Reflections on the life and legacy of John Kane-Berman - Businesslive

Aug 07, 2022
7 August 2022 - Thinking about the recent death of John Kane-Berman is one of those rare instances when reckoning with what’s lost, considerable though it is, seems on reflection to be substantially offset by what remains.

Michael Morris
Thinking about the recent death of John Kane-Berman is one of those rare instances when reckoning with what’s lost, considerable though it is, seems on reflection to be substantially offset by what remains.

As I can’t claim any intimate or long-standing friendship with JKB — as he was widely, and respectfully, known — I realise I am at risk of underestimating the sense of loss of those closest to him. But there is no mistaking what the former CEO of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) leaves for the rest of us in his vivid example of thinking and being.

We detect this in the things perceptive observers have said of him. In the eulogy he delivered at JKB’s funeral last week, friend and former associate Paul Pereira described Kane-Berman’s primary impulse as “a love of, and respect for, humanity”. This, Pereira went on, “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 qualities “run as the golden threads through his life”.

A measure of this credo is his candour in describing in his autobiography, Between Two Fires — Holding the Liberal Centre in SA Politics, significant shifts in his own thinking about changing society and improving people’s lives. We encounter a thinker who wants to know for himself, who finds no comfort in ideological certainty.

In letters to his parents back home while at Oxford in the late 1960s (he was a Rhodes scholar), he “expressed scepticism about the ability of laissez-faire liberalism to solve the problems of poverty” and confessed his doubt “as to whether or not economic forces would undermine apartheid ... [since industry and apartheid] had grown up together”.

In the early 1970s he was all for sanctions and “radical redistribution of wealth”, convinced that liberals “who were suggesting that apartheid was crumbing were clutching at straws”.

But a consequence of his blend of intellectual humility and curiosity was Kane-Berman's being able to see all the more clearly the primacy of the individual in society, the common person who thinks and acts, and from time to time experiences a change of heart.

Having used his acclaimed book on the Soweto uprising, Soweto: Black Revolt, White Reaction, to describe apartheid’s “executive despotism in great detail”, JKB recalled that his next book, SA’s Silent Revolution, published 12 years later, “chronicled... the very crumbling process I had been sceptical about”.

In this work he contrasts, for instance, the “2- to 3-million forced removals”  under apartheid with the 17.12-million arrests under the pass laws between 1916 and 1981. Responding to economic needs and opportunities, “Africans ... were simply voting against these laws with their feet”.

In this eloquent data point we might well recognise the deceptively lowly figure of Roy Campbell’s poetic imagination, the tiller of whom he writes: “But as the turf divides / I see in the slow progress of his strides / Over the toppled clods and falling flowers, / The timeless, surly patience of the serf / That moves the nearest to the naked earth / And ploughs down palaces, and thrones, and towers.”

JKB’s spirit lives on in this lesson: think carefully and be truthfully self-examining, but above all pay attention to people, ordinary people — the beating heart of liberalism — and observe as best you can the seeming commonplaces that are the sum of their small daily choices, for that is where history is made, and where the future becomes visible.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

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