This tribute was given as a eulogy to John Kane-Berman at his funeral.
In his autobiography, Between Two Fires, John Stuart Kane-Berman talks about writing as a presumptuous schoolboy to Alan Paton, congratulating him on his fine biography of Jan Hofmeyr.
Unbelievably, young Kane-Berman got a detailed response, in which Paton said that most South African biographers failed to understand the nature of biography, which was ‘not to make a point, preach a policy, help a party, or aggrandise a man – it was primarily to tell the life of a human being’.
You will find John Kane-Berman’s impressive chronological history, and get a good view on that, on the website of the South African Institute of Race Relations. John served the SAIRR well as CEO for 30 years from 1983. Until his death, he worked as an active public analyst. Their obituary’s salute to him is splendid, as are tributes and reflections issued by former colleagues and various organisations.
Who was John Kane-Berman the person?
John Kane-Berman was driven by a love of, and respect for, humanity.
It is why he wouldn’t see history as inevitable, political realities as immovable, crass social engineering as acceptable, nor honesty and principles as negotiable.
These run as the golden threads through his life, whether at work or play.
I am told that when he was Wits SRC chairman in 1967/68, John refused to allow the Rag Ball to be held at a segregated venue. The only integrated venue they could find was Margo’s Rainbow Resort in Bapsfontein. So there the Rag Ball was held.
His interest in labour relations and the trade union moment, both when he was an assistant editor of the Financial Mail in the early ‘70s and beyond, centred on the exploitation by both the apartheid state and the private sector of people on the lowest rungs of employment. These were the people he saw as the real force for change. Indeed, he was the first to recognise the dock and textile industry strikes of 1973 as a historical turning point.
Those strikes are largely forgotten now. It is worth dwelling a little on them, as they were seminal in our country’s development. JKB saw their significance immediately, and that was instrumental in shaping how he understood and analysed the coming reform-and-revolution years. That, I suggest, tells us a lot about John.
At New Year in 1973, black workers in South Africa had very few cards they could play. Denied a part in system politics, the power that usually accrues with that was cut off to them, as they were barred from formal bargaining structures. Furthermore, they were banned under a temporary 1942 war diktat (never rescinded) from going on strike. The consequences of this were dire – in the major industrial city of Durban, 165 000 black industrial workers suffered a minimum wage that was set below the Poverty Datum Line.
Wildcat strikes spread across Natal and then the Witwatersrand in 1973. The government’s response shocked many employers. That is, the state failed to act as expected: instead, the police declined to intervene in the illegal strikes; and the government abandoned white trade unions and their colour-bar protections, legally recognising the right of black workers to strike. Prime Minister John Vorster admonished not the strikers but rather their employers, saying they needed to realise that blacks ‘are human beings with souls’. Apartheid’s retreat had begun.
It would be the pattern of the 20 years to come – black South Africans defying irrational laws that limited their life chances and making apartheid diktats unenforceable; the State often all a-bluster but then yielding in bits to the new realities-on-the-ground – in employment, urbanisation, sport, education, and on and on.
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.
His seminal book detailing the 1976 uprising that started in Soweto doesn’t centre on educational or related language issues, as it might have done, but on the human story and costs, lest they be forgotten in broad-brush historical narratives.
John worked with the American Chamber of Commerce to improve conditions of employment and to getting rid of workplace racial discrimination, setting precedents for others in the private sector to follow, and some did. His long-standing work on political violence took in the main themes of a political struggle, but he was always most drawn to the terror and personal tragedies that accompanied the use of violence – something he abhorred, no matter how it was dressed up as ‘noble’ or ‘necessary’. He wouldn’t buy that.
I remember well how, in the violent years leading up to the 1994 transition to full democracy, he would sit at his desk each morning, poring over daily violence reports, noting deaths and injuries. Similarly, he detested people’s rights being steamrollered by officialdom’s hurtful practices of racial discrimination, never mind bannings and torture. The Institute’s 1987 ‘Behind Closed Doors’ study closely and grimly detailed deaths in detention. There would be no disappeared ones here.
Core to liberalism
You see this emphasis on human rights as core to liberalism in JKB’s early post-apartheid work too.
Hence his campaign against the national unity government’s 1995 tightening of bail conditions that caused one-third of our prison population to consist of people not yet found guilty of any crime. It drove his successful opposition to attempts in 1996 to strip the governance autonomy of voluntary non-profit associations, and informed his warnings that new labour legislation would lock the most vulnerable in society out of the formal sector job market.
Not for John any cosy deals among an exclusionary elite in a time of rainbows and miracles. More recently, his interest in environmental policy centred on economically vulnerable people. You want to get rid of ‘dirty coal’? What about the mineworkers and townsfolk of the Mpumalanga Highveld? Why is no-one thinking about them?
There was always an insistence on people being respected, for policy and practice to expand horizons of opportunity, for all people to have more free choices, and for the possibilities of life to increase.
