Book of the week: A blueprint of principles

2008-04-30 00:00

He grew up in a working-class Cape Town suburb and left school at 14 without his parents’ knowledge. In spite of this Alex Boraine has led a remarkably influential life. Within 25 years he had completed his university education with a doctorate and changed his world view from that of a fundamentalist preacher to liberal president of the Methodist Church.

Boraine then became a very effective Progressive Party parliamentarian, but 12 years later walked out with Frederik van Zyl Slabbert to form Idasa (Institute for Democracy in South Africa). It was a courageous act that has been vindicated by history: the Dakar conference he helped organise and consultative politics he subsequently promoted were cogs in the negotiation wheel that contributed to a peaceful South African settlement. He is best known as deputy chair of the TRC and this role led to a late, international career in the teaching and promotion of transitional justice.

Autobiography requires the reader’s caution, yet Boraine is not afraid of forthright comment on others or himself; and his writing carries an air of openness and honesty. While a career such as his must have involved a degree of luck, life has not been easy. Both his brothers died in World War 2 and his father shortly afterwards. Two of his sons suffered persecution for their anti-apartheid beliefs, his daughter was more recently the victim of a vicious criminal attack, and he has battled twice with cancer.

Boraine writes well and often with humour. He recalls his period of ministry in the western Transvaal travelling on a bicycle and in Pondoland on a motorbike and in a recalcitrant car; and remembers how George Soros’s cat got to their lunch first on a New York funding trip. But covering more recent times and his involvement with transitional justice he seems to have fallen back on lecture notes.

Like Slabbert, he laments the unfulfilled promise of democracy and his sidelining from public life. Most importantly he gives voice to something for which many South Africans hope: a realignment of politics that brings together those who believe in the constitution, the rule of law and social justice. There’s another important book waiting here. But, in the meantime, this story of his life is a blueprint for the principles of human rights politics and civic morality we desperately need; and for this alone it deserves to be widely read.

Christopher Merrett

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