Ar­tic­u­lat­ing free­dom in a post-free world

Kane-Ber­man’s mem­oir is a pro­found ac­count of a weird half-cen­tury

The Star Late Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Con­tact Stoep: E-mail: dbeck­ett@global.co.za known DENIS BECK­ETT

LONG be­fore that smart word “fren­emy” was thought up, John Kane-Ber­man and I were some­thing akin to it; com­pan­tag­o­nists, you might say, com­pan­ion­ably an­tag­o­nis­tic.

His crit­i­cisms of my 1980s pub­lish­ing ven­ture left my ears sting­ing, and I think I was heard to oc­ca­sion­ally query his con­duct­ing of the In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions, lead­ing him to el­e­gantly ex­cise me from his board by dis­cov­er­ing that Clause 14 (iii) (bis) read with Sec 37(xvii) made my pres­ence un­con­sti­tu­tional.

I was miffed at the time, but granted that it was a mas­ter­ful move, in keep­ing with what flowed from John’s pen. He had a way of sum­ming up is­sues so that you’d count plu­ral places where he boosted your knowl­edge and more places where he changed your think­ing.

John, now an el­der states­man with a fine white head of hair for au­then­ti­ca­tion, has pro­duced a mem­oir, Be­tween Two Fires, the fires be­ing those well

twins, Afrikaner Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment and African Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment.

His tale is of stick­ing to the same prin­ci­ples – free­dom, hu­man­ity, re­spect for a per­son as a per­son what­ever their birth char­ac­ter­is­tics – while the world around him wafts from do­eren­gaan over one side (“no, the white per­son mat­ters more”) to do­eren­gaan the op­po­site.

There’s supreme ar­tic­u­lacy and nu­clear-pow­ered rea­son­ing, nat­u­rally, along with hu­man in­sight sto­ries. A foot­note to his­tory has John and stu­dent lead­ers Neville Cur­tis and Mark Orkin be­ing dumped on from the dizzi­est height, prime min­is­ter Vorster his fright­en­ing self.

I now chuckle pic­tur­ing three par­ties chain-smok­ing through the or­deal, while I bet non-smoker Mark feared as­phyx­i­a­tion more than pri­son.

We see John nam­ing and sham­ing multi­na­tion­als who un­der­paid, and ask what has hap­pened to that arena? Is bot­tom-level pay, with laws and all, ac­tu­ally bet­ter than it was, or have bot­tom-level prob­lems slipped off-screen?

Pass laws come in, po­lice sprint­ing down streets to jail men for the crime of be­ing in the city that they’ll melt back into the day they’re re­leased. John sees a pass-raid in Craighall and un­bolts the po­lice truck’s door, let­ting the pris­on­ers out.

Yus! It was fash­ion­able to mock Race Re­la­tions for “fight­ing for free­dom with facts and fig­ures” (as if the peo­ple do­ing the mock­ing were on home leave from uMkhonto camps), but here John gets big brag­ging rights. Nor­mal brag­ging was of over-paint­ing Whites Only signs in the dead of furtive night. Had the un­bolt­ing feat been known, right within ba­ton-klap reach of po­lice, that’d zip those deroga­tory lips.

John’s first-fire seg­ment awak­ens the sense of how our think­ing shifts im­per­cep­ti­bly into new frames, oblit­er­at­ing the old. Take a univer­sity agree­ing to host black con­fer­ence del­e­gates pro­vided they stay out of the din­ing-room. From 2017’s van­tage-point that’s Iron Age, right? Right. So let’s won­der what things we do to­day that will look Iron Age when to­day’s young are old.

Old habits die hard. I must whack John’s book at least once. Per­haps there could be fewer point­ings-out of where he was right again. (Or per­haps I’m en­vi­ous he has so many places to point out.)

For good mea­sure I re-sub­mit that “race re­la­tions” is ar­chaic. Cut­ting-edge now must mean mak­ing race ir­rel­e­vant by ig­nor­ing race, a per­son’s least mean­ing­ful fea­ture but the one that hogs the air­time.

Ev­ery is­sue so­ci­ety must han­dle can be han­dled bet­ter with­out the im­pris­on­ing ep­i­thets white, black, In­dian, coloured. At the last Race Re­la­tions gig I raised this, John had vir­tual car­diac ar­rest, but if there’s one place I’ll say “heh, I was right”, that’s it.

What I doubt I’ll say is: “Here’s a fairer, squarer, pro­founder ac­count of a weird half-cen­tury than Be­tween Two Fires.”

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