Last November, before an international audience gathered in Cape Town, I conducted an interview with former president FW de Klerk.

One of the issues I canvassed with him was his take on the age-old issue of whether it is historical forces or individuals who change the course of history, or some combination of both.

Cyril Ramaphosa, days before the Sona spectacle last week, on the 30th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela, attributed that single shape-shifting event to the forces arrayed against De Klerk in 1990 and definitely not to the “goodness of his heart”.

When I put the question to De Klerk himself three months ago, I offered him and the audience the view penned in the distinguished journal Foreign Affairs (November/December 2019) by US academics Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack. In the article, “Beyond great forces – how individuals still shape history”, they describe the role of De Klerk at the end of apartheid.

“Some contend that vast impersonal forces, such as a regime’s desire to survive, make it unimaginable that any leader in a position of power would ever step down. Yet it is worth remembering that South African president De Klerk did just that …

“If De Klerk had remained committed to apartheid, the most likely outcome would have been South Africa’s descent into even greater racial violence or quite possibly all-out civil war, not much different from what is happening in Syria or Venezuela today.”

De Klerk, to his credit, back then was rather modest in accepting this consolation from two foreign historians. But he was far more explicit in rejecting another comparison I offered that afternoon.

I asked him, whether, like his fellow reformer, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he did not suffer from this paradox: by dismantling the system of privilege you inherited, you will not get appreciation from those benefitting from the change; neither will you earn praise from those opposed to the change.

De Klerk responded: “The difference between Gorbachev and myself is that I apologised for apartheid and, in respect of communism, he did not.”

Events since last Friday have placed a question mark over the nature and quality of De Klerk’s apology; his recent interview totem-poling apartheid as better than genocide and less deadly than “black-on-black” violence was compounded by the statement by his foundation querying the origins and standing of the UN resolution declaring apartheid as a “crime against humanity”. This simply inflamed an already volatile situation.

The arch opportunist and parliamentary vandal, Julius Malema, decided at Thursday’s state opening of parliament to showboat his revolutionary credentials by denouncing De Klerk, who sat impassively watching the spectacle, as “a murderer”.

Leaving aside the extravagance of language and the spurious points of order, the very insincerity of the manufactured outrage was apparent: Malema and his colleagues, without demurral or dissent, had sat through several previous parliamentary openings with De Klerk in the gallery, sans objection. Now you can add a charge of hypocrisy against Malema and his cohorts.

But instead of allowing the vast majority of South Africans to draw their own conclusions on the loutish behaviour of the party last Thursday, the FW de Klerk Foundation entered the lists the next day.

It questioned the meaning and origins of the UN General Assembly resolution which declared that apartheid was a crime against humanity.

There is a long debate in the jurisprudence of public international law on the salience of UN General Assembly resolutions, and the roll call of votes on other matters, and indeed genocides and worse, has often less to do with the merits of the subject and a lot to do with other factors, often involving giving the Western powers a bloody nose. The Statute of Rome, a more recent covenant and with great heft, also criminalises apartheid but it is only prospective from its inception date, 2002, and thus does not in fact deal with SA’s pre-1994 period.

But all this is entirely irrelevant: not one single victim of apartheid, and that means the vast majority of South Africans who were legally and reprehensibly discriminated against and worse until 1994, required a majority at the UN to certify them as victims of an inhumane system. To suggest otherwise is wrong in every way.

Commendably, and displaying a sensitivity to public opinion not often sighted here, De Klerk personally intervened on Monday and withdrew the original statement.

Perhaps he should now go a step further and interrogate what goes on in his own political home: the foundation established to honour him and his role in history landed up doing the precise opposite of its founding purpose. It gave the EFF parliamentary thugs a free pass, and allowed the meaning and sincerity of the De Klerk apology to be undermined. De Klerk’s deep discomfort with pairing apartheid with a crime against humanity was also on display again, having been ventilated first when he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997.

These events, and the needless inflammation of recent wounds and unburied resentments, mean it’s probably impossible to permit a proper account of what happened at the hinge of history moments, and who caused change in our recent past. But that doesn’t exempt us from trying.

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

Featured in Times Select