Guest Column

Alex Boraine refused to leave politics to politicians

2018-12-09 06:00
Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairperson and Dr Boraine, deputy chairperson at one of the sittings of the TRC.

Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairperson and Dr Boraine, deputy chairperson at one of the sittings of the TRC.

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To some he was a 'white liberal' and to some supporters of the National Party an astute boer antagonist. To many Alex Boraine was somewhere between an idealist and an agitator, writes Charles Villa-Vicencio.

Alex Boraine started his career as a passionate evangelical Methodist preacher. The content of his message changed radically over the years, but not his passion. He was a man of vision with a near messianic sense of purpose.   

I got to know Alex over fifty plus years as a leader who inspired people with similar basic values. A natural leader and skilled project manager, he had strong opinions and ingrained values, shaped by a broad liberal education. 

An avid reader, widely travelled with a renaissance outlook on life, it was not always easy to confront him. He never quite accepted 'fools' gladly. He created enemies and disciples. Never quite able or willing to be 'all things to all people' he chose his fights.  

READ: Boraine remembered for advancing democracy in SA

To some he was a 'white liberal' and to some supporters of the National Party an astute boer antagonist. To many South Africans he was somewhere between an idealist and an agitator. Always a gentleman (until provoked) some saw him as being too suave. No rabble rouser, he was courteous, articulate and instinctively looked for a 'third option' as the heat of confrontation intensified. 

To those he trusted, he was honest and loyal. Over the years, Alex and I established a deep sense of rapport. I'll miss our regular lunches and a glass of something. Those were profound encounters. Lots of give and take, within which we never quite managed to solve all the problems of the world. Our kinship led to intrusive questions, no respite and – where appropriate – no disclosure. Friendship does not get better than that.

Alex Boraine was a reconstructed liberal. Repulsed by the arrogance and hidden racism embedded in white privilege and individualism, he reached back to the theoretical roots of historic liberalism. He recalled its influence on the origins of the ANC in 1912, the banning of the non-racial Liberal Party in 1968, and he hated the quagmire of white politics. His concern was to salvage the place of the individual in the face of white nationalism, black nativism, communism and social collectivism. 

He was a prototypical individual and a leader who was determined to lead, revelling in the publicity (good and bad) that went with it. Rising to become the president (presiding bishop) of the Methodist Church, he was subsequently denied his status as an ordained minister by the Methodists because he refused to abide by church discipline. 

Having been elected to Parliament, together with the leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Boraine resigned his seat in Parliament in 1986 arguing that a white Parliament had no capacity to influence South Africa's future. 

Energised by the resignation of Van Zyl Slabbert and Boraine from Parliament, the ANC supported the launch of the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa (Idasa), despite opposition from within the UDF and elsewhere. Calming the opposition, a leading ANC member in Lusaka advised, "just keep an eye on that bloody Boraine".  

A year later Idasa, in cooperation with the ANC, convened the Dakar Conference, bringing together representatives of the ANC and mainly white Afrikaner South Africans. An independent voice, he remained at the heart of the South African transition.

Refusing to leave politics to party politicians, Boraine turned to civil society, using his organising and considerable fund-raising skills to engage with other NGOs, student bodies and trade unions to assist in the mobilisation of the growing opposition to apartheid. Idasa became a catalyst for the promotion and interpretation of alternative options for South Africa. He was a key figure in generating funding and support from international philanthropic organisations and foreign governments for emerging structures, in support of the ideals of the UDF.  

After the unbanning of the liberation movements, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990 and the subsequent run-up to the first democratic elections, Boraine took a leading role in the promotion of transitional justice mechanisms. He convened two major conferences on political transition, drawing on the experience of Latin American countries in their response to junta dictatorships. 

Instrumental in the drafting of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995 that led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was appointed vice chairperson of the commission under the leadership of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Playing a formative role in its execution, he later established the International Center for Transitional Justice, with a head office in New York.

Boraine was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. By 2015 this had escalated to bone cancer and oncologists predicted that he had three to 12 months to live. He continued to live a busy life, completing a manuscript on the meaning of life in the face of death.

Often speaking of his religious beliefs, he died at peace with himself, believing that the end comes with one's final breath – arguing that all that remains is one's legacy. His legacy, at a personal, private and political level, is there to be savoured, remembered and taken into the future.

- Villa-Vicencio is a lifelong friend of Boraine, former national research director of the TRC, Professor Emeritus of UCT and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

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Read more on:    trc  |  desmond tutu  |  alex boraine  |  parliament


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