Alex Boraine (1931-2018): South Africa mourns the passing of a truly decent man
Good, kind, decent, insightful: these are the adjectives most frequently used to describe Alex Boraine, who passed away in Cape Town on 5 December at the age of 87. Boraine, the man credited with the concept of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, devoted most of his adult life to the quest for meaningful democracy in South Africa.
Alex Boraine’s name and reputation became so tied to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that it is easy to forget that his work at the TRC was one of the later acts of a life committed to public service. It was as a man of the clergy that Boraine began his public life. Ordained in the Methodist Church in 1956, he would become the youngest ever President of the Methodist Church of South Africa (MCSA) in 1970. In a statement after his death on 5 December, Boraine’s former colleague Reverend Peter Storey described him as “head and shoulders above the rest of us, not just physically but intellectually”. As the president of the MCSA, said Storey, “he robustly confronted the apartheid state and criticised the labour practices of big corporate companies in South Africa. He was without question and quintessentially one of the archetypes of left-wing critics of the National Party.” The organisation which Boraine founded in later life, the International Centre for Transitional Justice, described its founder in a statement as “a product of privileged white, middle-class South Africa” who nonetheless “soon recognised the evils of apartheid and spent decades working to dismantle it”. Boraine’s son Andrew told Daily Maverick that he remembered living as a child in Durban in the late 1960s, when his father was still very much involved in church work. “This young black medical student would come round to the house to talk and work with my dad. It was quite novel for us as young white privileged kids,” said Andrew. “That was Steve Biko. That was the kind of household we grew up in. When Steve was murdered, my father was devastated.” Boraine’s opposition to apartheid took him into Parliament in 1974 as an MP for the Progressive Party. President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement on Thursday that Boraine remains “widely respected for the role he played as a Member of Parliament for the Progressive Party between 1974 and 1986 in opposing the apartheid government and seeking ways to achieve a peaceful dismantling of the system of racial discrimination and oppression”. When Boraine resigned from Parliament in 1986, it was to found the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa (Idasa) alongside politician Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert. Journalist Pippa Green regards that decision, fuelled by Boraine and Van Zyl Slabbert’s realisation that “the way forward was not going to be through Parliament”, as one of the “key moves” of the moment. “At that time I was a young reporter and it was in the middle of a state of emergency, so it paled compared to what else was happening,“ Green told Daily Maverick. “But it really showed that [Boraine] had a lot of foresight. It made a difference in getting a section of white people to see that the way forward had to be through negotiation with the ANC.” Boraine played a key role in helping organise, through Idasa, the 1987 Dakar Conference in Senegal which saw ANC delegates in exile led by Thabo Mbeki meet with a 61-strong contingent of Idasa delegates from South Africa. The conference discussed the way forward towards a peaceful transition of power in South Africa. Though it was subsequently condemned by the National Party government, the conference is now seen as having paved the way for talks between the apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders. Boraine’s role in helping make the Dakar Conference a reality reflects what his son sees as two central aspects of his nature. “He was this incredible mix of idealism and pragmatic implementation,” says Andrew. “I think from his church days, his theological training, he was a complete idealist – he always saw the good in people. But he was also a very determined pragmatist. He had this ability to see the big picture, to see the society that could be, but also to then go around doing the day-to-day work to put plans into action.” Never was this skill-set more valuable than in launching and running the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, of which Boraine served as deputy chairperson. “Alex was measured, reassuring, organised and efficient,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a statement reflecting on Boraine’s work for the TRC. “He made sure things ran in the appropriate order, and on time. He was more than a right-hand man; I could not have managed the Commission without him.” Green, who produced a podcast series on the TRC, says that although the commission has been criticised in recent years for being over-conciliatory in its focus, its concept – with which Boraine is mostly credited – was “incredibly progressive” for the time. “The National Party wanted blanket amnesty [for those who testified],” Green points out. “But the TRC’s amnesty conditions were actually the strictest in the world of any post-conflict situation. Most people didn’t get amnesty.” Boraine’s work for the TRC was the time which his son describes as “the busiest and most traumatic of his (father’s) life”. It was a source of deep concern to Boraine that most of the perpetrators of apartheid atrocities were never prosecuted for their crimes after the TRC. In 2015, he described the “failure or refusal of the authorities to pursue the cases from the past” as “a betrayal of what victims of apartheid struggled and died for”. Boraine wrote those words around the time that Green carried out her last in-depth interview with him, during which he was “fiercely critical of [then-President Jacob] Zuma and of corruption”. Says Green: “Although he was closer to the ANC than to any other party, he wasn’t afraid to speak out about matters like cadre deployment. He was always sympathetic, but outspoken.” Andrew Boraine says that his father never lost his faith in the democratic South African state. “He was just pissed off,” he says. “Part of him was an incurable optimist, but he was definitely absolutely furious about the betrayal of the democratic ideals during the abject cravenness of the Zuma years.” Boraine died in Cape Town exactly five years to the day after the passing of Nelson Mandela. To his family, he will be remembered as a man who never let his commitment to public service stand in the way of his most cherished relationships. “He never forgot an occasion, a birthday – not just for me, but for all my siblings, my mom, his grandchildren. His ideals on the public side resonated hugely on the private side: there was no distinction,” says Andrew. “For all his achievements, I admire him most as a father.” DM