The Evolution of Alex Boraine, ICTJ's North Star


By Nyasha Laing

Alex Boraine’s epic life is the story of transitions: a career in public service and grassroots activism fighting against political exclusion; years of religious service and gradual changes of his religious devotion; a moral voice for change at home in South Africa and an expert sojourner around the world.

Born in 1931 in Brooklyn, Cape Town, and ordained a Methodist minister in 1956, Boraine served in the senior leadership of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa until 1972. Throughout the 1970’s, he worked to improve the conditions of black workers, visiting mining compounds where he witnessed the devastation of the migrant labor system on black South African families. The years he spent reckoning with faith and religion pushed him toward activism and politics. Applying his principles in these two arenas would set the stage for his work with South Africa’s groundbreaking truth and reconciliation commission and his role as a global justice leader thereafter.

Regardless of how the world remembers his legacy—or the success and shortcomings of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa—history will recall that Boraine withstood his own, and his nation’s, transitions to cement his legacy as an architect for truth and reconciliation and a champion for justice for victims.

Leaps of Faith

Boraine is recognized as an early and vocal supporter of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which he believed would set South Africa upon a path of inclusive political transformation and national healing. But at a tribute event organized by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and hosted by the Ford Foundation on April 1, 2019, there were many stories that veered off from this landmark achievement. Vincent Mai (ICTJ’s founding chairman) tells a little-known story about a pivotal turning point as Boraine made his foray into electoral politics.

Boraine's campaign for member of parliament won in 1974.

In that first race in the Pinelands District of Cape Town, running on a Progressive Party ticket in 1974, Boraine was identified as the clear underdog. To his own surprise, he succeeded in winning the election by a narrow 33 votes. It was a breakthrough, a crucial seat to win, said Mai, and Boraine’s supporters were overjoyed. But because the vote was so close, he insisted on principle that there be a recount. After the final ballot was tallied, the upstart politician had in fact won by 34 votes. He seemed destined for leadership.

We know Alex as the person who was all about justice and fighting oppression, but this was about fairness, it was about character, and it was beyond the fight for racial equality.—Vincent Mai

Boraine’s six years in Parliament ultimately led to a decision that would shape his vision and future direction. He became increasingly fed up with the slow progress toward an inclusive, non-racial democracy. In February 1986, he had had enough. He resigned in protest to the all-white legislature together with his colleague Frederick van Zyl, leader of the Progressive Federal Party.

There were many challenges ahead: It would be no easy feat to secure funding for independent new initiatives in a volatile political climate, and according to his 2008 memoir, Boraine had his own misgivings about potentially steering resources toward his own work and away from black-run organizations. But, with the assistance of van Zyl, the Norwegian Ambassador in South Africa, and other allies, Boraine sought to establish a new organization. It would be called the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa (IDASA), and Boraine would be its executive director. Headquartered in Cape Town, IDASA led by Boraine began operating in 1987 and forged an unpredictable path. It was yet another bold leap of faith.

Leaving parliament was one thing; funding an alternative platform for opposition to apartheid was another. Neither van Zyl nor I had any clear idea what we would be doing.—Alex Boraine

Reaching Across the Divide

As head of IDASA, Boraine had an opportunity to immerse himself more deeply in liberation politics—to reach across the country’s divides of class, color, and ideology. In his memoir, he recounted long nights spent in Little Soweto waiting to meet with local activists who operated covertly because the African National Congress (ANC) had been banned by the apartheid state. Still, the movement enjoyed wide support, with its de facto leader Nelson Mandela having been imprisoned for over two decades and the groundswell for his release continuing to rise. Boraine’s success in gaining the trust of local black leaders gradually gave him access to leaders from the Eastern Cape, and this trust served as the foundation for a lasting partnership with grassroots political leaders and the ANC.

As executive director of IDASA, Boraine met with members of the ANC in exile in Paris in 1989. (courtesy of Boraine family)

IDASA’s strategies included convening non-aligned conferences, workshops, and public meetings that foregrounded the voices of emerging leaders from black communities, as well as publishing the journal Democracy in Action. In what was perhaps the organization’s most historic achievement, it collaborated with the ANC to organize the Dakar Conference of July 1987. In Senegal, exiled leaders and an IDASA delegation from South Africa gathered to discuss strategies for change, national unity, governance, and the future of the economy in a free South Africa. After the Dakar conference, the IDASA released a statement advocating for fundamental reforms, such as distributive economics, judicial reform, and protections for human and civil rights, and pledged itself to serve as a resource for peace negotiations.

It was a road that was unprecedented for a white leader in South Africa at that time. Boraine’s chosen course drew condemnation from the apartheid government—as well as from black and white critics across South Africa’s political divides.

We lost a lot of friends, a lot of colleagues. It was quite a tough period in our lives, but we were inspired by the idea that we could make a real difference, and greatly encouraged by the response that we had received from inside and outside the country.—Alex Boraine

Alex Boraine’s dream of a just reconciliation in South Africa was rooted not only in humanistic philosophies, but in his belief in the power of rigorous democratic processes. “A non-racial democracy is a worthy and difficult objective,” he wrote in Democracy in Action. “We are determined to make the effort and to ensure that the process toward that goal is itself democratic.”

