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FW De Klerk: A legacy lacking genuine commitment to change

FW De Klerk. Picture: Leon Muller

FW De Klerk. Picture: Leon Muller

Published Nov 18, 2021


Opinion:At the outset, we must convey our condolences to Mr De Klerk’s wife and family on the loss of their loved one.

FW de Klerk’s passing has engendered mixed reaction in South Africa. While he is acknowledged as having assisted in paving the way for South Africa’s democratic transition, there are some issues that mar his legacy.

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It must be understood that De Klerk’s actions, including the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, the unbanning of the liberation movements and their affiliates in 1990 and the announcement of the intention to commence talks about a negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy settlement in South Africa; were not prompted by altruism but rather by doing what would best serve and protect the interests of the white minority that he represented.

There were strong pressures, including increasing internal protests and ungovernability, weakening white commitment, international isolation and an economy under strain which made De Klerk’s actions inevitable. Credit must be given to him for his actions, which facilitated a peaceful transition to democracy.

However, although De Klerk made his announcement in Parliament on February 2, 1990, he appeared reluctant to proceed expeditiously with the peace negotiations. This resulted in the Codesa negotiations commencing almost two years later with some political prisoners still not yet released or still on death row. This dragging of feet gave rise to undue tension in the country.

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What Mr De Klerk will also be remembered for is leaving the government of national unity a day after the adoption of South Africa’s first democratic Constitution. His withdrawal from the government of national unity dealt a blow to national reconciliation and the unity-building process. The nation would have been better served had he provided leadership and guidance to help the white community embrace and accept democracy.

He will also be remembered for having served on the infamous State Security Council (SSC) that oversaw the deaths, abductions, arrests, torture and imprisonment of thousands of South Africans, including the killings of the Cradock Four, the Ribeiro couple, the Pebco Three, the bombing of Khotso House, the disappearance of Stanza Bopape and the Trust Feeds Massacre. This was in addition to destabilising neighbouring countries by sponsoring rebel groups such as Renamo in Mozambique.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the SSC established an elite hit squad, trained by the SA Defence Force to conduct massacres and assassinations until the dawn of democracy in 1994.

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In fact, while the multi-party negotiations were going on, the gangs, paramilitary outfits and vigilante groups that were created by the SSC, were doing their utmost to weaken the liberation movements during the talks.

Forty members of the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP), including Mac Maharaj, Pravin Gordhan, Siphiwe Nyanda and Billy Nair, were arrested in July 1990. They were accused of being part of Operation Vula, an alleged ANC/SACP/MK plot to seize power if negotiations with the government collapsed. Nair suffered two heart attacks in detention and had to undergo a double heart by-pass operation. While still recuperating, he was charged with nine others in the Vula trial. The charges were withdrawn and all were released.

When De Klerk reluctantly appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had been established to probe apartheid human rights violations and apartheid-era violence, he refused to come clean about his role in the SSC and lied to the commission insisting that it had never been the government or National Party policy that people should be killed.

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He claimed that rogue apartheid police officers had killed civilians and activists and had committed these acts without his knowledge or permission and without the knowledge of any senior figures in government. He also declared his support for the security forces who implemented (apartheid) policies and decisions.

However, the final report of the commission made it clear that De Klerk and his generals knew of and authorised attempts to kill and injure anti-apartheid activists.

The denial and refusal to condemn or apologise unreservedly for apartheid has been a feature of De Klerk’s public utterances over the years. In 2012, he said on American television that he could only condemn apartheid “in a qualified way”, and in 2020 is on record as denying that the system of racial suppression was a “crime against humanity”.

A video released after his death showing him apologising for apartheid and the misery it inflicted on black South Africans has unfortunately come a little too late. He leaves us with a legacy of having the one the right thing for the country with his February 2, 1990, announcement but failing to do enough thereafter.

Maggie Govender was an NIC and UDF activist. She served in the underground structures of the ANC and SACP and was part of Operation Vula. Govender is a former educator, trade unionist and UKZN lecturer. She is currently a member of the PEC in the KZN ANC and an MPL in the KZN Legislature where she chairs the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. She writes in her personal capacity.

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