“Everyone wavers between the emotionally still-alive past and the already-dead future.”
The redaction of the historical record began the moment apartheid ended — indeed before apartheid ended: official history in this country is a palimpsest written over on endless occasions. (Remember: the National Intelligence Agency destroyed 44 tonnes of documents at the close of the ancien regime, a black hole filled mostly with revisioning, mythologising and Nando’s adverts.)
So perhaps it is to be welcomed that, during the recent State of the Nation Theatrical Extravaganza, FW de Klerk was rolled out on history’s rusted gurney and defibrillated before a yawning nation. We need not go into the specifics of this event, which has been covered extensively elsewhere. But let’s just say that this was a Julius Malema/Economic Freedom Fighters gambit that paid massive dividends, but nonetheless begged an urgent question for those hoping for a bathroom break: why bother exhuming the old frog now, given that he’s been a regular guest at SONA for years, and was hardly a wallflower when it came to decrying the corruption and mismanagement of the Zuma era?
He has never shut up and gone away. Rather, he’s blabbed his way around the world and coined it.
Before we answer any questions, let’s indulge in a recap. As you are likely aware, the 84-year-old former State President co-won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in dismantling the apartheid state and helping to negotiate its transplacement. I use the term transplacement because it describes how the interests of white elites were shipped wholesale from the previous regime into the Constitution that would follow the “first free and fair” elections in 1994. In other words, elements of apartheid are encoded into the DNA of our lofty, widely hailed and progressive constitutional framework.
As the academics Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo note in their seminal Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy:
“During apartheid, [South Africa’s] black citizens clamoured for the right to vote, for access to land, for access to education and jobs, and for freedom from institutionalised, race-based discrimination. Yet when democracy finally came in 1994, it was not necessarily forged by the people: indeed, during the transition process, the outgoing apartheid regime was largely in the driver’s seat. The first five years of democracy were governed by a transitional power-sharing agreement in which the newly empowered African National Congress (ANC) agreed that the outgoing apartheid National Party (NP) would be part of the government, despite a lack of popular support. Cabinets were to make consensus decisions. […] In short, the NP basically had veto power over the institutional design of the country.
“Because South African democracy was not created by the people, it is not governed for the people.” (Emphasis mine.)
In other words, FW de Klerk basically made South Africa. So it’s worth asking: stripped of the marketing and the myth-making, who is he really? And why is he still breaking news?
Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg in 1936, trained at Potchefstroom University as a lawyer (what else?), and began his political career with the NP in 1972. He was a member in good standing of the Broederbond, the Afrikaner secret society to which he was invited “at the unusually young age of 27”, according to Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom in The Super Afrikaners. He entered John Vorster’s reshuffled Cabinet in 1978 and never left, holding the successive portfolios of Social Welfare and Pensions, Post and Telecommunications, Mining (God help us), Ministry of the Interior (FFS) and, finally, Education. We should get this out of the way quickly: FW was not an anti-apartheid activist. He protected and upheld some of the regime’s most uncompromising ideals, especially in the education ministry, until very late in the game (although he oversaw the repeal of the Mixed Marriages Act when he held the Minister of the Interior).
In the succession battle that followed PW Botha’s resignation as leader of the NP, FW squeaked past Finance Minister Barend du Plessis by a Ramaphosa-like margin of eight votes. The year was 1989, and shit was getting seriously real out on the streets. Unlike many of his fellow Broederbond members, De Klerk could count — the state’s balance sheet was appropriately blood-red. If De Klerk held a coherent ideology, he’s what we’d now call a neoliberal, which was not exactly commonplace in an Afrikaner Economic Empowerment movement that shut out competition by design.
To this point, shortly after he became leader of the NP, he met with (and was deeply admired by) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He came to understand two things: that bad PR was way more dangerous than local “terrorist” liberation forces. And that the costs of total war, exacerbated by a concerted international sanctions programme, were no longer sustainable. A slavering anti-commie, De Klerk was massively encouraged by the implosion of Soviet Marxism, warning against “those who insist on persisting with it in Africa”. Similarly, his regime could no longer be considered a democratic bulwark in a sea of communism, because the sea had emptied and what was left was Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.
