South Africa


The four ages of Frederik Willem de Klerk

Former South African president FW de Klerk. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Former president FW de Klerk became the object of ire at the most recent SONA speech, for showing up after publicly arguing against the idea apartheid had been a crime against humanity. And so, is he a scarcely repressed racist or a flawed hero?


All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

          As You Like It – William Shakespeare


The imbroglio over former president FW de Klerk’s real feelings and his true state of mind, deep down inside, about apartheid, continues to rumble onward, even if the man himself has increasingly become nearly invisible in the country’s contemporary political life. 

Economic Freedom Fighters CIC and MP, Julius Malema, claimed that because of De Klerk’s culpability in administering apartheid – and most especially his most recent pronouncement that apartheid had not been a “crime against humanity” – De Klerk’s very presence at the SONA speech was an affront to citizens of the country’s hard-won democratic order.

Forced to defend De Klerk’s presence in Parliament, the ANC was awkwardly caught out, left to express repugnance towards the words, but forced, reluctantly, to embrace the wordsmith – albeit at arms’ length.

But the reverberations from De Klerk’s initial statement have continued despite the fact that the De Klerk Foundation, acting on behalf of the retired politician, was forced into issuing a statement that effectively said, yes, the former president did understand apartheid was a criminal act against humanity and they apologised for any inconvenience, etc, etc – somewhat along the lines of Eskom responding to yet another unexpected power outage.

Predictably, all of this has provoked calls for De Klerk’s share of that jointly won Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded, that he be prosecuted for war crimes, that he be brought before the International Criminal Court, or that he be sentenced to serve the rest of his lonely days on St Helena, like another historical figure. Well okay, maybe not that last punishment, but pretty much everything else.

The key point, though, is that FW de Klerk has now become a historical figure, rather than a man of any contemporary importance. But his very problematic place in history is an integral part of the negotiated way (still incomplete for many) South Africa moved from the institutionalised cruelties of apartheid to its current more democratic order – but without the grim satisfaction on the part of some for the kind of closure that could have come via show trials, and then the inevitable incarcerations or even executions of the guilty. That would be better than the less than comprehensive result that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s focus on individual acts of brutality.

Let me make it perfectly clear right now that I have no qualms with describing the apartheid order as a deeply, traumatically dehumanising one to millions of unwilling South Africans. This is personal to me too. Every one of my in-laws (and my wife) suffered from the deep, legally specified racial inequalities of the old order, in common with so many others. Over the years, this had included restrictions on gaining employment or education and on where they could live or work, as well the severe limitations on the right to the free expression of political and social views – sometimes at a risk to their lives. Sadly, too, the more subtle after-effects from all this continue to linger for newer generations whose places on the ascending economic ladder often remain confined to the lower rungs.

But, is FW de Klerk responsible for nearly every bit of this, as some would have it? Or, is he, perhaps, the man who turned it all around through larger-than-life heroics and acts of political bravery against his white tribe, but who is now, in the winter of his life, being maligned as new political scores are being settled?

Curiously, most of what is being written about him virtually ignores the man himself, choosing to focus instead on the evils of apartheid, and the use of him as its convenient avatar. But there is more to his story.

I first encountered FW de Klerk in 1976. At the time, I was a young, low-ranking American diplomat assigned to our offices in Johannesburg. Every year around this time, each of the sections of an embassy is asked to nominate people from the host country whom they believe could benefit from an invitation to explore the US for a month – so they could delve into things in their professional capacities, as well as for their personal interests.

Back then, it was obvious such trips could have profoundly liberating effects on black South Africans, freed from the repressive nature of their own society, gaining opportunities to explore pretty much whatever they wanted to in another, freer society. But for white South Africans, too, it was agreed such trips could sometimes have important, beneficial outcomes.

Anyway, in 1976, but before the explosion of student opposition in Soweto in June of that year, one of the officers in the embassy’s political section had nominated a young member of South Africa’s Parliament, representing the city of Vereeniging, for one of those grants. All nominations were vetted at a large committee where officers debated the merits of the nominees. Such arguments could become heated. On the day of the meeting, my supervisor was ill and so I represented our office.

When FW de Klerk’s nomination came up for consideration along with a half dozen other politicians, defending my turf in support of other nominees, I remember saying words to the effect of: “What? A Nat MP from a right-wing constituency? A man closely connected to the National Party’s charmed inner circle! A man who was so conservative he was a member of the version of the Dutch Reformed Church that forbade dancing! This is a waste of a grant.”

In an article published in The New York Times in 1989, De Klerk had described himself  “…as a Christian, a South African, an Afrikaner and a lawyer, in that order. He was born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936, to a family prominent in Afrikaner politics. His father, Jan, a former school headmaster, became the National Party’s secretary in the Transvaal, a Cabinet minister and president of the now-defunct Senate. A great-grandfather had been a Senator, and his paternal grandfather ran twice for Parliament.”

That sounded pretty much like the description of a politician on the escalator to rising political prominence, but one intent on making very few waves in the process.