Boraine’s interrogation of his own social identity was critical to his ideological formation. He believed that white South Africans would be unable to truly embrace change until they interrogated their own privilege. He was convinced that, irrespective of their political views, they would have to come to terms with the fact that they were beneficiaries of the apartheid system and complicit in its violence. White and black citizens alike would have to take a seat at the reconciliation table, admit to the wrongs committed, and participate fully in political processes in order to heal the country of the cruel perversions of apartheid and achieve an equitable redistribution of power and resources.

The process will not be completed until all South Africans who benefited from apartheid confront the reality of the past, accept the uncomfortable truth of complicity, give practical expression to remorse, and a commitment to a way of life which accepts and offers the gifts of humanness.—Alex Boraine

Boraine’s leadership revealed not only his commitment to his ideals, but astute political instincts developed over time in close proximity with the people of South Africa. Political dialogue would be only a first step in the quest to dismantle institutions of oppression. The TRC would be the ultimate test of how to reconcile the often-conflicting poles of justice ideals and political compromise.

The Humanist in Action

Alex’s son Nick Boraine tells a story that speaks to his father’s deep understanding of politics. Still head of the Methodist ministry, Boraine was living in Durban in 1970 in a house on a hill given to him and his wife Jennie by the Church. Each time he and Jenny would walk up and down the 39 steps to and from home, they would see a Volkswagen parked outside, the windows almost up, smoke wafting out of the open crack. Inside the car sat two Security Branch officers who would monitor the comings and goings of the firebrand minister. They stayed parked in this position, it seemed, all day, every day.

Outraged every time he saw the men, Boraine complained to his wife, again and again, about how his rights and dignity were being violated. Finally, one day she suggested, simply, that he stop complaining and offer the men some sandwiches. Dutifully, he prepared a plate of bologna and cheese sandwiches, and the men were visibly appreciative. Whether or not they changed the content of their surveillance reports, they greeted him warmly every day afterward when he passed them.

Boraine’s ability to reach across the aisle had already been tested. But during the years leading up to the transition from apartheid to majority rule, his more personal and inclusive vision of transformation encompassing personal responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and healing would be tried. When apartheid ended in 1992, the seasoned leader found himself in the symbolic role of a bridge between whites and blacks, perpetrators and victims, the perennial “Prince of Peace.” His moral authority would enable him to call for broad participation while acknowledging the political compromises inherent in the transitional justice processes.

In 1995, Desmond Tutu, who had championed the benevolent notion of ubuntu and was named by Nelson Mandela to chair the TRC, named now-Commissioner Boraine as his deputy chairman. Tutu’s choice signaled both his faith in Boraine’s abilities and the interest of the new government in having the input and involvement of religious organizations—with whom Boraine still had contact—in the truth and reconciliation process.  

As the TRC’s deputy chairman, Boraine sought with a laser-like focus to prioritize the voices of victims. Despite constant pressure from the media, the commissioners and their staff worked carefully and methodologically to carry out interviews, document victims’ perspectives, and preserve the sanctity of the information they collected.

“The question most often asked was, ‘when are you going to hear from the perpetrators?’” said Boraine in his memoir. “Our response never varied: Clearly, our first responsibility and priority was to give a voice to the voiceless, the victims of the apartheid system.” Boraine also laid the foundation for the TRC’s focus on reparations and amnesty, which he carefully articulated as a first step toward justice, accountability, and reconciliation.

The Legacy of the Truth Commission

The TRC’s first formal hearings began on April 15, 1996. The work was accomplished through three committees: The Human Rights Violations Committee investigated human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee formulated proposals to assist with rehabilitation and restore victims’ dignity, and the Amnesty Committee considered applications for amnesty that were requested in accordance with the limitations set forth in the TRC Act.

The decision to pursue amnesty, in particular, required a politically delicate balance. While amnesty was made available to perpetrators who disclosed their acts truthfully and publicly, the 17 Commissioners categorically rejected a blanket amnesty for gross violations of human rights, such as the killing, abduction, torture or severe ill treatment of any person.

By law, the scope of the TRC investigations was limited to acts that had been considered crimes under the apartheid legal system. By extension, liability extended not only to acts committed by the apartheid regime that systematically oppressed and brutalized its second-class citizens, but also to acts committed by members of the liberation movements, such as the ANC, who were resisting this oppression. As a result, the process singled out individuals who had often carried out the orders of the state, and the personal nature of the public testimonies sometimes obscured the broader context for their crimes. As critics would note in hindsight, the commission did not focus sufficiently on the policies or political economy of the apartheid state, leaving behind an incomplete narrative of the system’s repression.

