FW De Klerk – A prisoner of his own past
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OPINION: The ghosts of those murdered without a thought is FW’s haunting legacy, which unless exorcised will infect our grandchildren long after the pandemic is contained, writes Professor Saths Cooper.
I distinctly remember that fateful Tuesday, September 6, 1966 when it was confirmed that HF Verwoerd had died after being stabbed in Parliament by Dimitri Tsafendas.
Despite the media solemnity and the demonising of his killer, there was a quiet celebration over the brutal demise of one of the most vicious proponents of apartheid. Many toasted his living and dying by the sword.
Thursday’s news of FW de Klerk’s death has not affected me in the same celebratory way. I’m questioning whether his death has “left me cold”, as Jimmy Kruger said of Steve Biko’s murder in police custody.
When someone dies in our country, there’s generally a moratorium on one’s terrible deeds, with every effort made to highlight the apparent good. Lest I be accused of being churlish, let me acknowledge upfront that De Klerk was one the architects of the negotiated settlement that ushered in our democracy in April 1994.
Western media loves to whitewash villains and try to dig any dirt on heroes, especially when they don’t conform to their conceptualisation of what a malleable hero should be. Our media – largely forged in the Western colonial tradition – has tended to recast the horrific roles that De Klerk played, preferring the narrative of peacemaker and democrat.
Cutting his teeth in the bosom of the Nationalist Party, he faithfully served apartheid in the whites-only parliament, was a loyal Broederbond member, and was in the cabinets of JB Vorster and PW Botha. Villain to many, hero and saviour to some, but undeniably the Janus-faced racist, who – despite his pre-death last will and testimony advanced by his foundation – simply could not recant his own complicity in the murder of so many who stood up for the basic rights he claimed he extolled in our Constitution.
Just as he could not bring himself to repudiate the terrible and profound harm caused by the most virulent racism that the world had thought ended with Nazism, he defended the good intentions of so-called separate development, denying that apartheid was a crime against humanity.
One cannot stand for human rights while harbouring any defence of our past horrors. However one may wax lyrically about such human rights, those at the receiving end have an inbuilt radar to detect such duplicity and insincerity.
Outside of the anticipated eulogies and attacks, it’s appropriate to touch on a few thorny issues that De Klerk was responsible for. Once his leadership of party and state was confirmed, he set about the toenadering agenda which Vorster began after the cataclysmic events of June 16, 1976, and which Botha pursued with carrot and stick.
It was he who “authorised the continuation of secret talks in Geneva between his National Intelligence Service and two exiled ANC leaders, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma”, eventually handing over to Mandela, soon after his installation as president, spy files of those within the liberation movement who had collaborated with apartheid, Zuma has oft threatened, but failed, to reveal.
He was a member of, eventually presiding over, the State Security Council, a substructure of the Cabinet, which confirmed the murder of those who were deemed to be dangerous to their baaskap plans. De Klerk withdrew from the Government of National Unity a day after Parliament adopted the Constitution.
It was him who roamed former colonial capitals, feted as an oppressor-turned- liberator, a latter-day advisor to governments on resolving problems that they might confront with their own natives in revolt, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993.
The Nobel Committee has also been guilty of lack of judgement with Israel’s Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed. Even when De Klerk has been constrained to utter a semblance of an apology, there was always a “but”, a sting in the tail reflective of his attempt to deny responsibility.
Apartheid unleashed “black-on-black violence” with the able infiltration of nearly all but the most benign organisations in South Africa and abroad - including the media, the professions, business, and civil society.
Those responsible trained layers of others who are now almost unstoppable in creating mayhem. These apartheid murderers and disinformation specialists are being retained within the security and other arms of government.
This is FW’s abiding legacy, confirmed by the secret deal he reached with those who he shared power with since the dawn of democracy. The ghosts of those murdered without a thought is FW’s haunting legacy, which unless exorcised will infect our grandchildren long after the pandemic is contained.
FW will go down in history as the last apartheid president and much, much more.
The latter hinted about in the TRC, carefully obfuscated, yet steadily emerging in the mainstream media, will start to unravel after his death in this instant social media age where almost everything is undiscoverable, and with the Justice Ministry and NPA finally going after apartheid murderers.
May his soul rest in the peace he denied many.
* Professor Saths Cooper is a former political prisoner and a member of the 70s Group.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.