Well, the committee, aiming for a  finely tuned racial and political balance, picked him anyway. He visited the US and returned to his parliamentary career, rising in the party hierarchy, but never really taking on one of those hard-edged securocrat jobs that were the sharp point of the lance of the apartheid system.

By mid-1989, through some well-played intra-party manoeuvring, De Klerk had outplayed all his party rivals and consummated the removal of PW Botha. The latter had been the hard-as-nails state president who had been afraid to “cross the Rubicon”, but who was by then seriously weakened by a stroke.

Perhaps something was already up just as De Klerk took over. By November 1989, a number of political prisoners, including Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, had been released, and secret negotiations with the ANC over a larger programme of change were underway.

But, did these events represent a major change of heart for De Klerk? Were they tantamount to a Damascene conversion? In that 1989 New York Times interview, De Klerk had revealed some of his thinking. 

“‘As far as myself is concerned, I have jumped the gap,’” De Klerk declared at an informal political meeting last year, according to a friend who was present. At his inauguration two months ago, he declared that his goal was ‘a totally changed South Africa, a South Africa which has rid itself of the antagonisms of the past… a South Africa within which the democratic forces – all reasonable people – align themselves behind mutually acceptable goals and against radicalism, irrespective of where it comes from.’ Nor, he warned, would he take responsibility for ‘unreasonable expectations which have been aroused’.”

As De Klerk told it, the genesis for all this had been that the “1976 visit to the United States as a guest of the United States Information Agency convinced him that race relations could not be left to run their course. He enjoyed New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He marvelled at the Grand Canyon and listened to late-night jazz in New Orleans. But, he says, ‘I saw more racial incidents in one month there than I previously, at that stage, had seen in South Africa in a year. I was involved in an incident where the bus driver called a black American “boy,” and a fight immediately erupted.’ On one taxicab ride, he says, the driver shouted epithets at black pedestrians, and De Klerk scrunched down in the rear seat out of embarrassment.”

The lesson of his US sojourn, he decided, was that “the negative effects of racism isn’t limited to South Africa and that it was a problem in the hearts and minds of people; also, that in a country with a great conflict potential, with a much more complicated population structure” – and here he meant South Africa – “that it is necessary to manage the conflict potential which arises from a multiracial society, as we believe, in a non-discriminatory manner.” This conviction that race relations must be deliberately controlled colours De Klerk’s philosophy of change. These are hardly the words of a courageous revolutionary, but neither are they the thoughts of a racially driven Neanderthal.

Most of all, perhaps, they were the thoughts of a clever bureaucrat, eager to salvage what he could from the unpalatable dog’s breakfast he had by now inherited. To encounter senior, powerful, long-experienced Cabinet figures like Stoffel van der Merwe or Gerrit Viljoen by the late 1980s was to see figures whose drawn faces were etched with the fatigue of trying to hold things together for the old system just a bit longer.

Years afterwards, speaking at the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg), De Klerk had explained that a key impetus in pushing the government towards negotiations had been the growing realisation on the part of leaders such as himself that in the face of sanctions, boycotts, and over internal and external pressures, his government’s policies were never going to be able to deliver to their children’s generation (of their community) the life they themselves had enjoyed, and so something must be done, no matter how difficult or distasteful. Again, this was not the hero bestriding history, but rather someone going for the best that would or could be achieved.

Then, in the face of the conclusion of a negotiated settlement, the Nobel Prize, and the international acclaim, De Klerk became an international icon. Despite a complex, difficult partnership with Nelson Mandela, the immense burden of apartheid’s scars and history, and with the weight of the world leaning on him, he had policies to lead his people to a better landscape than the one they were then trapped in. There were international conferences to attend, speeches to give, a foundation to create, and lessons about peacemaking to impart to a waiting world.

But, as the years wore on, instead of gradually pulling back and accepting the dimming spotlight gracefully, there seems to have still been that old political call and an itch to settle a few scores before it was too late. There could have been a book of memoirs on his political education and the lessons learned from all the dramas of the 1980s and 1990s. 

But instead, there was one final kick to give, to prove that the old order had not been irredeemably bad, that the international accusations of apartheid’s inhumanity had largely been an old-style Soviet card trick instead. The apology finally extracted from his foundation has done little to calm things or burnish his reputation. Instead, it has reinforced the belief of those who had never really trusted him; of those who believed he was at the core of apartheid’s evils; and of those who were convinced his real views had never been supportive of the post-apartheid world of South Africa.

And so, the four De Klerks – collapsed from Shakespeare’s famous seven.

The first was the eager, rising politician, ready to move up the ranks of the National Party as positions opened. Then came the realist reformist, perhaps recalling his American sojourn and ready to take a chance on the future. 

Thereafter came the adulation for a compromise negotiation that had pulled a healthy rabbit out of a potentially disastrous hat. But then there has come along a further age, a kind of dog in the manger moment, those public comments that brought back all the misgivings (or worse) about his sincerity in reaching an accommodation with Nelson Mandela – and reality.

In the end, it would have been better if he had simply stayed shtum and finished up his memoirs quietly for posthumous publication. It seems like such a waste, when you think about it. DM


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