Institute of Race Relations’ endurance a testament to founders’ - Businesslive

6 May 2019 - But for far too many South Africans today one would need only erase the word “oppressed” from that stirring phrase in the Phillipses’ Baobab citation — “the terrible living conditions of the growing population of the oppressed” — to apply it uncontroversially to them and describe a mostly urban reality that existing and envisaged state policy exacerbates more than relieves.

Michael Morris

Few South Africans will have taken much notice of President Cyril Ramaphosa posthumously conferring the Order of the Baobab (silver) late in April on Ray and Dora Phillips, two individuals who could not, after all, be described as being anything like household names. They were, in fact, Americans.

In most news reports on the bestowal of national honours on the great and the good in the last week of April just one line was devoted to them: “Ray and Dora Phillips, who were founders of the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), posthumously received a silver Baobab”.

One report acknowledged another element of the citation — their “excellent contribution to the creation of the first social work network designed to improve the terrible living conditions of the growing population of the oppressed that were being brought to the Rand to work in the mines in the early 20th century”.

Born in 1889, Ray Phillips’s fascinating life journey as a missionary and visionary of SA civic activism began with his ordination in late September 1917 in the newly built Pilgrim Church in Duluth on the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior. He and Dora came to SA a year later and remained for the next 40 years.

In the larger chronicle of events since, the Phillipses’ contribution might seem little more than a marginal footnote, discountable if not entirely forgettable. After all, hasn’t all that been swept away? The bald answer is no.

There are two reasons why “marginal” would be a false calibration, both of their contribution and of the history South Africans have endured since the early 20th century, for both reflect the condition of a society still grappling with challenges that were as fundamental to its emerging modernity as they are to its future.

It was 90 years ago this week, on May 9, at a meeting at the Phillipses’ Johannesburg home that the IRR was formed. Present on that occasion were Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, one of the first professors at the University of Fort Hare; Johannes du Plessis, a missionary and theologian; Charles Templeman Loram, chief inspector of “native education” in Natal; scholar Edgar Brookes (elected in 1937 to the Senate by black voters in Natal, and later, elected chair of the Liberal Party); J Howard Pim, the government official after whom the Soweto suburb of Pimville is named, Pim having dedicated much of his energy to black “upliftment” in Johannesburg; Thomas W Mackenzie, editor of The Friend newspaper in Bloemfontein; and JH Nicholson, mayor of Durban.

At a distance, the 1929 assembly of founders seems almost unlikely, and might at the time have seemed a conclave of unorthodoxy without a future. It is a measure — one kind of measure — of the endurance and reach of the IRR in the years since, a decade short of a century later, that its research and analysis have appeared in media over the past month in places as diverse as London, Karachi, Lagos, Manila, Berlin, Caracas and Beijing.

Chiefly, it is an unignorable participant in SA’s own national conversation, for it focuses as it did all those years ago on the continuing struggle for modernity in SA itself, freedom from poverty and the abuse of power, and the empowerment of individuals as the agents of a new society.

Ray Phillips foresaw it in two books in the 1930s, The Bantu Are Coming — the basis of his 1937 Yale University doctoral dissertation — and The Bantu in the City. But for far too many South Africans today one would need only erase the word “oppressed” from that stirring phrase in the Phillipses’ Baobab citation — “the terrible living conditions of the growing population of the oppressed” — to apply it uncontroversially to them and describe a mostly urban reality that existing and envisaged state policy exacerbates more than relieves.

• Morris is head of media at the IRR.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2019-05-06-michael-morris-institute-of-race-relations-endurance-a-testament-to-founders/

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