Unfortunately, much of Boraine’s vision for South Africa remained unrealized after the TRC closed its doors. Reparations granted to victims were paltry, and, out of the 22,000 identified as victims of apartheid atrocities, over 4,000 have not collected the 30,000 Rand due to them. In addition, the government considers the list of victims of the apartheid closed and refuses to acknowledge more victims, even though is clear that almost 100,000 victims did not make it to the TRC list for various reasons. In recent years, the ANC government has taken a collective economic redistribution approach to socioeconomic rights that seems to have supplanted the reparations agenda, drawing criticism from transitional justice advocates. And victims’ groups continue to call out the legacy of state capture and other forms of betrayal in which the state remains complicit to this day.

Finally, the limited scope of the TRC’s justice and accountability mandate—and the incapacity or unwillingness of the state to successfully act upon those cases referred to it for prosecution—forced South Africans to confront harsh realities and disparities in justice for which there was no adequate redress. As Boraine himself had predicted, and Desmond Tutu wrote, “the failure to examine the effect and impact of apartheid’s policies resulted in the need for the perpetrators, or the ‘trigger-pullers,’ to bear the collective shame of the nation and let those who benefitted from apartheid to escape responsibility.” Moreover, according to Tutu, “the link between racialized power and racialized privilege became obscured.”

Alex was a passionate and eloquent orator. (courtesy of Boraine family)

The Beginnings of ICTJ

In 1999, while living in New York and teaching at NYU Law School, Boraine visited Northern Ireland, where he found that “many had little vision of a country not at war with itself.” Later, responding to requests for technical assistance, he would travel to the Balkans and the Hague to offer his expertise.

The pivotal moment came in early 2000 at the Ford Foundation, when then-President Susan Beresford brought together human rights activists, practitioners, and scholars to explore strategies for helping societies deal with legacies of massive human rights abuses and achieve sustainable peace. According to those who were present, Boraine sat quietly and listened for a long time before speaking. There were essentially two camps forming in the room. One group was worried very much about the possibility that something else might drain support from the enduring and very important efforts in which they were already involved. The other suggested that it might be the right time to create a new entity that would accumulate knowledge and create an archive of the efforts in the field so far.

“He was a very wise listener and someone trying to make sense of what had been said,” Susan Beresford recounted at the April 2019 tribute held at the Ford Foundation. “But when his moment came, he spoke powerfully.”

“He wove together the arguments that repressive regimes are not going out of style; that people need help thinking about what kinds of measures their cultures, their country might be able to use in these kinds of circumstances; and that an international entity formed by the people in the room and funded by Ford would be a big help,” said Beresford. “He had really shifted the conversation in the last couple of hours.”

The need was clear. Ultimately, the meeting confirmed the value of creating ICTJ as an institution that could draw on diverse national experiences to provide expert advice to victims’ groups, civil society, and national and international bodies on how to achieve justice and sustainable peace.

To me, his big idea was very compelling. Ford had a long history of support aiming at racism and prejudice and violence and corrosion of the rule of law. And I loved the idea of establishing a place where knowledge could be gathered, where experts would be available to respond when the first flicker of change began to appear in repressive societies.—Susan Beresford

ICTJ grew from the seed of an idea into an organizational plan rapidly, in just one year, as Boraine drew support from the tireless efforts of the well-known expert on truth commissions and transitional justice Priscilla Hayner, Paul van Zyl, and the Ford Foundation. In 2001, with Boraine as president, Hayner as cofounder and program director, and Mai as the founding chair, ICTJ came into being. On request, Boraine would travel to Ghana, as well as to post-conflict Sierra Leone where he met with amputees to try to persuade them to give testimony to the truth commission—an experience he characterized as one of the most moving of his life.

ICTJ’s New York-based experts engaged with many people who wanted to know more about transitional justice. They published articles and visited universities and organizations across the United States and around the world. The organization was quickly earning an international reputation as a leader in the nascent field of transitional justice.

Upon his return to South Africa in 2004, Boraine’s longtime assistant, Paddy Clark, helped him to set up an office in Cape Town and he remained president, working virtually with the New York headquarters. After he retired, he continued to serve on its advisory board. His expertise would be sought out in countries emerging from the most hateful, violent conflicts and trying to find their way again.

Having immersed himself once again in South African affairs, Boraine would become frustrated that the political vision that he shared in the early days with black leaders had not been fully manifest. Corruption had prevented a true redistribution of power and resources and had resulted in an unfinished agenda for reparative justice for victims of apartheid-era atrocities. Ultimately, he would later write that the country should have done much more to bring apartheid’s perpetrators to justice and lay a stronger foundation for lasting political and institutional reforms.

But, according to those close to him, Boraine’s faith in the possibility of transformational change remained unwavering. “Whenever you’d talk to Alex, he was always an optimist,” said Mai. “He... trusted—notwithstanding some of the stresses that we experienced in South Africa and around the world—that common decency and our respect for each other and our common humanity would win the day.”

“His deep sense of optimism shone through in his [writing],” explained his son, Nick.

“All that matters was how many times you stand up after you fall. That is your legacy. That, in his opinion, is all we have,” said the younger Boraine.

On April 1, 2019, ICTJ hosted an event honoring Alex Boraine at the Ford Foundation in New York. See photos from the event here


PHOTO: Desmond Tutu and Alex Boraine preside over a session of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996. (courtesy of Boraine family)