[OPINION] Alex Boraine left the world better than he found it

To those of us who lived through the violence and confusion of the late 1980s, South Africa’s transition to democracy, our historic 1994 election and then the democracy-building work thereafter, Alex Boraine’s name is etched in memory. His contribution to our democracy was significant. Over the past few days, many have rightly lauded Boraine’s work as deputy chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and for his global work on transitional justice.

Yet, for those of us who had the privilege of working at Idasa (the Institute for Democracy in South Africa as it was later known), his passing is marked with perhaps a greater degree of wistfulness.

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (Idasa) was founded in 1987 by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, members of the opposition in what became known as ‘the last White Parliament’. Slabbert and Boraine walked out of ‘the last white Parliament’ in 1986 and sensing the impasse of the complex time that was the late '80s, understood the political moment better than most. Idasa's initial focus was to create an environment for white South Africans to talk to the then-banned ANC before it was unbanned in 1990 by former President FW de Klerk.

Two of its most significant meetings were held in Dakar in 1987. That, in fact, formed Idasa’s own deep roots. Idasa's delegation consisted of 61 people, at least half of them being Afrikaner academics, teachers, journalists, artists, directors, writers and professionals who met with an ANC delegation led by former President Thabo Mbeki. The discussions were aimed at talking through the possibility of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Africa. For Slabbert and Boraine, prescient as ever, it was time to end the ‘mutually hurting stalemate’. Discussions covered panoply of issues including the armed struggle, violence, a negotiated settlement, political pluralism, democratic checks and balances, cultural rights, the economy and distributive justice.

The ANC’s communiqué issued at the end of the conference in June 1987 and entitled ‘The Dakar Declaration’ makes for interesting reading about a meeting that is sometimes buried in history. It read, inter alia:

"[The] Conference unanimously expressed preference for a negotiated resolution of the South African question. Proceeding from the common basis that there is an urgent necessity to realise the goal of a non-racial democracy, they accepted that different strategies must be used in accordance with the possibilities available to the various forces opposed to the system of apartheid. They accepted that in its conduct this struggle must assist in the furtherance of both democratic practice and in the building of a nation of all South Africans - black and white."

Needless to say, it would be a while yet before a non-racial, democratic South Africa became a reality, but Dakar was a significant moment._ _As Max Du Preez wrote last year, while reflecting on his own participation at Dakar: "What did it all mean? Did the Dakar Safari have any impact?" Opinions differ, but here's Du Preez’s view:

"The impact was purely symbolic but significant. It firmly cemented the desirability of a peaceful negotiated settlement in the minds of the Botha government and the white public, as well as in the minds of the decision-makers in the ANC and UDF. It went a long way in undoing the demonisation of both sides. It subverted the 'communist, terrorist' narrative Botha and his men had imposed for so long on the white electorate. The Dakar initiative was followed up with several Idasa-organised meetings between the ANC in exile and business people, writers, students and other groups over the next three years. Talking had become fashionable."

After Dakar, Idasa arranged meetings of writers, public intellectuals and artists from across the political spectrum at Victoria Falls. Importantly, even after Slabbert and Boraine’s involvement in Idasa, the organisation continued to make an important impact on our post-1994 democratic life until it closed its doors in 2013. After 1994, the organisation’s strength lay in its ability to shift with the times; always inventive from its groundbreaking HIV/Aids and governance work to its work on transparency and accountability, the Afrobarometer, local government and citizen activism, Idasa broke new and interesting ground.

What set Idasa apart was its ability to take on the thorny issues. There were probably two issues that marked the 2000s at Idasa- its work on the arms deal and money and politics. In 2000, Idasa recognised that the way South Africa handled the multi-billion rand arms deal investigation would be a litmus test for our democracy. At that point, Idasa was the only non-governmental organisation focusing on the work of the Public Accounts Committee and its battles with an executive trying to intervene and stop an investigation into the deal. Those were difficult days of political interference and Idasa’s intervention, small though it was, was an important moment. It marked a line in the sand for civil society to truly push for accountability in government decision-making processes.

And then in 2005, after lobbying intensely for the regulation of private donations to political parties, Idasa moved to sue the ANC and four other opposition parties to reveal their sources of private funding in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Idasa lost the case as Judge Ben Griessel found, inter alia, that political parties were private bodies and therefore had no obligation to reveal their sources of funding. Looking back over the past eight years and the many examples of corrupt donations one wonders whether our politics might now have looked slightly different had the decision gone the other way? But, that court record remains as a reminder to the ANC and other political parties that the corrosive impact of money on the political system can only really be dealt with within the framework of regulation and a shift in political culture. The question remains a thorny one in South African politics today. It was this sort of groundbreaking work that made Idasa unique.

Idasa attracted friends and enemies in equal measure and across the political divide. As staff, we always thought this meant that we were doing something right. On any given day, it walked the tightrope of being a ‘critical ally’ of government – praising where necessary and offering criticism where necessary. One cannot help but think that this is precisely what Boraine and Slabbert would have had in mind for the post-apartheid Idasa; that it takes on the difficult issues through a mixture of determined advocacy and dialogue but always working to strengthen our nascent democratic institutions.

Idasa’s closure left a void given the deep institutional memory that was embedded in the organisation itself. However, its work continues in the active citizenship we witness all around us in South Africa by those defending the gains of 1994 and the values of transformative constitutionalism.

Like Idasa, the organisation he co-founded, Boraine’s loss will leave a deep void in our public life. In today’s tawdry world, Boraine’s legacy is one of commitment to the things that matter most. He left the world better than he found it, that much is certain.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february.