FW de Klerk shaped many of the country’s recent political contours. Yet like the proverbial prophet, by November 2019 on the afternoon of our last get-together, he enjoyed little honour in his own land.
On the one hand, he was reviled by the governing party for being the “last apartheid president”. He was also, to them, an inconvenient reminder that far from its mythologised armed struggle having ended apartheid, the demise of the system, in some considerable measure was attributable to the unlikely reformer I was about to interview at an event for overseas dignitaries at the Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town.
But on that benign spring afternoon, De Klerk and I were on stage before a well-heeled audience that had become his new métier.
A warmly supportive comfort zone where he could tell a truly remarkable story of a political apostasy which had arguably, as much as the inspirational and visionary leadership of Nelson Mandela, pulled the country back from the brink of racial civil war and worse.
For overseas commentators, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, De Klerk symbolised someone who relinquished power and presided over an against-the-odds transition which catapulted South Africa from polecat of the world into an admired member of the comity of nations. The truth, as always in history, was more ambiguous.
I first met De Klerk in Parliament 30 years before when he was president and I a junior backbencher. Later, we encountered each other for occasional socialising with his charming wife, Elita. Indeed, one of the takeaways from my later encounters with De Klerk, was to be reminded that while De Klerk was indisputably one of the key founders of the liberal democratic Constitution, which was inked in 1996, he was by inclination and acknowledgement, a conservative nationalist.
In preparation for my last encounter at the Mount Nelson where I was tasked with asking him about the epic events of his presidency, I recalled the day in Parliament on 2 February 1990, my first ever, when De Klerk had metaphorically detonated a political explosion of such thermonuclear intensity that its after-effects are still being felt today, 30 years later.
That morning in undramatic tones, he upended over 350 years of political history, and the reigning assumption that political rights would be withheld from the majority and be exercised by the white minority.
It was only toward the end of his 40-minute address that he made his momentous announcements: the unbanning of the ANC, SA Communist Party, Pan Africanist Congress and related organisations, the imminent release of Nelson Mandela and the commencement of full-scale constitutional negotiations. And all this from a man who just months before had led an energetic campaign against my own Democratic Party, suggesting we were naïve satraps of the dangerous communistic ANC!
Former opposition leader Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert called the speech “a sell-out of everything the National Party has held near and dear for the past 46 years”. De Klerk himself claimed, perhaps improbably, that the speech was the logical evolution of existing NP policy.
Latter day revisionists hold that he was forced with reluctance by international sanctions and local insurrections to halt at the cliff face before plunging over it. I thought, back then and today, that the writing was indeed on the wall for the ancien regime, but at least in De Klerk’s case, unlike his predecessors, he read the message. And did not assume it was addressed to someone else.
Was he pushed by forces beyond his control? Did he leap into the unknown without a proper plan? He intends to share power without relinquishing it, as Nelson Mandela chided him during the long negotiations process?
In my view, and in this essential case study of a broadly peaceful passage of power in one of the most improbably places for its achievement, motive mattered far less than result. I thought the best description of the rollercoaster events which that speech brought in its wake was offered by ANC heavyweight, Mac Maharaj:
His concessions and compromises arrived too late to secure his own Presidency beyond the next four years, but they certainly helped save the country. The joint award of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize to Mandela and De Klerk was among the more meritorious in recent history.
I commenced interrogation of the then 82-year-old, but still spry and engaged De Klerk that afternoon, so far removed now in time from the clashing dramas over which he had once presided, with an underarm delivery.
I asked him to comment on a recent encomium on his achievements offered by the US academics I referred to in the introduction to this book. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, in Foreign Affairs wrote –
De Klerk was rather modest in accepting this consolation from two foreign historians. But he was more forthright when I upped the tempo slightly in our polite interchange. I suggested he suffered, in addition to a similar haircut, from the Mikhail Gorbachev paradox. Like the last Soviet leader, I offered, he dismantled the system of privilege he was entrusted to safeguard; yet this earned both the scorn of those who benefitted from the change and the enmity of those who lost out in the process.
De Klerk rebuffed the suggestion, advising the audience, “The difference between Gorbachev and me is that I apologised for apartheid, and in respect of Communism he did not.”
The nature and quality of that apology was to be interrogated just three months later – by a far less hospitable and appreciative audience than those gathered that day at the Mount Nelson Hotel.
It was quite striking how the reformist De Klerk inspired such contempt from the ANC, even though on any version of history, he had helped bend the country toward the arc of change and reconciliation. Yet, his predecessor, the hard-line PW Botha had been almost mythologised as one of the good and the great by the same forces of liberation.
For example, on his death in November 2006, as opposition leader (and as inheritor of many of his former voters) I had issued a careful statement on his demise of some equivocation, but then president Mbeki had no such qualms. He described Botha as ranking alongside ANC icon Oliver Tambo as “partners in the creation of the freedom of the brave”. Mbeki had even, unlike me, attended Botha’s funeral.
I had noticed the same pattern of behaviour from Nelson Mandela. He told me on several occasions how he distrusted De Klerk, but admired Botha. I found this extraordinary – admiration for the man who kept him in prison and contempt for the other who had released him – and queried this view with him directly.
“Well,” said Mandela, “at least you knew where you stood with Botha”. I could not help but conclude that the animosity was in part because of the constitutional settlement which obliged Mandela to share the stage with De Klerk, his mandated deputy president until 1996.
Perhaps in death, De Klerk might in the best South African tradition of arch hypocrisy, receive some salutation from his opponents, although reading some of the Twitter uproar on his death, this appears unlikely.
And his last major interview which aired just before the opening of Parliament on 13 February 2020 was both clumsy and consequential.
In an interview with the SABC, he said he did “not fully agree” with the presenter who asked him to confirm that apartheid was “a crime against humanity”.
While he apologised profusely for his role in it and for the crime of racial discrimination, he decided to get into a lawyerly parsing of words. He insisted that the system was responsible for few deaths and that it should not be put in the same category as “genocide” or “crimes against humanity”.
De Klerk later realised the hopelessness of his foundation’s stance supporting his initial remarks and withdrew its statement, with contrition, three days later.
Like any politician, De Klerk had the human instinct to seek memorialisation and affirmation for the one big thing he got right on 2 February 1990, at the age of 53, and the epoch of change his decisions announced that day inaugurated.
Yet history and many of his compatriots were determined to remind him and the world of the many things he had done wrong in the decades before then. His FW de Klerk Foundation made little or no mention of his 18 years of parliamentary and ministerial service from 1972 until 1989, all in service to bolstering the apartheid state.
On the other hand, his U-turn as president was more remarkable for the fact that he had no obvious attachment to enlightened thinking before assuming this office.
And of course, to criminalise apartheid as his interrogators and critics goaded him to do would not only have been a repudiation of most of his public career, it would have branded members of his close family (his father, Senator Jan de Klerk, a NP minister and his uncle, prime minister JG Strijdom for example ) as purveyors of inhumanity.
A complex legacy deserves proper and balanced interrogation. And all of us do need to acknowledge – whatever our views – that while De Klerk was the last white apartheid president, he was the first in his line to read the writing on the wall. And not assume it was addressed to someone else.