South Africa

FW De Klerk: A relic of the past or does he still matter?

By Marianne Thamm 2 February 2016

It was 26 years ago on 2 February 1990 that South Africa's last white president, FW De Klerk, announced he would be releasing Nelson Mandela. To commemorate the occasion, the FW De Klerk Foundation on Tuesday hosted a conference on The future of Multiculturalism n South Africa. De Klerk once again apologised for the “pain and humiliation” of apartheid and called on white South Africans to acknowledge this. However, he suggested that black South Africans should, in turn, show “greater sensitivity” for the complexities of history. Does what De Klerk have to say still matter? By MARIANNE THAMM.

Sitting on a tall stool behind the podium in the council chamber in the Cape Town civic centre, former Constitutional Court judge, Albie Sachs, dressed in a blue version of a Madiba shirt, began his address to the small crowd gathered recalling his meeting in March 1988 with exiled ANC President Oliver Tambo at a school in Lusaka. Tambo and other ANC delegates had met with Sachs to discuss the principles the party wanted to see included in a future Bill of Rights.

If we conducted a metaphorical DNA test on the Constitution, said Sachs, it would be Tambo’s imprint we would find there.

Seated to his right and watching Sachs give his address was former president FW De Klerk, with his familiar bald pate and dressed in a dark suit. From this vantage point De Klerk would have had a clear view of the stump that is now Sachs’ right arm.

As the former judge waved the stump, it was impossible to forget that in April 1988, one month after meeting Tambo, Sachs lost his arm and the eyesight in one eye when apartheid state security agents detonated a powerful bomb in his car in Maputo.

One can only wonder what thoughts ran through De Klerk’s mind as he watched Sachs, unable to ignore the visible physical wound members of his party and his former government had bequeathed the former judge.

The agents were probably looking for Mathews Posa, joked Sachs. Posa, a former ANC Treasurer, happened also to be seated in the chamber across from Sachs, having given an earlier address to the conference which was presented in conjunction with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

During his address Posa had thanked De Klerk for the role he had played “bringing real change” to our country.

When all the noise has died down future historians will judge positively the role you played in the liberations of all South Africans, black and white. Real leaders make difficult and selfless choices and become statesman, and you did just that. You and President Mandela crossed the dangerous Rubicon when you were called upon to do so,” Posa said.

Over in Johannesburg, however, a “little-known” anti-racism group, the Anti Racism Forum were expressing somewhat less generous sentiments. The group announced that it would be laying 22 criminal charges against De Klerk and former minister of police, Adrian Vlok “for crimes committed against black people for whom they didn’t get amnesty at the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission).Further complaints of racism will be laid against FW De Klerk at the South African Human Rights Commission.”

This appears to be in response to the FW de Klerk Foundation’s complaint to the Human Rights Commission in relation to 45 social media postings that “incite extreme violence against white South Africans.”

In its complaint the foundation suggested that “by far the most virulent and dangerous racism – expressed in the most extreme and violent language – has come from disaffected black South Africans.”

De Klerk took the podium looking like a man comfortable with a lifetime in authority if not exactly an elder statesman. His is a voice which has been schooled to address and engage, but one could not help thinking, while listening to the familiar tone tinged with its Afrikaans accent, that men like De Klerk, Posa and Sachs are relics of the past and rely on a vocabulary that increasingly belongs to another political age.

They are men steeped in early notions of non-racialism and multiculturalism, concepts that are being challenged by a rising new generation of thinkers, activists, students and politicians who are pushing for structural rather than superficial transformation.

De Klerk began by saying that the foundation had decided to dedicate its annual conference to the “consideration of the future of multiculturalism in South Africa” because of “the strains that have been developing in relations between our communities and because of the central importance of reaching agreement on how communities in our complex multicultural society should relate to one another in the future. These are questions that will play a key role in determining the long-term success of our society and the security and happiness of all our peoples.”

This, he added was a challenge that increasingly confronted countries throughout the world where the “main threat to peace during the 21st century no longer comes from the possibility of conflict between countries but rather from the inability of states to manage relationships between ethnic, cultural and religious communities within their own borders. The age of the single culture, single language state is over.”

De Klerk’s omission here of the role of global structural inequality as a component of this threat points to a rather old-fashioned solution for a much deeper global problem, the crisis of capitalism, shifting geopolitical power and a fierce competition for increasingly scarce resources.

And speaking of geopolitical power, it was, said De Klerk, European imperialists who had created South Africa, like many other African countries, and it was the arbitrary lines the British had drawn on the map of southern Africa that had created South Africa “as we know it today.”

In so doing they incorporated within the same state a wide array of different peoples with different cultures, values and levels of development.”

It was the British, he added, who had given, in 1910, white South Africans a monopoly of political power which they had used in subsequent decades to protect their own interests.

Their relationship with the other peoples of South Africa was characterised at best by condescending paternalism – and at worst by naked exploitation and dispossession. 26 years ago today I initiated the process that would end the white monopoly of power and that would open the way to our present non-racial constitutional democracy.”

The new South African constitution, said De Klerk “was in line with international thinking on multiculturalism at the time” and that is was only within such a framework of “tolerant multiculturalism” that those who lived in multicultural societies could achieve their full potential as human beings.