The pressure on the regime — at home and abroad — was immense, and there was only one real escape hatch. Employing realpolitik, De Klerk allowed secret talks with exiled ANC leaders to continue; gave the thumbs up for massive protest marches to take place; and shortly thereafter began a period of perestroika by unbanning political parties and freeing ageing liberation heroes.
But how to end apartheid without ending apartheid?
De Klerk, despite much opposition from ultra-conservatives within the NP, instituted a programme of what we’ll term “violent pragmatism”.
“We are the liquidators of this firm,” he is said to have said to one of his ministers in December 1989, as the regime grunted its way into history’s remainder bin. That statement is a startling insight into the man’s thinking. As much as anything, for FW de Klerk apartheid was a business, a means of enriching a narrow elite and trickling the spoils down to battalions of Afrikaner civil servants and service-industry professionals. Could the business of apartheid survive the regime?
Fuck yeah, it could.
To his enormous credit as a strategist (though not as a human being), De Klerk and his advisors — among their number Timothy Bell, later Lord Bell of Bell Pottinger, who freelanced for the Nats after serving as Thatcher’s unofficial media adviser — envisioned a straight line to a salutary “democratic” outcome. The first was to keep up pressure on the ANC through a variety of clandestine tactics, among them the dreaded Third Force that drove so-called black-on-black violence in the lead-up to the ’94 elections. (De Klerk has always, if unconvincingly, denied any complicity in this programme, which resulted in the death of thousands of black South Africans.) The second was to negotiate a scenario in which the regime would be afforded significant say in drafting the Constitution.
Although these mechanisms were obvious to ANC negotiators, there was no way to effectively counter their strategy. The Soviet Union was dead and the ANC was adrift in an ideological mist — they had to pivot right so drastically that only Thabo Mbeki seemed to make the corner. While the international community was opposed to apartheid and mostly supportive of sanctions, power-players like Thatcher didn’t really rate Mandela: after an initial telephone call, she thought that “he seemed to have rather a closed mind” and was dimmer intellectually than Robert Mugabe.
Support, in other words, was very, very conditional.
More vitally, despite carrying the moral advantage (by a long mile), the ANC did not win either a liberation war or a committed insurgency campaign. In fact, the Congress was party to a multi-stakeholder negotiated transition in which they did not hold either the balance of power or the monopoly of violence. In many respects, as per Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, this made them junior negotiators at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) and Codesa II, through the wreckage of the Boipatong massacre, and beyond.
Could the ANC have held out for better terms, as Julius Malema and the woke faction would like us to believe? Not in the real world. Like all negotiators in similar situations, Mandela and his team were forced to compute a grim calculus: how many black lives was FW’s freedom worth? Five? Five thousand? 150,000? To force the surviving members of the regime to stand before a firing squad would have taken a vast militarisation on the ANC’s part, for which there was zero money, not much capacity and zero international support. (It was also a war that would have had to be prosecuted on at least two fronts, given that the Inkatha Freedom Party wasn’t just going to stand by and applaud.)
Chief negotiators Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer employed a back-slapping bonhomie that is altogether out of date these days, but it kept the process rolling along a track that had to result in a positive outcome for both parties: political power for the majority, and political protection for the minority.
But then tragedy struck. After concerted lobbying from the old white business establishment, to say nothing of the international community — and with the economy an utter fuckshow thanks to NP profligacy and mismanagement — Mandela swivelled away from anything remotely socialist, effectively transposing De Klerk’s apartheid financial administration on to his own. A steady hand likely seemed necessary at the time — the country was forced to pay the apartheid war bill, an unforgivable financial crime committed against the people of the country.
“South Africa was never in the driver’s seat when it came to the economy,” noted the American journalist Danny Schechter. “It was subject to decisions about trade and investment made elsewhere.”
