OPINION

In Memoriam: John Kane-Berman 1946-2022

IRR |

27 July 2022

Long running CEO of the IRR was a fearless proponent of liberalism before, during and after SA’s democratic transition

In Memoriam: John Kane-Berman 1946-2022

John Kane-Berman, who was born on the eve of apartheid and devoted his life to vigorously opposing the race nationalism of apartheid’s ideologues and, at their defeat, the illiberal impulses of their successors, has died aged 76.

His conviction in the power of ideas was central to his long association with the South African Institute of Race Relations. It remains a profound and lasting influence on the liberal cause, and the continuing efforts to achieve a fairer, prospering South Africa.

Said John Endres, CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations: “John Kane-Berman leaves a profound legacy. As CEO of the Institute from 1983 until 2014, he was a fearless proponent of liberalism before, during and after South Africa’s democratic transition. He sharpened the SAIRR’s focus, put it on a sound financial footing and set it on the path that turned it into the potent force that it is today.

“His brave and unstinting commitment to the liberal cause inspired legions of South African liberals, myself included. John Kane-Berman was known for his eloquent presentation, exceptional memory, thorough command of his subject matter and exemplary discipline. He was demanding, setting the highest standards for himself and others, because he realised the importance of the project he was engaged in: to insist that nothing less than true non-racialism and personal freedom would allow the dignity and prosperity of all South Africans to flourish.”

Kane-Berman, the eldest of five brothers, was born in Johannesburg in 1946.

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He was schooled at St John’s College in Houghton, and went on to study at the University of the Witwatersrand and, as a Rhodes Scholar, the University of Oxford. He grew up in what he described as a “happy, comfortable, and politically conscious family”. His father, Louis, had become a household name in South Africa as chairman of the Torch Commando, Second World War veterans who rallied to the cause when the Nationalists sought in the early 1950s to disenfranchise coloured South Africans in the Cape.

National Party leader and prime minister of the first apartheid administration, D F Malan, characterised the Torch Commando as “a most dangerous organisation”; Alan Paton fittingly described it as “the only white organisation the National Party ever feared”.

Kane-Berman would reflect almost 50 years later “that the Torchmen’s practical assertion of the right to free speech” had impressed him enormously, and was proof that, borrowing from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “freedom of speech, sword-like, longs to shine in use [and] not be left to rust”.

His life, Kane-Berman himself said, was really about opposition to the abuse of power and how its misuse hurt the most defenceless people. A clear memory was coming down to breakfast at the age of 14 to read about the Sharpeville Massacre in the Rand Daily Mail, and of how as a consequence of Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg Ambrose Reeves’ efforts to challenge the official account of the shooting, his parents then took in the Bishop’s son, Nicholas, his classmate, after the Reeves family had received death threats, making it untenable for the boy to remain at home.