Articulating freedom in a post-free world
Kane-Berman’s memoir is a profound account of a weird half-century
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.”