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F.W. de Klerk Walking in the Shadows of Apartheid

February 20, 2020

By James N. Kariuki*

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk hold their hands high as they address a huge crowd of people in front of the Union Building after the first presidential inauguration on May 10, 1994. REUTERS/Juda Ngwenya

South Africa’s latest spectacle was last week’s ninety-minute delay of the presidential state of the nation address (SONA.) The contentious issue was that F. W. de Klerk, the country’s last apartheid state president, was seated in the public gallery of Parliament. His presence deeply bothered members of the red uniformed Economic Freedom Fighters, the EFF.    

Before President Cyril Ramaphosa started his address EFF leader, Julius Malema objected to de Klerk’s presence arguing that it imposed a contradiction to the extent that parliament is the ultimate embodiment of democracy. Yet, he continued, de Klerk was a criminal, a murderer and a racist to the core. The EFF would not share the same space with him in that forum; he needed to be evicted.

The underlying issue here is that South Africans do not agree on the simple question:  who/what brought about the demise of South Africa’s draconian system of apartheid thirty years ago? 

Obviously, Malema and his followers are reluctant to confer credit to de Klerk for the feat that required great skill, courage and strength. Having grown up in South Africa as a white person, he automatically benefitted immensely from apartheid as he climbed all the way to its top. In 1989 he assumed the presidency of that system of racial discrimination, white privilege and supremacy. It is hardly absurd that some still wonder: How could a man who benefitted so much from apartheid turn around and spearhead its demise?  

Given the choice, Julius Malema and his followers would rather attribute credit for the change to the African friends who extended a helping hand to the South African liberation forces that fought apartheid from inside and outside the country. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and others, though generally portrayed as controversial, were friends-in-need to the extent that they were openly part of the global anti-apartheid forces.

For a while apartheid was distinctly under siege. Countless critics abhorred it on the grounds of racial solidarity. Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere spoke for many in stating that it was morally unacceptable to condemn a people “for being born who they were.” Against this attitude, anti-apartheid sentiments gathered momentum worldwide.

By the late 1980s, apartheid was clearly on the back foot. International sanctions were in place, domestic violence engineered by ‘clandestine’ liberation movements was rampant; the republic was in disarray. Why then didn’t the forces of liberation come to the rescue? Apartheid was armed to the teeth. Experts estimate that apartheid South Africa could have survived military intrusion for 5 to 10 years.  Would there be a South Africa left after ten years of constant warfare? In the days to come, Nelson Mandela himself reminded his people that they were not dealing with a defeated enemy.

There was only one person in South Africa (and the world) positioned to formulate and implement a non- violent route to fundamental change in apartheid South Africa.  That person was none other than F.W. de Klerk.  He opted for dialogue and negotiations rather than violence. As President he had an advantage over and above everybody else: he was positioned to communicate with the opposing forces from the ANC to the far-right Afrikaners who were most threatened by his project. 

Three months into his presidency, de Klerk launched his project. Nelson Mandela was released from prison, all banned political parties were legalized and secret delegations were dispatched out of the country to undertake secret talks with the exiled leaders of ANC leaders. 

To the EFF, conferring credit to de Klerk for the peaceful transfer of power was hardly a significant achievement. In a vindictive mindset, what matters is that de Klerk is alleged to have been a murderer and a subsequent apologist for apartheid. It was deceptive that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Nelson Mandela (1993) for embarking on the democratic route.  Indeed, the logic continues, de Klerk should return the award to the Nobel Prize Committee and should be stripped of presidential benefits at home. 

But to the neutral observer, de Klerk’s greatness did not come from his assessment of apartheid’s qualification as a social-economic order. That greatness came from accepting that, no matter how enticing it seemed to the Afrikaner community, apartheid’s time had come to an end; it must be dismantled. Regardless of what drove de Klerk to action, he was successful. And ending apartheid peacefully was no easy matter. Those who remember those days insist that the alternative to talking and negotiations “was too ghastly to contemplate.” For this, South Africans owe de Klerk a debt of gratitude equivalent to what African-Americans owe Abraham Lincoln for abolishing slavery .

* James N. Kariuki is a Kenyan Professor of International Relations (Emeritus).  He comments on public issues in various international publications.He runs the blog Global Africa

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