What might have happened had PW Botha not succumbed to a stroke and handed power to his successor?

4 Feb 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  Rand Daily Mail

CHAOS, in local politics anyway, apparently spirals downward. Channelling their “inner EFF”, ANC Cape Town city councillors last week decided to mimic their national foes by imitating the disruptive tactics of Julius Malema’s opposition fighters and applying them in one of the few places where the party finds itself in opposition.

DA mayor Patricia de Lille, with a leaf from the book of parliamentary Speaker Baleka Mbete, obliged them by calling in the police to lock them out.

The clichés “when the shoe is on the other foot” and “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” hardly seem to do justice to this latest act in the theatre of the absurd, which seems to substitute for real debate in our national melodrama.

One of the items on the council agenda that inspired the EEF-like tactics of the local ANC was the decision to rename a portion of Table Bay Boulevard in honour of former president FW de Klerk.

Strangely enough, for a party that believes the majority is always right, it opposed a decision that obtained more than 75% public support and had been endorsed by local luminaries such as Desmond Tutu.

Elsewhere in South Africa, street renaming has some ANC provenance.

Since Table Bay Boulevard is a motorway rather than a residential road, it should also be less inconvenient than matters doubtless were for, let us say, residents of Cowey Road in Durban.

They woke up one day a few years ago in the city of my birth to discover, courtesy of the local ANC council, that they now resided in “Problem Mkhize Road”. Mkhize was a big figure in the local MK structures but not perhaps a person of world renown. And, just maybe, reselling your home in a street beginning with the name “Problem” might be, well, problematic.

No matter. The objection to De Klerk was not that he did not make history, with his epoch-changing speech in Parliament 25 years ago this week but that, for the national majority, or at least their leaders, he was on the wrong side of it.

Of course, for the majority of residents in Cape Town, De Klerk was their political leader of choice in the two elections he contested at the helm of his party.

In the first democratic poll in 1994 and the local government election which followed it in 1996, they voted in large numbers for him. So if street names, in part, should reflect the preferences of local residents, this small matter should be both uncontroversial and democratically appropriate.

But the big controversy around this was captured by ANC council leader Tony Ehrenreich, who also moonlights as Cosatu’s Western Cape secretary, or perhaps the other way around. He said De Klerk was “an architect of apartheid and responsible for implementing a system that brutally oppressed the majority”.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that De Klerk’s party and even his family (his uncle was the hard-line prime minister JG Strijdom) were the architects. But I quibble. The crux of the Ehrenreich objection appears in the next line: “[De Klerk] was an accident of history who just happened to be the leader of the National Party and was forced to negotiate with the ANC.”

As British journalist Andrew Rawnsley wrote in another context: “That’s post-hoc analysis from Professor Harry Hindsight at the Faculty of Wise After the Fact.”

While South Africa seems to have many graduates from Professor Hindsight’s faculty these days, it is perhaps worth reframing the question and the day on which De Klerk turned his back on 350 years of history and started a process that would see him ejected from supreme power in just four years.

Of all the “what if?” questions, let us entertain the Ehrenreich theory at its root.

What might have been or might not have happened had PW Botha not succumbed to a severe stroke the year before and reluctantly handed the reins of power to his successor, or had them forced from his hand to be perfectly accurate?

Strangely enough, one person far more significant than the latter-day re-writers of history who believed it made little difference was none other than the mighty Nelson Mandela. He once told me, to my surprise, that he “far preferred dealing with Botha than with De Klerk”.

Last week, I discovered I was hardly alone in being startled by this observation.

Former British Ambassador to South Africa Robin Renwick has produced his own account of the dramatic transition from apartheid to democracy entitled Mission to South Africa — Diary of a Revolution.

In some ways the book is a mixed bag. The prose is lumpy and it doesn’t drop names so much as carpet-bomb the reader with them. It also covers a lot of already very well-trodden turf.

But Renwick was certainly a star in the diplomatic firmament and, as a top-ranking ambassador, a very accurate recorder of intimate encounters with the good and the great.

He recounts, after his retirement from his post here and Mandela’s election as president, that he went to visit the icon in Pretoria to discuss the trashing of De Klerk.

He writes: “Whatever [Mandela’s and De Klerk’s] disagreements, I reminded him he should please bear in mind that, but for De Klerk, he would not have been elected president and might still be in jail.

“Mandela characteristically informed his assistant that the ‘ambassador is right’ (though I had ceased to be one), adding that De Klerk had richly deserved his Nobel Peace Prize, ‘for he had made peace possible’.”

Case closed.