Call to join ‘battle of ideas’

Give education vouchers to indigent families to allow their children to access independent schools. That’s just one of a bumper crop of innovative ideas from John KaneBerman contained in his new memoir, Between Two Fires – Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics (published by Jonathan Ball).

The forthright former director of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) argues that the form of inequality with the most damaging long-term impact is that in our schooling system.

In 2015, he notes, the matric maths pass rate for blacks was 26% and for whites 85%.

“More and more and more black parents are voting with their children’s feet against dysfunctional township schools and sending them to former model C or independent schools.

“This is a movement that should be strengthened.

“One way of enabling more parents to choose independent schools over failing state schools is for the state to provide them with vouchers to pay the fees.”

With this approach, the state would keep paying for school education, but would gradually stop running the schools itself as private providers take over, he says.

“Vouchers would be a means of empowering poorer families to exercise the choice about their children’s schooling, which is now available only to the middle class.”

The proposal is vintage Kane-Berman, resting on the right of the individual to choose, the power of ordinary people to implement change and the capacity of the market to balance the books.

It’s also pure classical liberalism, of which he is arguably South Africa’s leading exponent.

Classical liberalism, as he writes, is the premise that “the interventionist state, confident of its own wisdom, will intervene in the economy whenever it feels intervention is desirable. The liberal state, sceptical of its own wisdom, will be cautious about using its power and will regulate and intervene only where absolutely necessary.”

If this is a golden thread that runs through this book, and the philosophy that put the author at loggerheads with first apartheid and then the ANC government – as student activist leader, Rhodes scholar, newspaperman and columnist, and finally through 30 years as the director of the institute – Between Two Fires is far from a treatise.

It renders astonishing factual detail (489 reference notes at the end of this 306-page book), yet is easy to read.

This is as much because of the excellent writing as because in the end the recipients of bad policy are people, and Kane-Berman reminds us of this with vivid stories of suffering, courage and hilarity.

Most of all for me in these days of homogenous, sanitised tweet-friendly political brush strokes which polarise and dumb us down, he reminds us of South Africa’s complexity.

He shines a light on the multiple layers and personalities of the antiapartheid struggle, and with vigorous independence probes the reasons for the present political and economic decay.

Extraordinarily well read and blessed with a formidable intellect, Kane-Berman clearly relishes avoiding the ivory tower and meeting the challenge of “speaking truth to power”, delighting as much in the Kruger Park and the gardens of Bedford in the Eastern Cape, as an art museum in Russia; writing as proudly of his brothers’ farm school as he does of the SAIRR’s iconic annual survey.

He dissects the “injustice, cruelty and insanity” of apartheid.

He explains just how the edifice was raised, law by law, how impregnable it seemed and how it came tumbling down under the weight of the “silent revolution” of ordinary black South Africans whose steadfast intransigence finally made the system unworkable.

He explores the “people’s war” and the “liberal slideaway” exemplified by the unwillingness of most media houses and non-profit organisations, academics and clerics who had been part of the anti-apartheid movement to speak out against revolutionary violence.

It’s interesting to read the new Betrayal of the Promise report on state capture against the perspective of Between Two Fires.

Kane-Berman argues that the ANC’s strategy to capture centres of power, from land to the judiciary, “was well under way long before anybody had heard of the Gupta family or state capture”.

He spells out his view on affirmative action and minimum wage legislation and “connects the dots”, just as he did when he was probing apartheid, to show how bad policy under the ANC has led to human suffering.

He urges South Africans to join “the battle of ideas” with this rallying cry: “Democracy provides the opportunity and free speech the weapon”.

This is a milestone publication, and I would urge anyone interested in South Africa’s past, present and future to read it.

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