Remembering Alex Boraine: An Intimate Conversation


In December 2018, we mourned the loss of ICTJ's founder, Alex Boraine. Alex became an international figure in the 1990’s in connection with his instrumental role in establishing South Africa’s groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), for which he served as deputy chairman until 1998. His activism and his scholarly contributions to the search for the truth and justice for human rights atrocities have been recognized not only by the likes of Bishop Desmond Tutu and the late Nelson Mandela, but by leaders around the world.

To those of us at ICTJ, Alex was also a visionary in establishing institutional structures for the pursuit of transitional justice.  On December 12, Fernando Travesí sat down for an intimate conversation with Vincent Mai—ICTJ’s first chairman—to learn more about a life that we will continue to commemorate in the months and years to come.

Travesí: So Vincent, how did you meet Alex? How did you come to find out about his passion for human rights and equality in South Africa?

Mai: I grew up in South Africa and I followed very closely what was going on there. My whole orientation was exactly in the same space as Alex. So, I knew of Alex long before I met him, because he was such a prominent leader in South Africa in the fight against apartheid. He was a very inspirational figure to me.

Then I met him when he came to New York after he had done the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I followed very closely and saw there the very prominent, crucial role he played. So, I knew all of that. He came to New York, and a friend of mine, I think it was Harvey Dale, suggested Alex and I get together and we just, from the day we met, hit it off… Within our first lunch he seemed like a close friend. Because I knew so much about him and we had such… compatible personalities, but also because we were interested in the same things. And that was close to 25 years ago. From then on… beyond Alex Boraine, the public figure, who did all of the amazing things he’s done, he was within my closest circle of personal friends. And not just Alex, but Jenny and the children and the family. My three children know Jenny really well, they all love Alex and Jenny and so he’s become family to us.

Now let’s just talk about Alex the human being first, before we talk about the TRC and ICTJ. He was just the easiest-to-get-along-with person I know. There was not a shred of self-importance, of arrogance; he was the opposite of all that, just a thoroughly human, decent person, very self-effacing, with a wonderful sense of humor. And we used to laugh a lot with Alex. The words you use for Alex are: a kind man, a gentle human being, empathetic, and just gracious. I can’t think of a man I know with better character and finer qualities. And he was a very tall man, I mean 6’4,” and he would come in with a mane of white hair—very imposing—but very quickly, just by his sweetness and gentleness, he made everybody feel at ease and very comfortable.

PHOTO: Vincent Mai (right), ICTJ's founding chairman and current board member, remembers the late Alex Boraine, a close friend and colleague. (ICTJ)

Travesí: I imagine that he could be very convincing. Take his role in mobilizing and navigating the polarization in South Africa. I read in his biography that he left Parliament as a demonstration against a purely white Parliament, a very bold decision. So, I imagine that he had to combine very well a sense of humor and kindness, with a firm position and a lot of convincing abilities.

Mai: Yes and, never confuse his kindness and his gentleness with a lack of steel. No, Alex never raised his voice, but he was a man of utter principle. You knew with Alex you didn’t mess with those principles, and that you treated everybody with respect. There was not a trace of racism in him. He abhorred racism; he abhorred prejudice and judging people based on their ethnicity. He was unwavering in his fight against injustice.

If you look at Alex’s background, he was a very young head of the Methodist church in South Africa. His thinking evolved over many years and, in the end, his religion didn’t mean all that much to him. He appreciated religions and the good that they did in society, but he himself was not particularly religious in the traditional sense. But, even in his time as the head of the Methodist church he took a stand that they should be multiracial, and this was at the height of apartheid. And he was young, in his 30’s when he was leader of the Methodist church. I would say from an early age this respect for everybody’s humanity was core to his being… He was a man of huge courage, and he suffered a lot of personal hardship himself as a result of his positions.

Travesí: Where was this belief and conviction in humanity and equality coming from? How did he explain his conviction and his decision to go against apartheid in a moment where he could have made other choices and done other things?

Mai: You know he was…someone by nature, by instinct who didn’t believe in racism of any form, and I was the same growing up, but I didn’t pursue a career in it like Alex did. Alex was a humanist; he believed in the humanity of everybody, so the idea to him of being prejudiced against somebody because they had brown skin or black skin was just completely [wrong]… It was just in his nature... I think he saw the wrong of it because he loved people, anybody, he just loved people…in my whole life, he was one of the most spiritual people I have ever met in the way that he dealt with people and the world we live in.

Travesí: And in your conversations, what did he say? What were his feelings about the current state of human rights?

Mai: He was very distressed by what happened in South Africa. How much the ANC, particularly in the Zuma period, had fallen short of all the ideals he fought for and that Mandela and the whole struggle was about. He was deeply distressed by how far the ANC strayed from what that battle was all about—restoring human dignity for the whole country. I think he died disappointed at the way South Africa was going, but he was a big supporter of Cyril Ramaphosa, the new president, and the last few times we talked a lot about Ramaphosa, but all in very positive terms. He was hopeful that Ramaphosa would have the political authority to make the changes in the ANC… Alex wanted the ANC to succeed and be a successful government, and it was very disappointing the way they had governed in the last 10 years, but he was hopeful. He was always optimistic because he believed in human beings through his humanism. We will take the wrong path many times, but he was always an optimist that eventually the basic goodness of humans would come through and that we would get the right answers.

Travesí: Alex was on the frontline in South Africa, embedded in making the truth and reconciliation commission possible and then founding the ICTJ. When you finally met, was it because of this process of looking for reconciliation in the country?