That very respect for humanity as core, that essential humaneness, more than anything else, meant that John couldn’t abide political propaganda, distortions of reality, or claims made in service of a cause rather than the truth. He wouldn’t stand back for whitewashing or for blacklisting.
He took it as read that intellectual simplicity begets dishonesty. This made him intellectually rigorous and tough in the face of pressures to conform that he felt undermined honesty. Just for this, he should have been showered with accolades – but the formal ones were few, even though the ones he did receive were not insignificant.
He worked through what, from 1984 to 1994, was a type of civil war, where truth is a primary casualty. He saw his mission, and that of his fellows, as holding the line for a deeper understanding of complex trends through the pursuit of excellence in fact-finding, nuanced language and curiosity. It was an approach respectful of the common good today – and for South Africans as yet unborn.
At the South African Institute of Race Relations, this made him a very demanding CEO and editor indeed.
He once explained his needs to research staff, telling them that it was not good enough for an airline pilot to get some things right in his job, to succeed at, say, 97% of his landings. ‘The pilot must get everything right, with 100% excellence. That is our standard too, nothing less.’
One poor soul handed in a piece of work which contained something John thought interesting.
‘What is your source for this claim?’
‘Wikipedia is NOT a reference – it’s no more than an unsubstantiated rumour!’
Aye, Kane-Berman was that most formidable of editors.
Of course, he was soft like mushy cheese if you’d simply:
• Check your facts
• Forget yourself as ‘opionista’ (to use a current term)
• Get every side of a story or argument and find what you’re missing, especially if it countered your assumptions
• Write with precision
• Approach your work with humility
• Know that the purpose of the work is not you, but a higher duty to accuracy, care, integrity, and thus country; and
• Work to honesty and principle as vocation.
Just do those things, and he’d be mushy cheese. Eezy-peezy.
‘Taught me everything’
John’s teachings will have carried forward through many people’s careers with knock-on, positive, effect. Says former Institute researcher and now 20-year resident of Vancouver Cheryl Chipps-Smith: ‘I came to the Institute as a university graduate. Then John raised me up. He taught me everything I know about writing. And I think of him every time I use an Oxford comma.’
He was a tough but not hard taskmaster. He had a deep softness to him, a sincere kindness, generosity of spirit, and not a little eccentricity. Witness the Institute’s Auden House head office being painted in shades of purple soon after he became CEO.
Then there was his insistence on being called ‘Mr Kane-Berman’ by colleagues, and only ‘John’ when and if he had invited you to, a rare honour. As a brattish youngster, I chose to call him neither. It took him almost two years to realise I never addressed him by his preferred proper nouns. That amused him greatly, and so I became one of the invited ones. Throughout, though, I referred to him simply as ‘the King’ to my colleagues.
John could be lots of fun, with a rascally, boyish humour.
We gave a presentation to Institute members in Durban one evening. Afterwards, JKB and I went off to the Royal Hotel’s famous curry restaurant. There we may have had a beer. Or two. For it was a long evening – as there was much to discuss.
Afterwards we walked through darkened streets to our lodgings at the Durban Club. Impatient, John elected to climb the Club’s perimeter back wall rather than go all the way to the front entrance. He scaled it, fell straight over the other side and onto his head. There was blood aplenty. He retired to his room.
We met for breakfast the next day. JKB would be flying straight back to the office while I had various engagements and would only get to Joburg the following day. But he hadn’t been able to wash off the blood stains reddening his white mop.
Nothing to be done about that, he declared … but we’d need a consistent explanation for his mishap. This, he proposed, should be that en route to the Club he’d tripped over a very large snake. As his public affairs manager, I protested.
‘A snake in the Durban CBD! No-one will believe that!’
He just grinned: ‘Then we won’t have deceived anyone. Stick to the line, Paul.’
Easy for him to say. But when I got to the office, JKB’s fiercely protective PA, Susi Eusman, summoned me at once. ‘What happened to the King in Durban? And don’t you dare talk about some stupid snake!’
‘It was a very scary snake,’ I mumbled.
‘There is NO snake! You boys are not permitted to be out again without supervision!’
There would be other mirthful adventures. John was never boring.
He was a very private person, never happier than when surrounded by books in his exquisitely appointed home, with his beloved and wonderfully loving partner since 1972, Pierre Roestorf. Here we find John’s anchor, his strongest support.
Despite some introversion, and despite waves of opposition to his viewpoints at different times, some of it downright nasty, John never shied from the public square. Through his career, he addressed about 700 audiences live (including the national cabinet), with print and electronic media appearances too many to count, here and across the world. His work wasn’t without effect, to use English understatement, a thing whose power he appreciated.
Beyond formal political engagement
A Renaissance Man, his interest in societal progress and in the general welfare of his fellows went way beyond formal political engagement.
