development. A skilled wordsmith, John could promptly produce a leader on any number of topics. During the bloody aftermath of the Soweto uprising, John was called upon for commentary in the best papers in Britain, the US and Europe.
He also possessed a wicked, often understated sense of humor. Mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer was always “Harry.” He had witty Afrikaans labels for each of the leading Nats huddled in their Pretoria bunkers. He told good stories about his friend Helen Suzman, how she kept a small bottle of brandy in her purse, ready for when she needed it.
John and Pierre’s homes, first in Auckland Park and more recently Montgomery Park, were elegantly furnished. Their table was exquisitely set. They were epicureans who regaled guests on the art collections of the Hermitage and other European galleries. John’s indulgence was crossing the ocean aboard the QE2.
John Kane-Berman mentored my transition from academia to journalism. Decades later I hold to his and the FM’s practice of reading back quotes to those who are quoted. When I reappeared in Johannesburg in 2010 after several years away, our friendship blossomed as if it hadn’t been interrupted.
John Kane-Berman was a principled fighter for justice. He railed against the lies, corruption and incompetence of the ANC government just as he had railed against the evil of apartheid. Long-time colleague Frans Cronje says John died with no regrets, that he done what he set out to do.
[Having joined the FM in November 1974, Barry D. Wood moved to a full-time position for R700 per month. He then joined NBC News radio reporting on southern Africa. He was chief economics correspondent for Voice of America for 30 years and now writes the Daily Friend American Dispatch column in addition to being a correspondent for Hong Kong radio.]
John has always been a close friend, one whom I deeply admired for what he stood for and what he did. How brave he was in his unwavering stand in society, and how kind and considerate to me. His stance helped me a great deal when I worked for Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
John Kane-Berman’s probing, determined, and incisive intellect shaped the thinking of several generations of South Africans. Following John’s guidance, they understood what South Africa could become and how long a journey it would take to get there. No one did more to define the liberal narrative over decades. His voice will be missed.
John was the rarest element of humanity: our moral compass. His death leaves us adrift. Adieu!
I was greatly saddened to hear of John’s passing. He was a great intellectual force whom I had known for nearly fifty years.
John’s legacy will still be with us in years to come. John was a pathfinder who helped us navigate the complicated South African landscape, first under apartheid and then during the transition to democracy. I well remember attending my first lecture in South Africa: John gave a presentation at the then African Arts Centre in downtown Durban. He will have given that talk a few weeks after the 16 June Soweto student uprising. I was new to South Africa at the time, having just arrived in the country with my husband to take up a social research ‘officer’ position at the then University of Natal. So John’s book, Soweto: Black Revolt White Reaction served as my first introduction to the history of South Africa’s race relations. That work, along with later ones by John, as well as the IRR’s yearbook of South African social indicators, are all still on my bookshelf. I shall be among the many who are very grateful to John for sharing his insights with us over the years. I’d like to think that all of us, in turn, have become more understanding of society through John.
John, and soon Pierre, became my and my wife’s dearest personal friends in the forty-odd years that we knew him, then them as a couple. South Africa – and more broadly, the international understanding that to be South African exceeds coarse racial categorisation – has lost one of its fiercest and most eloquent champions. We shall miss John as a sensitive and doughty friend and rue the silencing of his guiding voice as the country looks to navigate perilous waters.
Colleagues and everyone who treasured his intellectual calibre and integrity will find it difficult to come to terms with gallant John’s departure, never mind comprehending it. Way back, during the drafting of the Constitution, I witnessed this wonderful person (armed with amazing fixity of purpose) interacting with various parliamentary bodies, together with Anthea Jeffery at times. His classical-liberal inputs – along with those of the very few articulating the same paradigm – resulted in South Africa’s internationally regarded, liberally oriented Constitution, despite some of its debatable shortcomings. Lest it be forgotten, this was against tremendous odds! In my judgement, this was the pinnacle of his many and various initiatives and endeavours towards realising happiness and prosperity for the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time.
John and I had many disagreements but I never lost my respect for his intellect and the dedication he gave to his cause.
This is truly sad news. JKB was president of the SRC when I was at Wits and I have admired him and cherished his friendship ever since. Our fathers were also colleagues in law. I will miss his world view, incisive mind and intelligent conversation…. He was a special person and a truly great South African. Hamba Kahle, John.
This is a great, great loss. One of the world’s finest people and a true liberal.