In a secret deal signed off by 16 representatives shortly before the election — half from the ANC, half from the outgoing government — an $850-million loan was accepted from the International Monetary Fund in exchange for accepting the Washington Consensus: austerity, privatisation, liberalisation, the usual bullshit.
“We chickened out,” former MK commander Ronny Kasrils would later lament.
This outcome could not have better served FW and his cohorts (along with the white minority at large). Following the hurdle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — the final sign-off on an agreement that exchanged (partial) admission for (total) amnesty — South Africa’s democratic era properly began. De Klerk was miserable about how the TRC was set up and believed its conclusions damaged his reputation. But given that he literally helped run an apartheid state for 18 years, I think we can all agree that the regime’s last State President got off with less than a slap on the wrist. Two years after becoming deputy president, a post he abhorred, he left the Government of National Unity in a fit of pique in 1996. Since then, he’s travelled the world, pimping his Nobel Peace Prize for cold, hard cash.
Is it weird that after the end of apartheid, a cohort of perverted, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Luddite carnivores were allowed to roam this country, unpursued by justice, free to engage in the market economics of the (very lucrative) international think-tank foundationosphere?
After all, De Klerk emerged from the ruins of his regime as a statesman, a player in the global advice complex where elites share spit and literally rig the system so that plebeians like you and I end up on the bottom of some vast, unfathomable inequality pyramid. The FW de Klerk Foundation (“for peace”) has afforded its namesake immense respectability, and he runs a secretive organisation called the Global Leadership Foundation, headquartered in London, that gives “quiet, discreet advice” (as he told me in an interview for the documentary film, Influence) to a network of leaders around the world.
And De Klerk has remained an apologist to this very day. As late as 2016, in a speech to the Margaret Thatcher Centre, he was insisting that, “by any objective measure there were many countries with far worse human rights and social development records than South Africa.” If he’d just kept to sharing these opinions in chummy Chatham House-style think-wanks, he may have sneaked into history with his image relatively intact. But no. Commemorating the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s release, he went on a local “Ag-Apartheid-Wasn’t-So-Bad-Boet-Tour”, telling the SABC several days before SONA that, “There was never genocide.”
Be that as it may, and leaving the whataboutism aside for the moment, his statements unsurprisingly put a big target on his head. When he waltzed into Parliament, the EFF took the shot. And it landed.
And so here we are, with Julius Malema having successfully kickstarted another shrieking conversation. Across the political spectrum, everyone has taken the bait. Adding to the apologias, the FW de Klerk Foundation issued a statement following SONA, making the utterly insane observation that, “the idea that apartheid was ‘a crime against humanity’ 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”.
It would be wonderful to imagine that all of this will result in a revivified historical reckoning. But that’s just a hilarious idea. Instead, in Parliament we watched a spectacle of unbrokeness. This is the political equivalent of Nietzsche’s eternal return; of Fanon’s observation that “if nationalism is not explained, enriched, and deepened — if it does not very quickly turn into a social and political consciousness; into humanism, then it leads to a dead end”.
And here we are, at a dead end.
There was no possible way for justice to be served following the end of apartheid. The conditions didn’t allow for it. The best that the country could have hoped for was a hard reset: a break with 350 years of colonial-style exploitation. That responsibility fell largely to the ANC, but not only to the ANC — to an entire suite of South African leaders who had the power to enact real change. The idea was to try building a society in which the age-old misery that had for so long persisted in this land was entirely dissipated, and we could use the gains made during the transition to build something both new and durable, especially in the economic sphere.
For his part, with his velvet-gloved denialism and his mealy-mouthed apologias, FW de Klerk mauled this country twice. First as a committed proponent of institutionalised racial segregation. Then as a lousy, bad-faith reconciler.
Here he is, after never having left, lurching his way through the wastelands of the transition’s forgotten promise, dragging us along with him. DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott