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B's Bonnet: Remembering FW de Klerk as controversy around his legacy continues

Former apartheid-era president and Nobel laureate FW de Klerk passed away this week. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)

Former apartheid-era president and Nobel laureate FW de Klerk passed away this week. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Nov 13, 2021


By Bongani Bingwa

Johannesburg - “I without qualification apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa. I do so not only in my capacity as the former leader of the National Party but also as an individual. Allow me in this last message to share with you the fact that since the early 80’s my views changed completely; it was as if I had a conversion and in my heart of hearts, realised that apartheid was wrong.”

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With these words FW De Klerk, apartheid’s last president bid adieu to the country that even his critics will acknowledge he changed irrevocably in 1990, when he unbanned the ANC and freed Nelson Mandela.

Part of the contestation of his legacy is the question of his sincerity in doing so. Was he a lone voice in the desert calling for ashes and sackcloth from his people, or was he a pragmatic strategist who thought that he could outmanoeuvre his political opponents and arrest the pace of reform by initiating cosmetic changes, thereby prolonging racial segregation?

We now know that however tentatively, the process to democracy had begun earlier when his predecessor, the recalcitrant PW Botha met Mandela and even freed his comrades Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others in 1988. How far Botha would have gone is a question we shall never answer because ill health cut his career short, and paved the way for what was assumed by the Nats to be a safe pair of hands.

De Klerk was virtually Afrikaner aristocracy, the scion of a family of successive leaders who had helped entrench racial oppression in South Africa. Few could have predicted that he would set about dismantling the system that had ruled with terror and tyranny towards the black majority and almost unrivalled prosperity for its white minority.

Journalist and broadcaster Bongani Bingwa. File image.

In the last years of his life De Klerk had become a reviled figure by many black South Africans. The emergence of political formations like the EFF left little room for any equivocation about his legacy and his impact on the country. He didn’t do himself any favours either. Pressed by CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour in one of his last television interviews on whether the system of racial oppression he had supported as a younger man but later dismantled was morally repugnant, he balked. All the eloquence of the trained lawyer and experienced politician that he was, abandoned him and the words simply could not escape his lips. He rambled on about the unfair application and the disadvantage it had brought people of colour but sorry was all that he could not say.

And so the scene was set for some drama last year when the red berets demanded that he be ejected from the National Assembly at the opening of parliament 30 years after his own seminal speech. In the preceding days his foundation had released a statement in which it had objected to the charge that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Rather it argued this “was, and remains, an ‘agitprop’ project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC/SACP allies "to stigmatise white South Africans by associating them with genuine crimes against humanity - which have generally included totalitarian repression and the slaughter of millions of people".

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Predictably there were howls of condemnation. The statement surprised even Thabo Mbeki who used the 2020 opening of parliament as an opportunity to quiz De Klerk. “We were sitting next to each other in parliament, I asked him about that. What transpires, is that he actually did not know that there is a convention declaring apartheid a crime against humanity,” Mbeki later said. Ever the good listener, he offered to enlighten his interlocutor. De Klerk had apparently not known that there is a legal document in international law that says apartheid was a crime against humanity. Mbeki offered to send it to him.

How could De Klerk not have known? Did he need the UN to tell him? The convention is there because it met two key elements — it was both “widespread” and “systematic”. The international community said this in 1966!

Yet even in the farewell recording, De Klerk says he never liked the word Apartheid and preferred “separate development” instead. Nonetheless he wanted to set the record straight. Outside parliament on Thursday President Cyril Ramaphosa reflected that De Klerk was the leader of a party whose policies had wrought havoc on millions but that perhaps as a human being it was important to let him rest.

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It would appear that the memory of those many millions might not be so selective. As EFF leader Julius Malema tweeted – thank God!

The Saturday Star