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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A ringing argument for the classic values of pragmatic liberalism – J Brooks Spector reviews Between Two Fires

Between Two Fires John Kane-Berman is uniquely qualified to look back over the enormous political and social changes that have taken place in his lifetime in this fractious country.

In his career as student leader, Rhodes Scholar, newspaperman, independent columnist, speech maker, commentator, and Chief Executive, for thirty years, of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Kane-Berman has been at the coal face of political change in South Africa.

The breadth and depth of ideas and events covered here are striking: the disintegration of apartheid, the chaos of the ‘people’s war’ and its contribution to the broader societal breakdown we see today, the liberal slide-away, the authoritarian ANC with its racial ideology and revolutionary goals, to mention only a few.

J Brooks Spector recently reviewed Kane-Berman’s autobiographical memoir for the Daily Maverick. An excerpt reads:

There is a theory that an autobiographer always gives his protagonist the best lines in every discussion; wins every argument he engages in; and always has the very best discussion-ending quip to lock down that win.

In John Kane-Berman’s polished political memoir from a particularly difficult contentious period in South African history, to his credit, he doesn’t win every debate. Nevertheless, he does maintain his arguments were always the better ones, even if they didn’t carry the day on any particular day …

John Kane-Berman’s memoir is a ringing argument for the classic values of pragmatic liberalism, as opposed to dogmatic ideologies – the two fires of the title.

Thus the question, not yet answered, is whether such a struggle over ideas will come down on the side of open politics and pragmatic decisions or – as some increasingly fear – unhappily on the side of dogmatic, doctrinaire solutions to social, political and economic issues.

Between Two Fires
is a fine read with a rich depth of detail about his struggle in waving that banner of liberalism in a very tough neighbourhood. But – necessarily, perhaps – it leaves open the pending question of what will happen next in South Africa’s evolution.

Read the full review here.

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