OPEN LETTER | 'We are concerned about the direction the IRR is taking'

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The signatories of an open letter argue that the IRR’s current approach betrays the legacy of its founders and does a  disservice to the people of South Africa.
The signatories of an open letter argue that the IRR’s current approach betrays the legacy of its founders and does a disservice to the people of South Africa.

Eighty signatories including religious leaders, members of the Mahatma Gandhi and Paton families as well as academics, anti-apartheid stalwarts and former IRR employees and members, have signed an open letter expressing concern about what they view is the Institute of Race Relations slid into ideological extremism.

We write as current and former members of the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and other concerned citizens to express our disquiet at the direction the IRR has taken and its current role in South Africa.

The IRR was once a major player in the human rights movement in South Africa.

According to its own historian, Ellen Hellmann, it was "specifically established to promote interracial goodwill and to conduct investigations bearing upon race relations. The two main objectives of its constitution adopted in 1932 read: (a) To work for peace, goodwill and practical co-operation between the various sections of the populations of South Africa. (b) 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 should subsist between them." (Hellmann: 4).

Research central 

Research in the field of race relations was central to the work of the IRR.

Over the years, the IRR’s Annual Survey and reports made an enormous contribution to greater awareness about the social and economic conditions in which black, coloured and Indian South Africans lived. Its research provided detailed data on a host of matters, such as social welfare, wage levels, cost of living, child malnutrition, transport costs, and conditions in the so-called African reserves and homelands. It made detailed submissions to official commissions, and it was regularly consulted and its research cited by universities and other bodies, international as well as national, wanting reliable information on South Africa.

Today, all that is left of that legacy is the Annual Survey which remains a valuable source of statistics and data drawn from such bodies as Statistics South Africa, the Reserve Bank, government departments and international bodies – but only because they are published without comment.

Under apartheid, the IRR was a leading voice in civil society.

Prior to the creation of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights in the 1970s, it was one of the leading advocates of human rights, working in close association with bodies that opposed apartheid such as the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute.

Its committees and leadership included prominent South Africans such as Ezekiel Mahabane, William Nkomo, Stanley Mogoba, Archbishop Denis Hurley, Alan Paton and Helen Suzman; Mahabane, Nkomo and Mogoba serving as presidents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ina Perlman launched Operation Hunger from the IRR in 1981.

Nor should we forget that Desmond Tutu, then Bishop of Johannesburg, also worked closely with the Institute. It was simultaneously activist and informative in its opposition to apartheid and injustice, and played a different role in society to its present successor, which has become an entirely different enterprise. Its work was so effective that it was investigated by the apartheid government’s Schlebusch Commission in the early 1970s.

Credibility and accountability

The IRR’s objectivity and credibility were built on its accountability to regional committees and an alliance of organisations of civil society, including churches and the Black Sash.

In the 1980s the IRR underwent a major change in direction. It ceased to work with or concern itself with community-based organisations and civil society, allowing those who led it to promulgate their ideas without checks or balances. The IRR was one of only three 2 organisations (with the Free Market Foundation and the Gauteng Chamber of Commerce and Industry) that approached the Constitutional Court in 1995 to object to the inclusion of social and economic rights in the Bill of Rights of the 1996 Constitution (their objection being rejected by the Constitutional Court in its first Certification judgment).

We do not dispute the right of individuals to promote their own political and economic beliefs, but note that the IRR fosters a 'free-market, small state' agenda while representing itself as a human rights research organisation devoted to impartial fact-based analysis.

This testifies to its open association with northern libertarian groups such as the Atlas Network and the Heritage Foundation, the latter supporting Trump’s presidential campaigns. Furthermore, although the IRR’s founding constitution "explicitly excluded the Institute from identifying or associating itself with any organised political party" (Hellmann: 4), the IRR has increasingly identified itself with the Democratic Alliance.

Through its news website, the Daily Friend, and their @Liberty policy bulletins, the IRR has obfuscated or denied the role of humans in causing climate change, attacked South African medical scientists, offered unscientific advice about Covid-19 vaccines and other mitigation measures, and attacked analyses of the societal production of racism and racial inequality as inherently 'race essentialist.'

Furthermore, in a society where some 30 people were shot in recent civilian conflicts in Durban, it has objected to proposed government legislation tightening access to fire-arms. Instead, it equates 'gun rights' with self-defence and personal property rights, despite the Constitutional Court (along with a majority of other countries) having ruled that gun-ownership is a privilege and not a right.

Own ideological predilections prioritised

These issues reflect the concerns of the board of an institute which, nearly three decades after the end of apartheid, remains engaged primarily with the interests of an overwhelmingly white, elite, and 'big business' constituency.

