FW de Klerk’s death last week saw an explosion of commentary, with gazillions of electrons and acres of newsprint exhausted on his contested legacy. It all traces back to one fateful day nearly 32 years ago.

At about 1pm on Friday, February 2 1990, then co-leader of the now-vanished Democratic Party (DP) Wynand Malan hosted a lunch for newly arrived parliamentarians from his caucus.

Sea Point’s La Perla restaurant still stands today, defying both the ages and changing cuisine attitudes. But every personality around the lunch table that day has long since left active politics.

Malan, who briefly served in the DP troika leadership, represented an enlightened strand of Afrikaner nationalist politics. Two years before that get-together he had quit his lifetime allegiance to the National Party and won a single seat in parliament in 1987 on the platform that the timorous reforms of PW Botha, interspersed with lashings of state-sanctioned repression, provided no real answers for a country at war with itself and the wider world.

The tricameral parliament, the clumsy apparatus that provided the limits of Botha’s reforms, had just convened for the opening speech of the president who had replaced Botha in the preceding election five months before, FW de Klerk. His 40-minute address, just three hours before our lunch, famously upended 350 years of settled history in the country.

In perhaps the most shape-shifting speech hitherto delivered in a parliament that stood until then as a bulwark against majority representation and full democracy, De Klerk signalled the end of white minority rule. He might not have intended the full consequence of the political bombshell he detonated that morning, but he had placed the country on an irreversible path, which within just four years would see him, by his own hand, removed as the last white president of the country.

There were many other forces at play, both internal and external, which hastened this reality, but the formal power at that moment rested with the state president. And for perhaps the first time in the history of the republic the incumbent head of state decided to get ahead of events, rather than remain imprisoned by them.

De Klerk’s speech caught everyone on the hop — the exiled ANC leadership in Lusaka, the extra-parliamentary opposition, and certainly his own parliamentary caucus, who were given no notice of his intentions even though his cabinet was apprised.

For the liberal parliamentary opposition represented by the DP, the consequence of a hitherto conservative politician essentially co-opting the essence of the DP election manifesto would prove profound and politically immolating. In the next election the DP would be reduced to a parliamentary splinter, with most of its historical voters aligning with De Klerk.

But while I and other newbie MPs were reeling from the menu of De Klerk’s reform package — unbanning the ANC and other proscribed organisations that had been banished for 30 years or more, the imminent release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the commencement of full-blown constitutional negotiations — an even more urgent question remained.

And so over bread rolls at La Perla I asked Malan, who better than most knew the voters who had recently lifted De Klerk to the presidency — and some of us to parliament courtesy of the same election — an obvious question. “But how, Wynand, will De Klerk take his people with him?” I had in mind the recent election campaign, which had seen De Klerk present at a meeting in my own constituency of Houghton, decrying the mild DP leadership as “three blind mice” whose strings were being manipulated by their alleged ANC puppet masters.

Malan, who had spent a decade before bolting the NP in the caucus with De Klerk, answered: “I know my people. They will respond to strong leadership with vision.” And, extraordinarily, De Klerk did manage to keep his party united, even if the speech he authored provided, in the words of former opposition leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, “comprehensive evidence [that it was] a sell out of everything the NP had held near and dear since 1948”.

Slabbert himself proved an early victim of a settled consensus. He had quit parliament in despair just four years before, convinced that no NP leader would be capable of making the step-changes De Klerk ushered in that morning.

As for the people De Klerk was elected to serve, the white electorate, his principal opponent, Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht, asserted that De Klerk had no mandate, and insisted that he obtain one for his unprecedented reforms. Two years later, in February 1992, having just lost a hitherto safe NP seat in a by-election in Potchefstroom, De Klerk again gazumped his opponents on the right. He called a referendum of white voters and over two thirds of them backed his decision.

These events proved De Klerk a master tactician, but on the vision aspect suggested by Malan he was less convincing. The late German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once suggested that “People with visions should go and see a doctor. Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take many small steps.” De Klerk’s steps were large, not small, but as Ariel Sharon of Israel was once described by Jonathan Freedland, “he could see the next hill, but he could not grasp the entire mountain range”.

That is why De Klerk’s “bottom lines” during the often-tortuous negotiations kept yielding: rotating presidencies, minority vetoes, lengthy interim rules, permanent power sharing. All of these were eventually junked, and De Klerk and his ever-changing negotiators gave way to the far more assured tactics of the ANC. Mandela accurately suggested that De Klerk “wished to share power, not surrender it”.

Mandela, by contrast, had an unyielding bottom line, and he also had the wind of history and much of the country and the world behind him. He too made concessions, especially on reassurances to the white minority, during the process. One of his intimates, Mac Maharaj, would later describe travelling from the constitutional talks at Kempton Park to get Mandela’s sign-off on an agreement from him at his Houghton home.

“[Mandela’s] zigzags were always leading to the same object …When I used to go and see him he would ask ‘where does it take us towards majority rule. How long will it take?’ The Nats had no compass; in the end they became preoccupied with their selfish interests.”

Of course, De Klerk had a different version of events and presented his evolution as the logical consequence of evolving National Party thinking, however improbable this claim might be. But he also had to face down the diehards in his own cabinet, who had no truck with this sophistry. Indeed, in November 1993 one of his cabinet colleagues apparently grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and demanded of him: “What have you done? You have given away SA.”

Perhaps none of this detail or even motivation matters much today. But in 100 years’ time, when SA is still studied as a case example of a country that pulled itself back from the brink of mutually assured destruction, the principals and their achievements will be offered as a success story of improbable odds tempered by wise leadership.

In this regard, and however contested his legacy remains, the man who in the end gave way to the forces of democracy and surrendered power instead of toughing it out at hideous cost, deserves remembrance. Even if he never grasped the entire mountain range.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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