He added however that “unfortunately, virtually every one of the provisions relating to cultural and language rights that we negotiated into the 1996 Constitution has been ignored or diluted: English is increasingly the single de facto official language. The supposed official status of the remaining 10 languages is increasingly an illusion. Little or nothing has been done to develop our indigenous languages. Afrikaans, as a university language, is under enormous pressure – and there are increasing pressures on especially single medium Afrikaans schools. Perhaps the most ominous threat to diversity comes from increasing demands that minorities should conform to the goal of pervasive and all-embracing demographic representivity.”

He said that demanding demographic representivity in a society as diverse as South Africa “would mean that minorities would be subject to the control of the majority in every area of their lives: in their jobs, in their schools, in their universities, in their charitable institutions and in their sports. It would be the antithesis of multiculturalism. It would constitute African hegemony – and negate the idea that all South Africans are equal, regardless of the community to which they belong.”

An issue De Klerk said that continued to “deeply divide” the country were the different perceptions and experiences of the past.

During the negotiations we reached agreement on the need for reconciliation and for actions to promote national unity. We accepted that our approach to the past should be based on a need for understanding – but not for vengeance; a need for reparation – but not for retaliation; and a need for Ubuntu – but not for victimisation. We also agreed to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine our deeply divided past and to promote reconciliation and national unity.”

And then De Klerk reiterated the apology he had given to the TRC.

I made a full and sincere apology for apartheid. I apologised in my capacity as Leader of the National Party to the millions of South Africans who had suffered the wrenching disruption of forced removals in respect of their homes, businesses and land; who over the years, had suffered the shame of being arrested for pass law offences; who over the decades – and indeed centuries – had suffered the indignities of humiliation of racial discrimination; who for a long time were prevented from exercising their full democratic rights in the land of their birth; who were unable to achieve their full potential because of job reservation; and who in any way suffered as a result of discriminatory legislation and policies.”

He said he had offered the apology in a spirit of “true repentance in full knowledge of the tremendous harm that apartheid has done to millions of South Africans. Nothing has changed since I made that apology. I stand by it.”

He added however, that he believed that all white South Africans should “continuously try to understand, acknowledge and process the pain and humiliation that apartheid caused black, Coloured and Indian South Africans. We need to be involved in addressing it.”

And then what is bound to be viewed as controversial, De Klerk suggested that “black South Africans must show much greater sensitivity for the enormous complexity of our history. They should not judge previous generations by the moral standards of today – either Paul Kruger or King Shaka.”

Or FW De Klerk, perhaps?

And then, in what could be viewed as an ahistorical interpretation of the past De Klerk said that the main motivation of “my people throughout our history was simply our desire to establish and maintain our own right to national self-determination.”

History is not a simple cowboy story about bad guys vs good guys…Our critics must also understand that even more important than apologies is the determination to put right what has been wrong. It was inter alia for this reason that my colleagues and I took the decisions and actions that were necessary to get rid of apartheid forever. We also agreed that our new Constitution should make provision for restitution, for a balanced system of land reform and for measures to promote equality that would not result in unfair discrimination against anyone. Despite the considerable risks involved, we gave up our virtual monopoly of power and of our historic quest to rule ourselves. Instead, we put our faith in the non-racial Constitution that we negotiated with all our fellow South Africans.”

That is certainly, only one way of looking at it.

He said that while in 1992 the majority of whites “had supported the course that we had adopted” 22 years later “we continue to be more deeply divided by our past than ever.”

Many white South Africans lived contentedly in First World bubbles “oblivious of the plight of less advantaged communities”.

This manifests itself too often in what blacks perceive as an unconscious racial superiority – and sometimes in crass, racist and hurtful remarks and attitudes. On the other hand, the attitude of many blacks towards white South Africans is becoming harsher and more uncompromising. Many feel that little has changed since 1994. Many believe that whites ‘stole’ all the land that they now possess and that their relative prosperity is based not on hard work and enterprise, but on the historic exploitation of black South Africans.”

Whites, he said, were increasingly blamed for the problems of inequality, unemployment and poverty that continued to afflict many South Africans and the Government openly attacked “their history and their heroes – such as Jan van Riebeeck and Paul Kruger – who, ironically, led one of the greatest anti-Imperialist struggles in African history. South Africans are once again perceiving people from other communities in terms of negative racial stereotypes and not as individual human beings; in terms of past animosities rather than in terms of the need for present and future cooperation to achieve national goals.”

South Africans, he said, needed “to return to the spirit of reconciliation, compromise and goodwill that characterised the first years of the New South Africa. We need to hear Nelson Mandela’s call for reconciliation and nation building again. We need to rediscover the vision of multiculturalism in the Constitution”

Leaders, he added, should “urgently come together to call for calm. The should unambiguously condemn racism from whatever quarter it might come” as well as encouraging South Africans to unite around the values in the Constitution and to “work for a society in which those values will be translated into reality.”

There were many ghosts of history in the chamber yesterday, ghosts that haunt all of us everywhere. Perhaps then it might be fitting to end with a quote from Sachs who said while we needed to forgive, we should not forget. DM

Photo: Former South African President FW de Klerk addresses a news conference in Cape Town, July 26, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.

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