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Alumni profile - Peter Harris

Peter Harris (LLM 1984-89) was born in Durban, South Africa and practised law for 15 years. In the early 1990s he was seconded to the South African National Peace Accord, after which he headed the Monitoring Directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 election. He then returned to law and did international consulting for the UN as an election operations expert in Mexico, Haiti and other places.

What are you memories of Warwick?

I have very fond memories of Warwick. Actually, in 1985 I had not travelled out of South Africa much. My travel had mainly been to neighbouring countries in Southern Africa. It was an adventure for me and also an opportunity to learn from students who came from a very different milieu from that which I had experienced in South Africa. I also enjoyed the sheer normality of living in a normal society.

I stayed in a place called the Gibbet Hill Farm House, just off campus and we had a truly incredible time there. I was invited into the house by Sammy Adelman. Sammy was a student leader who, after burning the South African flag on campus at Wits University, Johannesburg, in the early 1980s, went into exile. It was great to meet up with him again. There were a variety of other people staying in the house, many of whom I am still close friends with.

What made you study at Warwick?

I received a British Council bursary, or scholarship, and they asked me where I wanted to study. I chose Warwick because I had known a number of people who had done LLMs there and they spoke very highly of the institution and the calibre of its law department. The Warwick Law Department was also extremely highly rated at that stage in the United Kingdom.

During the 1980s you were closely involved with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa as legal advisor to the ANC and COSATU, what drove you to get involved with such challenging work?

It is hard to say what particular issue or circumstance drove me to make that decision. I had been involved in student politics and after I left university I was granted a fellowship at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg. The Legal Resources Centre was run by Arthur Chaskalson who had been a part of the legal team that defended Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial and he later became South Africa’s first Chief Justice after 1994, in the Nelson Mandela administration. The Legal Resources Centre was a public interest law centre. I think that my experience there, coupled with my upbringing and student activism led me in the direction that I took.

You also didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to realise that the way that South African society was structured and administered at that time was completely and utterly iniquitous. The fact that the majority of the population was disenfranchised and horribly repressed was not something that could easily escape one’s attention.

In the early 90s you became Chief Director of the Monitoring Directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa what was it like to be so closely involved with your country’s first democratic elections?

Being involved in the first democratic elections in 1994 was a massive privilege. I had previously been involved in certain other transitional structures, including the National Peace Accord, and so had some knowledge of the challenges and hurdles that had to be overcome to deliver a free and fair election. It has to be said however, that I was part of a larger team and that there were some remarkable people at the Independent Electoral Commission. Many of us who were involved in the 1994 election had to keep on pinching ourselves to remind us that this was the election that was going to deliver democracy. Frankly, at that time, we just had our heads down and worked nonstop.

I think the primary challenges that we faced in that electoral process was the fact that the IEC had been constituted some three and a half months before the election date. Given the fact that the election date, namely the 27th of April 1994, was set in stone, to gear up an entire electoral machinery and process was a formidable organisational challenge. That election should be seen in the context of the extreme violence that was taking place in South Africa at that time, particularly in certain provinces, as well as the threat of the white right wing. No one knew at that particular time whether the security forces would stay loyal or whether right wing elements within those forces would defect. My book Birth: The Conspiracy to Stop the 1994 Election sets out many of these challenges in detail.

You have written two books about your experiences (A Just Defiance and Birth: The Conspiracy to Stop the ‘94 Election). How were these books received?

I was very pleasantly surprised to find that both books have been positively received. I was worried that people would not want to read books which, particularly in the case of the first one A Just Defiance, took us back to horror and heroism of the 1980s. Nonetheless, the books have done well and the South African versions of A Just Defiance is about to go into its 7th printing. I was also lucky that the first book scooped up a couple of prizes, which also gave it exposure. One of my reasons in writing both books were to ensure that the stories of those particular times and events be recorded and receive some degree of exposure.

I had been worried that people would not want to read books that would remind them of those traumatic times, but perhaps with the benefit of time and space, now 20 or more years later, they are feeling that they want to know more. One should also remember that the apartheid government in South Africa ran an extensive and efficient propaganda machine that created many misperceptions and myths around liberation organisations as well as the fears and insecurities of the different ethnic groupings that comprised South Africa. In writing these books, I wanted people to be aware of our divided, but common history.

Since then you’ve had a number of positions including Director of Programmes at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance where you were responsible for electoral and conflict resolution programmes around the world. What did this involve?

I thoroughly enjoyed my time working at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm. I think that the experiences that we gathered in South Africa were able to impact upon certain of the work that was conducted there. I also enjoyed being part of the organisation in its early days and establishing international contacts and conducting electoral and conflict resolution programmes around the world.

I like to think that we had some impact and certainly the feedback that we received was that this was the case, however, it is a common fault in most people that they tend to overvalue what they have done.

What advice do you have for other Warwick graduates who aspire for a career that makes a difference?

I am not convinced that I have made a difference to the world around me, however I do think that some things are worth doing, whether the impact be great or small. I am also not sure that I am in a position to give anyone advice in relation to their career, although I do think that one should strive to keep one’s moral integrity and that if sound values inform your actions, you will end up doing the right thing, and hopefully making a difference to those around you.

I also think the world is a different place now from when I was at Warwick and that young graduates will have at least three or four different careers in their lives. The key is to enjoy them all and in so doing achieve significance, not in terms of personal wealth or success, but in terms of your effect upon others.

Peter Harris

“If sound values inform your actions, you will end up doing the right thing”