The Institute prioritises its own ideological predilections rather than devoting itself to the betterment of race relations. Despite this, the IRR claims to be representing the concerns of all South Africans and that its policies and campaigns continue its human rights legacy.

Any ideas that do not serve the interests of unfettered free market economics are framed as an assault on individual freedoms, human rights and inequality.

Through the Daily Friend’s opinion columns, and in their campaigns and reports, the IRR uses misinformation and hyperbole to foster fear, confusion and conflict rather than logical and constructive public dialogue based in solid empirical research. The Daily Friend is not a member of the Press Council of South Africa, and hence not subject to its jurisdiction nor the media code of ethics.

The IRR’s present direction is contrary to the original core aims of the Institute as recorded by Hellmann (p. 9), that the IRR "believed in the pursuit of the truth as a value in itself" and did not pursue its work with "a preconceived programme nor ready-made policy".

"It believed that the systematic seeking out of facts relating to the conditions which determine the quality of life of the 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 actively acknowledged the central role racial inequality played in economic and other spheres.

Legacy betrayed 

The IRR’s excellent body of work in previous decades is a testament to the dedication and integrity of the many researchers who worked for it and upheld its ideals.

We believe the IRR’s current approach betrays the legacy of its founders and does a disservice to the people of South Africa. We urge the IRR’s members and its funders to call it to account and support work that upholds the values of truth and justice and promotes the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.

If it does not, it is time for the IRR to change its name and eschew any mention of or reference to the original human rights organization that it no longer represents.

*Hellmann, E. (1979). 'The South African Institute of Race Relations 1929-1979: A short history. South African Institute of Race Relations'.

John Aitcheson Former IRR member

Samantha Ashman Emily Bacon (née Dyer)

Omar Badsha

Di Bishop/Oliver

Andrew Boraine

Jeremy Boraine

Heidi Brookes Family of IRR founder & president John Brookes

Katherine Brookes

Heather Brookes

David Brookes

Debbie Budlender

Geoff Budlender SC Chair, Western Cape Regional Committee, 1973 to 1975, member of the Executive Committee and National Council 1973 to (approx) 1985 (resigned).

Mary Burton Former IRR member

Coco Cachalia IRR archivist 1982-84

David Cooper

Hugh Corder Member and sometime Chair of the Western Cape Regional Committee, 1985 to 1994, member of the National Council 1988 to 1994 (resigned)

Bishop Geoff Davies

Kate Davies

John de Gruchy IRR member 1960s to early 1970s

Rosemary de Waal IRR regional chair and national council member

Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie

John Dugard President of IRR 1977-1979

Jackie Dugard

Dorothy Dyer

Rob Dyer

George Ellis IRR member and sometime Chair of the Western Cape Region, late 1980s and early 1990s

David Everatt

Ilse Fischer-Wilson

Drew Forrest

Ela Gandhi

Michael Gardiner

Nazim Gani

Keith Gottschalk IRR life member

Adrian Guelke Former IRR member

Peter Hain

David Hemson Former editor of Race Relations News 1970-71

Douglas Irvine Former IRR member

Peter Kallaway Former IRR member

Joan Kerchoff Former IRR member

Rosalie Kingwill

Mary Kleinenberg Horst Kleinschmidt IRR Board 1973 - 1975

Sue Krige

Merle Lipton Former IRR member

John MacRobert IRR Regional Committee member mid 1980’s; Regional Chair 1990 -1991; National Council 1993 - mid 1990’s

Anne Mager Coordinator of IRR Western Cape Bursary and Enrichment Programmes 1983-1986.

Itumeleng Mahabane Grandson of IRR president

Anwar Suleman Mall

Andrew Manson IRR researcher 1980-83

Dale McKinley

Kirti Menon

Christopher Merret Former IRR member 1980s

Rajend Mesthrie

Sibongiseni Mkhize

Mavuso Msimang 

Lawson Naidoo

Bill Nasson

Amuzweni Ngoma

Noor Nieftagodien

Bishop Michael Nuttall Former IRR member 1950s

Nic Paton

Anthony Paton

Pam Paton-Mills

Devan Pillay IRR youth programme 1978-79

Barney Pityana

Max Price Beverley


Alan Rycroft

Bridget Nomonde Scoble Cape Western Regional Representative of SAIRR 1984- 1990

Crain Soudien

Roger Southall Former IRR member

Andrew Spiegel Former IRR member Jane Tempest IRR Head of Research 2003 to 2007

Karl von Holdt

David Welsh

Michelle Williams

Francis Wilson

Lindy Wilson

Tim Wilson

Nan Yeld

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