The media demand for comment on the death of Nelson Mandela from former South African president FW de Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been so intense that in both cases it was judged wise to hold press conferences in Cape Town. De Klerk declined to use the opportunity for attacks on the South African status quo, as he’s often wont to. And gone were Tutu’s characteristic wisecracks: the Arch did not try to hide his visible distress at the passing of his old friend. By REBECCA DAVIS.
“It was with the greatest sadness that I have learned of the death of Nelson Mandela,” the man who shared a Peace Prize with him told journalists at a Cape Town hotel on Thursday. FW de Klerk spoke with sincerity: “With sadness in my heart I celebrate his life.”
De Klerk and Mandela met for the first time mid-December 1989, almost 24 years ago, in De Klerk’s office at Tuynhuys. “My first impression of him was that he was taller than I expected, ramrod straight,” de Klerk said. “He had an aura of dignity and authority…My gut reaction was: I like this man.”
The two spent the meeting “feeling each other out” rather than discussing any substantive issues. De Klerk said he was sure that the two left their encounter with the same feeling: “I think I can do business with this man.” Perhaps because they were both lawyers, De Klerk said, there was a certain rapport between them on the best way to proceed.
“On a more personal level he was not only a man of wisdom and integrity,” de Klerk said. “He was also a very warm and magnanimous person. He made everyone in his presence feel welcome. We became very good friends, especially after retirement. We had our tensions. We were political opponents… But we were always able to rise above.”
De Klerk recounted how Mandela attended his 70th birthday party, where he gave a toast. Mandela was 18 years older than de Klerk, but he joked that de Klerk had worked harder during his lifetime because he had had “27 years of relaxation on Robben Island”.
The last time he saw Mandela, de Klerk said, was at the opening of the World Cup in 2010, when he was already very frail. The two did not have time for a lengthy chat. But shortly before that, de Klerk and his wife Elita had had tea at his Houghton home with Mandela and Graca Machel. “We had a wonderful warm discussion reminiscing about the past,” de Klerk said.
Was there ever true reconciliation between Mandela and Afrikaners, he was asked. “I am absolutely convinced that the overwhelming majority of Afrikaners appreciate Mandela,” de Klerk replied. He said they took note of the fact that Mandela appointed as his PA a white Afrikaans woman, Zelda le Grange. They took note, too, of his trip to Orania to visit Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of Apartheid’s architect Hendrik Verwoerd.
An American journalist tried to press de Klerk for his feelings on contemporary South African society. De Klerk, appropriately, would not be drawn. “Today is not the time to take potshots,” he said. “The South African nation stands united today.”
A few hours later, at the SABC studios in Sea Point, Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivered his own tribute. He spoke with his eyes half closed, his face a rictus of sadness. There were few jokes from the normally irrepressible Arch, though he did attempt a passable Madiba impersonation.
Tutu extended his sorrow and condolences to the family of Nelson Mandela. “Although we collectively claim him as the father of nation,” he said, “he was your father. Thank you for sharing Tata with us.”
People loved Mandela, Tutu said, because of his courage, his convictions, and his love for others. “He perfectly understood that people are dependent on other people,” he said. Mandela transcended race and class in his personal actions, Tutu said, and his impact was felt continent-wide: he restored people’s faith in Africa and Africans.
“Was he an exception who proved the rule? I say no,” Tutu said. “Of course he was exceptional. But the spirit of greatness that he personified resides in all of us. We are made for goodness, for greatness.”
Mandela’s time in prison was transformative, Tutu said. “When you consider he went to prison a relatively angry young man… And he emerged as this incredible icon of magnanimity and compassion.” But he wasn’t flawless, Tutu stressed. In a dig at the ANC, he cited Mandela’s unwavering loyalty to his organization as a weakness, together with his willingness to retain underperforming Cabinet ministers.
Tutu said that on one of the last occasions on which he met Mandela at his Houghton home, Mandela shouted for the driver he assumed was there to convey Tutu home. “I told him I drove myself from Soweto,” Tutu said. “He didn’t say anything.” A few days later, Mandela told him that he had found someone who was prepared to pay Tutu R5,000 a month so that he could get himself a driver.
“He cared,” said Tutu. “He really, really cared.”
And what of us left behind, Tutu asked. “Some have suggested that after he’s gone, our country is going to go up in flames. This is, I think, to discredit us South Africans, to discredit his legacy.” Tutu called on South Africans to marshal the spirit of the World Cup to honour Mandela’s memory. “We belong together,” he said.
As Tutu spoke, his daughter Mpho sat alongside him, occasionally nodding, her eyes bright with sorrow. Tutu didn’t take questions from the gathered journalists: there was nothing more to add.
“The sun will rise tomorrow, and the next day, and the next,” he said. “It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on.” DM
Photo: Archbishop Desmond Tutu (L) clasps the hand of former South African President FW de Klerk (R) at a Reconciliation Day unveiling ceremony in Cape Town December 16, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine