BOOK REVIEW: A thoughtful life

2017-05-21 06:06

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Sandra Laurence

Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics by John Kane-Berman 

Jonathan Ball Publishers

338 pages

R239 at

It is heartening, among all the mayhem and vitriol of the past few years, to read this considered, impeccably researched and beautifully written account of the intensification and fall of apartheid by John Kane-Berman. As a journalist for 10 years and as head of the SA Institute of Race Relations for 30 years, he was uniquely positioned to chart the course of South African politics up to, and after, democracy.

But the memoir is not all dry facts and political analysis. There are wonderful moments of humour, too.

We hear of his first memory – a fire in the family home – and the move from there to a house in Waverley with a large garage, where he and his four brothers, together with friends and neighbours, formed The Garage Players. They performed extracts from Shakespeare, with jiving and Elvis Presley included, by candlelight because their amateur technician had broken the light fittings.

The author shows his powers of observation and expression not only in compiling a record of liberal responses to state repression, but also in his more personal memories.

At school, the Anglican St John’s College in Houghton, he observed that there were few liberals among his classmates, although this was not true of the staff. His experiences there showed that support for the then National Party’s policies went far beyond the Afrikaners, and that not all Afrikaners supported apartheid.

Kane-Berman’s observations are fair and sober, backed by statistics and facts assiduously collated for the surveys published by the institute – some 22 000 pages of which he edited over 30 years.

After St John’s, Kane-Berman was called up by the army, one of the first intake to go for nine months. In 1965, he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, where his majors were law and political science, although he writes that his time there was dominated by student politics. He then won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University and returned in 1971, just in time for the tightening of the pass laws by Piet Koornhof.

Kane-Berman is well read and has written four books, delivered countless lectures and travelled widely. His memoir is considered and instructive, and ends with ideas for reversing the country’s “downward slide”.

Among these, he advises South Africans to defend the institutions and processes of wealth creation and expose contradictions. But perhaps the leitmotif throughout this valuable work is for the moral dimension in our society to be continuously exposed and never ignored.

His book documents the brave attempt by a few South Africans to keep the liberal flame burning in the country. No doubt Kane-Berman will be labelled a right wing commentator by some and a revolutionary apologist by others, but he is unlikely to be concerned by that.

What we have is a tribute to a full life, thoughtfully lived, and a record of the liberal centre in South African politics, now guttering and flickering despite determined efforts to fan it back into life.

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