What an extraordinary South African life – rooted in reality; one of our finest minds, a tough intellectual, understood hard work but tempered by an ability to relax; always kind. The Good Book says it for me ‘Truly a cedar has fallen’.
John was an extraordinary South African – brave, fearless and possessed of a ferocious intellect which he used to considerable effect under apartheid as much as he did under democracy. The country can ill afford his passing at this difficult ime in our history.
So, so very sad. A personal and intellectual giant; a fearless champion for humanity, civility and the rule of law. A loss for all.
John was a fine man, admired by all, but me particularly, for his courage, integrity, intellectual brilliance, and analytical skills. From his days at Wits, where he was the student leader I most respected and admired, to his career at the IRR, he stood out above others for his commitment to the truth and to human decency. John was a great South African and he will be sorely missed by many.
What a tragic loss for … all of us in South Africa and the world. Everyone who desires self-determination and self-actualisation, owes a debt of thanks to John and those like him, who have fearlessly and brilliantly helped to make these ideals and objectives increasingly attainable for us ordinary folk. We will remember and honour his monumental contributions through our continued efforts to advance the ideals and causes to which he devoted his life.
When told on Wednesday night of John’s death, it came to me that a giant African tree had fallen.
I worked with John in the late 1980s as Editor of the then Race Relations News, into the 1990s as his deputy director and then as a member of the SA Institute of Race Relations Board and Council. It was my privilege to be the Chairman of the Board to which John so meticulously reported in the last years of his full-time employment by the Institute. This was my formal relationship with him but, more importantly, John and I forged a unique friendship from the mid-1980s until his death in which my wife, Ruth, and I were able to share many happy moments with John and his beloved Pierre.
As a colleague, John was always both demanding and fair and, in my experience, never failed to look out for the well-being of those who reported to him. He was forthright and always set the highest work ethic for himself. Quite correctly, he expected high standards from the Institute, its researchers and other staff, and in this, he and I were always ad idem. Many was the late night we spent musing over current affairs and the work of the Institute. And then John would return to his lifelong quest to turn out the most outstanding and unequalled research covering a vast array of topics that was read by members of every political persuasion.
Without a shadow of doubt, South Africa has lost a brilliant mind. The richness of John’s personality was such that he could combine his high professional standards with a passionate regard for the well–being of all humanity. He could not stand people who were racists in any shape or form and, in the many things that will be written about John, it bears repeating that this was the man who would put himself at risk by covering, as a reporter, the brutal onslaught by apartheid police on defenceless South Africans from all walks of life as they sought freedom from the yoke of the Nationalist government’s myopic racial policies. This should not be surprising, because John was a man not only of principle but also of immense courage. He had a great respect for diversity, exemplified by the wide array of Presidents who served the Institute during his tenure, including the indomitable Helen Suzman, and Bishop Stanley Mogoba, a Pan Africanist.
On a personal note, John valued highly and practised in his life the quality of loyalty and trust and respected that quality in others. A man of deep faith, John’s love of the English language was well illustrated by his insistence on using the original Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible. John was also essentially a family man. I did not know his father, other than through John, who would often tell us of the seminal role of his father in his life and in the Torch Commando and the Liberal Party. On the last occasion I spoke to him, he told me at length about the success of his brothers, their children and extended family. Most memorable was the manner in which he loved and cared for his mother, Gaby. In her final days, he would visit her every night, drink a whisky with her, and read to her. He was a son, brother and uncle par excellence. Ruth and I will miss John, with his quick wit and brilliant mind, in our home to which he and Pierre were regular visitors and always every Christmas when he loved to have a traditional roast and potatoes. In his charming way, he would coax Ruth into playing the organ so that he could sing the carols and other hymns he so loved. Not least among these was Adeste fidelis (O come all ye faithful), in which some eight verses would be sung by the four of us in Latin, John impeccably so! I think John was often at his happiest in moments like these, not least because he and Pierre, his soulmate, husband and partner of fifty years, were among close friends.
To Pierre and the family, we send our condolences in your loss and thank you for sharing him with us. We and the Institute can celebrate a huge legacy in the life of John. We will all treasure his memory.
Though ‘sundered far, by faith we meet round one common Mercy Seat.
* Friends and acquaintances are invited to share their reminiscences of John Kane-Berman by sending them to email@example.com, and we will add them to this condolences page.