Mai: When I met Alex and he became a good friend, that was well before ICTJ. He was an adjunct professor at NYU, but because the TRC in South Africa had been viewed as such a revolutionary concept in the world and was hugely admired for what it achieved—despite its shortcomings, which he would be the first to acknowledge—it became an iconic thing in the world. Alex played that pivotal role in [the TRC]. He had thought a lot philosophically about the TRC during the apartheid days. I think a lot of the intellectual input for how it operated and how it was established was actually Alex’s… It was Mandela who recognized it. After what was internationally regarded as a success in reconciliation in South Africa, Alex came to NYU, and in the first few years I got to know him while he was at NYU.

When I saw how many people were asking Alex personally to help—and he was doing it so informally on a belt-and-suspenders basis—I said, Alex why don’t you institutionalize this and yourself? Because you are such an iconic figure and the TRC is such an example to so many countries. So, we started that conversation and then thinking went into it. And then Alex asked if I would be the founding chairman of ICTJ, which I agreed to… For me it was a wonderful experience in those early years, working for somebody like Alex with the financial backing of the Ford Foundation, whose president at the time was Susan Beresford and who played an instrumental role in getting ICTJ started by supporting Alex. Those were exciting times; there was still the glow of the TRC and the question of how to adapt it to the rest of the world. You had Alex; you had Paul [Van Zyl] and Priscilla [Hayner]; and they put a whole team together, a wonderful team of people. We also got some very distinguished people onto the advisory board: Richard Goldstone, Pepe Zallaquet from Chile, and Siri [Frigaard] from Norway. In that period, I was very involved, but I don’t want to overstate my role. It was really Alex who was the driving force; I was the chairman.

PHOTO: ICTJ's Fernando Travesí (left) met with Vincent Mai at his office in New York on December 12, 2018. (ICTJ)

ICTJ was also really important to Ted Sorensen… I still remember going with Alex to Ted’s apartment and asking him to join ICTJ, and he was so thrilled and touched that we asked him because it was the first thing he had been asked to do while he was recovering from a stroke. He made a very quick recovery afterward. So those were exciting times, and we had these wonderful people. Now, of course, since then a lot of changes have occurred. I think, appropriately, the mission and what ICTJ does today is a little different from what was contemplated then. And now you are there, and ICTJ is doing what it does today. Any good organization needs to change and adapt.

Travesí: ICTJ is an organization that still at its core brings the experience from South Africa and other countries. It sounds like, looking back 20 years, you made a change, you made an impact. We are very grateful to you because you created an organization that is now making a change and an impact. So, what do you think we have to do all together to preserve Alex’s legacy?

Mai: His whole purpose in life was to help be a catalyst for providing answers in difficult situations that involve human rights abuses. I think as long as ICTJ keeps adapting and staying relevant to the mission of helping countries and offering solutions to what often seem to be intractable problems, in whatever way is appropriate and in the context of that country, it will reflect his legacy. I think he would be happy to know that ICTJ is continuing to play a role in helping countries transition to some form of good government in a way that promotes human rights and human dignity.

Travesí: We live in a world where reconciliation is still a challenge in many countries, where polarization is rampant in many countries. There is this peak of racism in some countries in Europe driven by immigration, in the U.S. as well. What are your human reflections about these philosophical dilemmas we deal with when we work on transitional justice?

Mai: I’m bewildered by what’s going on in the world. In terms of people’s lack of empathy, people’s prejudice, people’s bigotry. We are on the same planet together; and as globalization and the integration of countries and economies accelerated, I thought barriers would break down and any prejudices based on ethnicity would gradually dissipate. I thought this was an inevitable trend, but of course the opposite is happening…

I think the start of it is political leadership. And I go back to Mandela. In the first two or three years, he went out of his way to reach out to the white community of South Africa, not only the white community but the Afrikaans people who were the oppressors when he was in jail for 29 years. He did many extraordinary, symbolic things, and sent a message to the black majority that he was a man of peace and reconciliation…The unfortunate thing is that the political leadership right now in many places around the world is promoting this hostility and ethnic hostilities rather than taking the Mandela approach of “look, our common humanity is what really should unite us.” Without the right political leadership, it’s very tough to arrive at the outcomes that you want and we all want. I think it has to start there.

Travesí: I agree. When we have these countries that are in these crucial moments and I see the leadership, I always think they don’t really realize what is at stake. The world is watching, and they should be exemplary, and they should be inspiring. Obama did that in a way, and that is why he’s so missed in the U.S. But when we look around at the rest of the world, it is difficult to find truly inspiring human beings that really make that change.

Mai: On that point, look at what happened with Angela Merkel when they had the refugee crisis. Now, the refugee crisis is one of the worst human disasters with nearly 65 million refugees. And these are just ordinary people looking for family, for a life, for happiness, for a home and stability. And you look at Merkel, she had that [empathetic] instinct, and she accepted a huge amount of refugees in Germany, but it created incredible pushback and I think it was one of the reasons why she is now back on her heels politically.

Travesí: I think South Africa was the epitome of division, of separation, of injustice. We are working, and we will continue working very hard to build on the foundation laid by Alex. I think that he should have felt proud, and yourself as well. You did a lot together. Thank you and congratulations.

Mai: Besides being the iconic figure he was and what he did to challenge the architects of apartheid head on, you’ve got to start with remembering this kind, loveable, gentle man. That was Alex.

PHOTO: Alex Boraine addresses the Stockholm International Forum in 2002. (Courtesy of the Boraine family)