Belief in Democracy Synopsis

Belief in Democracy Synopsis

Alexander Boraine

Founding President, International Center for Transitional Justice
Former Deputy Chairperson, South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Alexander Boraine, founding president of the International Center for Transitional Justice and former Deputy Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, considers democracy an imperfect form of government in an imperfect world, and yet, in the spirit of Winston Churchill, "probably the best system that is and can be used." Though the face of democracy varies according to context, culture, values, and history, certain defining principles remain constant: universal franchise, equality before the law, the rule of law, accountability, and freedom of speech. Rejecting all notion of democracy as "easy," "comfortable," or "trite," Boraine believes that it is a concept of government to be aspired to as an ideal.

Democracy, says Boraine, does not do away with differences; rather, it is a process to manage conflict through debate, argument, disagreement, cooperation, and competition in the world of ideas. Each national community ideally works through democratic principles put into operation so that no constituency resorts to violence. Democracy at its best "commits opposing points of view to coexist fairly without recourse to violence;" it is based on the principle of respect and a respect for fundamental human rights.

Turning to a discussion of recent South African history, Boraine describes his native country as one that went without democracy for 300 years in a state of colonialism that brought with it the worst form of racism imaginable. In 1985, professor Francis Wilson borrowed a metaphor from the verse of poet Ingrid Yonker, likening South Africa to a "cordoned heart" whose fetters bound a majority of its people in what seemed to be perpetual servitude.

Boraine professes continued amazement at the peacefulness of South Africa's 1994 transition to democracy. The country's profound racism had spanned centuries. The late 19th-century British "liberalism" of Cecil John Rhodes defined whites as civilized lords over "barbarous" blacks. In 1910, the first South African constitution laid down the legal basis for white hegemony. The National Party, which rose to power in 1948, created an apartheid system that embraced racism from birth to death, proscribing franchise on the basis of skin color, as well as access to land, housing, residence, schools, universities, health services, transport, restaurants, hotels, and cemeteries. In spite of the entrenched character of this racist system, by the 1980s resistance to apartheid was on such a scale as to cause a political stalemate that—miraculously, it seemed—was resolved by a negotiated settlement which led to the first democratic elections in South African history and the presidency of Nelson Mandela.

It soon became clear, however, that simply changing the set of procedures was not enough to heal South Africa; the set of working relationships needed to put those procedures into effect had to be healed as well. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was founded as a means to this end: to acknowledge and come to terms with a conflictual past, to affirm the commitment to a common future, and to rebuild profoundly damaged social and economic relationships.

In its herculean task, the South African Commission held itself to the highest standards of transparency. Not only did it facilitate a national debate about the concept and structure of the process, but it also was the first truth commission to hold public hearings. Boraine holds up the South African reconciliation as an example of one that "went beyond words" to achieve true change: new houses, clinics, educational opportunities, and sanitation for the rural poor are all proof of this success, though the process is far from complete.

In closing, Boraine warned of the precarious position in which democracy now finds itself in the post-9/11 world. Fear has become the hallmark of American society, creating a situation in which authority is followed blindly for the sake of security, and dissent—a healthy, normal part of democracy—is decried as disloyalty.

The United States and all mature democracies must engage in a mature reassessment of their policies and practices or find themselves on a slippery slope away from their democratic principles. "In attempting to overcome the monsters who threaten us," Boraine presaged, "we could so easily become the monsters ourselves." Justice must not be sacrificed to the "demon" of security, nor must it be sought through military power and force. The United States, as a role model for the democratic world, must seize this opportunity to reaffirm its democratic values, thereby abandoning violence and empty claims of patriotism in order to realize its potential as an honest broker of peace.