John served on the board of the New Era Schools Trust that pioneered non-racial schooling in South Africa; on the board of the Ithuba Trust; as chairman of the Robert Shapiro Trust; the Council of the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa; as deputy-chairman of the KwaZulu Natal Indaba.
A prime example of John’s broad view of a citizen’s duty, illustrative of the man himself, was his love for the African Children’s Feeding Scheme, the ACFS, an organisation started by Fr Trevor Huddleston in 1945 that eventually fed tens of thousands of greater Johannesburg’s most desperate children every day.
As a schoolboy he had organised and acted in plays he hosted in his parent’s garage, with funds raised going to the ACFS. JKB never left the African Children’s Feeding Scheme, continuing as a donor to the end, last visiting its operations across Gauteng’s townships shortly before the Covid-19 lockdown. Says Adrian Wales, a director of the ACFS: ‘John quietly walked alongside our children as an interested supporter for half a century. He bettered thousands of lives. We doff our cap.’
In paean after paean from his friends, we hear that John Kane-Berman was ‘courageous’. But what do we really mean by that? It’s an important question.
Imbongis in lofsang
It’s especially important because the accolade ‘courage’ has become somewhat cheapened in recent years when applied by professional friends, one to another, for these are too often imbongis in lofsang. We should be wary of those who judge their own case.
For in any industry or sector or work type there is a human tendency to a homogenisation of ideas, with conventional wisdoms resulting. This comforts us. We all live, to greater or lesser degrees, in bubbles of our own conceptions of reality. How big or how constricted those bubbles are is always a choice.
Choosing too constricted a bubble – of those with whom to work based on shared narrow beliefs, or with whose ideas to consort – is not courage. You end up with an intense dialogue between people who have similar ideas but little or no dialogue between people who don’t. That is a road to intellectual shrinkage and Hell.
A thoughtful man, the Institute’s head of media relations, Michael Morris, noted in 2020: ‘It is only possible to have a meaningful conversation … by refusing to be hoodwinked or browbeaten, by cultivating habits of doubt and nurturing a healthy scepticism of popular wisdom. (That) does take courage.’
I think that’s about right. John wasn’t courageous because he took political positions sometimes at odds with other liberals. Such things might have been difficult, awkward and uncomfortable, but he always had support for them.
He was courageous because of a bigger bravery, based on imagination. This regarded all views as worthy of respect and exploration, with his only bottom line being that of human rights based on the dignity of adults being treated as free individual souls created by God.
Courage of imagination
This courage of imagination means a tolerance of political non-believers in any narrow ideological cause, provided they don’t hurt anyone.
I was amazed to find at the Institute I joined in 1991, already eight years under JKB’s captaincy, that most of his highly effective research staff weren’t sympathetic to many of the boss’s views. That didn’t put them in any employment danger. JKB never used his Human Resources function as a tool of intellectual oppression. There was no ‘you go to the Gulag’.
He could shift in policy stance, based on how he read the evidence and on what he thought could bring people more possibilities for advancement and liberty.
In the early 1970s, his Financial Mail colleagues saw his labour reporting sympathies as being to their left. When I came into his employ as a youngster, with the usual political simplicities of the young – in my case as a devout Reaganaut – he was clearly to my left, sympathetic to ideas of social democracy.
His views shifted somewhat over the decades, but John was never simplistic in thought. He thought for himself, and in his overall approach allowed for inquisitiveness. He wasn’t just respectful of ‘all ideas sincerely held’, as he put it, but he allowed himself imagination. For John Kane-Berman to be pigeon-holed as an ideologue would be preposterous.
That isn’t to claim that none of his viewpoints ever ossified, or that he couldn’t be stubborn.
When he invited me to visit Pierre and him for tea at their home earlier this year, I went only after a negotiation. There was, you see, an institutional matter, close to us both, on which we profoundly disagreed. John refused to have it discussed further.
I said that if that was the case, then I’d be unable to see him because there’d be an elephant in the room blocking my view of him. John pondered that, and then decided: ‘Not to worry. We’ll just sit outside!’
With Pierre’s amazing hospitality, with tea-turned-into-wine, a thoroughly lekker afternoon ensued, with a gregarious John in top form. We shot the breeze properly. It would, unexpectedly, be my last audience with the King.
John Kane-Berman, the great umfundisi, is survived by Pierre; by three brothers, and by their families.
He is also survived by a legion of fired-up South African liberals. The positive effects of his influence will be with us for generations. For that, it is surely South Africa that is ‘the lucky country’.
Institute communications director Hermann Pretorius notes as apposite the opening lines of the famous poem, Generaal de Wet, by Jan Celliers:
Daar gaan ‘n man verby
En dis verlaas.
Daar’s nog maar één soos hy
Bekyk hom goed.
* This is an expanded version of the eulogy delivered this morning at Kane-Berman’s funeral at St George’s Anglican Church, Parktown, Johannesburg.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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