Although founded in 1934, SAIIA’s origins lie in discussions of the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War when international relations and interstate dialogue came to be recognised as a way towards peace.
Our institute was established by a bipartisan group of politicians, academics and newspaper editors in Cape Town, with the objective of furthering the studies of international affairs, with regard to politics, economics and jurisprudence. The first chairperson, then carrying the title president, was Sir James Carruthers Beattie, with Professor RW Wilcocks and Senator FS Malan elected as vice-presidents.
During the inter-war period our institute had no permanent office and much of our activities were devoted to developing external contacts. We were often the only institution representing the former colonies in Africa at global conferences like the Commonwealth Relations Conferences. In 1945, we published our first paper, ‘The Real India: A human problem of world importance’, written by Sir Robert Bristow.
After the Second World War South Africa began to cement its international position. In our first published report, dated 1950-1952, Chairperson Dr WJ Busschau expressed particular optimism that South Africans were beginning to realise the importance of observing international affairs. We entered the next half-century with fervour, developing a wide number of activities dedicated to understanding international affairs through dialogue and research.
During the period between 1944 and 1954, we began the move from the Western Cape to Gauteng. It was on a visit to Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs that Dr Busschau was inspired to create a similar memorial to South Africa’s premier statesman, Jan Christiaan Smuts. Our new head office, built as a living memorial to Smuts, bears this inscription: Monumentum aere perennius memoriae Johannis Smuts dedicatum.
As Jan Smuts House would be located on the campus of Wits University, the Deed of Trust issued by the Smuts Memorial Trust made provision for the establishment of the Department of International Relations. Professor Ben Cockram was appointed as the first Jan Smuts Chair of International Relations and had his office in Jan Smuts House. It was only in 1983 that the Department, with over 500 registered students, moved to separate offices on the campus.
Permanent offices at Jan Smuts House allowed our institute to develop a clear conference programme. Conferences in the Oppenheimer Hall would draw more public attention to our institute and our activities. In 1969 we held or first symposium themed ‘United States foreign policy in a regional context’, while the first major conference on ‘The impact on international relations of the population explosion’ was held in June 1970.
With John Barratt (formerly a Foreign Service Officer at the United Nations) as our institution’s then director-general, we began to strengthen our public reputation by organising a number of conferences and symposia. International intellectual exchange was also prominent as we maintained links with over 80 similar organisations, academic departments and libraries. Our independence of political partisanship remained integral as research, both at headquarters and branch level, continued to produce an objective understanding of often controversial questions.
The 1970s saw our research priorities move closer to critical issues of the South African political environment. Throughout the decade, conferences and accompanying occasional papers addressed topics such as ‘Education and training for development’, ‘The future of South West Africa’ and ‘South Africa in the world: The realities’. The institute’s commitment to non-racism and willingness to engage with post-colonial African states is evident as conference participants included scholars from across Africa.
In South Africa, our institute’s footprint was also spread across the country. At this time, we had active volunteer branches in Cape Town (1934), Durban (1939), Gauteng (1939), Eastern Cape (1945), Pretoria (1968), Stellenbosch (1971), Grahamstown (1975), the former Transkei (1976), South West Africa/Namibia (1977), Pietermaritzburg (1978) and East London (1983).
In 1984 we celebrated our Golden Jubilee with three conferences focused on international cooperation. The first, ‘South Africa and its neighbours’ was held at the Hilton Hotel in KwaZulu-Natal. Another conference was held in Sandton on the topic of economic interdependence and world order. The main conference was held in Cape Town and focused on regional cooperation.
Our institute underwent its own transition as South Africa moved through its political transition in 1994. Dr Sara Pienaar took over as national director and in the previous year, our South African Journal of International Affairs was first published. Much of the research generated from 1992 to 1994 focused on understanding South Africa’s new position in the world while conferences stimulated dialogue on the future of South Africa’s foreign policy.
As South Africa acquired new confidence in its relations with the rest of the world, we began to broaden our research agenda to include increased analysis of south-south cooperation. Under the inspired leadership of Dr Greg Mills as national director during the period 1996 to 2005, we achieved new respect in terms of our international profile and became the preferred partner for many leading international think tanks. We consolidated our corporate membership base and developed closer relationships with diplomatic missions in South Africa, several of which would become major donors to the institute.
Today we boast a dynamic staff and a worldwide body of research associates. Our programmes and research interests reflect an institute that continues to be globally aware, but with an important South African and African perspective on the international stage.