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How FW de Klerk has cleansed his political legacy

Seldom has an interview with a Nobel Peace laureate provoked as much hostility and outrage as the one FW de Klerk gave CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Given what many have interpreted as an exercise in “apartheid apologetics” the reactions are not surprising. By REBECCA HODES.

In January 2005, FW de Klerk gave a speech at the Oxford Union entitled “Doing the Right Thing”. He bemoaned the moral dissolution of the modern world represented by empty churches, the decline of the nuclear family and changing sexual norms.

He spoke with the gravitas, eloquence and charm of a consummate politician. At the end of his speech, the only people who did not join in the standing ovation were a group of disgruntled South Africans. Our anger at De Klerk’s use of banality and circumlocution to advance what was essentially apologetics for apartheid grew greater as it became clear that the audience trusted and believed his account.

Among others, De Klerk said; “The National Party of the fifties and sixties wanted to unscramble the South African omelette and to bring justice to all by creating independent states for all of our constituent peoples. They foresaw a time when there would be a commonwealth of states in southern Africa that would work together in peace and harmony.”

A more disingenuous portrayal of the aims and actions of apartheid ideologues is difficult to imagine. Recall that John Vorster, South Africa’s prime minister from 1966 – 1978, oversaw the total abolition of non-white political representation during his political tenure. And in case you, like De Klerk, are under any further misapprehension about this Nationalist leader’s commitment to justice, consider what he had to say about population growth among black South Africans in a public statement in 1972: “We would like to reduce them, and we are doing our best to do so.”

Politicians are expected to dissimulate and the public relishes both their successes and failures in bullshitting. Senator Herman Cain’s bumbling response to a reporter’s question about US involvement in Libya garnered more than a million views on YouTube. But often political dissimulation is less easy to discern, and at times it is not the product of ill-preparedness and ignorance, but of wilful misrepresentation and mendacity. De Klerk’s recent comments in an interview on CNN, fall into the second category.

In De Klerk’s televised statements that the homelands had “a high degree of autonomy and self-governance”, and that the apartheid government “poured [money] into those homelands to develop”, he exposes himself once again as an apartheid apologist. He also flaunts his ignorance of the true harms and inequalities wrought by the apartheid state.

Any empirical account of apartheid healthcare would vanquish De Klerk’s claims about the autonomy of the Bantustans and the alleged fiscal investment in their development. Here, a couple of key statistics should suffice. These are drawn from an article by a group of renowned public health experts on the history of South Africa’s health system, published in The Lancet in 2009. In contradistinction to De Klerk’s comments about the money “poured” into the Bantustans, the article explains how health systems in the Bantustans were systematically underfunded.

During the early 1970s, the doctor-to-population ratio in “white” South Africa was 1:1,700. In the Bantustans it was 1:15,000.

For the 1986/87 fiscal year, public sector healthcare spending a head was approximately R150 in the Transvaal and R200 in Natal and the Cape provinces. In the Bantustans of Lebowa and Ciskei, it was R23 and R91 respectively.

Statistics on infant and maternal mortality also illustrate the underfunding of healthcare in the Bantustans, and of the vast inequalities in resources dedicated to treating different “population groups”. By 1979, a black child in South Africa was believed to die every 20 minutes from malnutrition, and this was before the effects of the drought were felt by rural communities.

But while these statistics reflect some of the epidemiological outcomes of apartheid healthcare, they do not account for the impacts of tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections and other infectious and chronic illnesses that accompanied industrialisation and urbanisation in South Africa. Nor do they reflect the reality that the funds apportioned to black healthcare by the apartheid state were pathetic in relation to the economic resources the state possessed. By the 1980s, the racism inherent in South Africa’s health system evoked international censure. Adept in mimicking the rhetoric of global public health and development agencies, the apartheid state made a number of commitments to developing primary healthcare, but allocated only scant resources with which to fulfil its promises.

De Klerk is best known for his political negotiations with black leaders during his presidency, which led eventually, and through the actions of many other key state and anti-apartheid resistance leaders, to the dissolution of apartheid. However, the fact that De Klerk had a long and illustrious career in the Nationalist Party before he assumed its leadership, seems to have been largely forgotten.

De Klerk was elected to the house of assembly in 1969, and was appointed to the Cabinet in 1978. He served the apartheid government in the Cabinets of two prime ministers. The first of these was BJ Vorster, whose enactment and enforcement of a series of draconian security measures crushed anti-apartheid resistance in the 1960s and 1970s. Vorster’s approach to land ownership was also vintage apartheid: the land apportioned to the Bantustans would remain at 13.7% of South Africa’s land mass and not a hectare more.  In De Klerk’s recent comments about the autonomy and self-governance of the Bantustans, he reveals how he has imbibed a strong dose of Vorster’s faux enfranchisement of the Bantustans.

In 1976, Vorster stated: “The urban Black, when it comes to exercising his political rights, will exercise them in his own state. They have the vote and urban Blacks have made themselves eligible for election to the parliaments of the various Black states.”

The second prime minister under whom De Klerk served was PW Botha, whose neo-apartheid was based on his obsession with the differences between population groups. His creation of the Tricameral Constitution was evidence of this, as are his various remarks about South Africa’s “minority problem”.

“The Xhosa are a minority group in relation to the rest of South Africa’s population, the Zulu are also such a group, as are the Sotho and the Venda. Among the Coloured population there are Malays, who constitute a small minority group, and the ordinary Cape Coloureds… Each of them is a minority group, and each has its own traditions, its own ideals and interests.”

Botha refused to accept that South Africa’s black population could conceive of itself as a collective, maintaining that ethnic divisions presupposed broad-based political alliances. History has proven him incorrect. During Botha’s own political tenure, and despite its conflicts with Inkatha, the ANC began to command majority political support among black South Africans. The reins of Nationalist leadership were passed from Botha to De Klerk in 1989, while political resistance to apartheid intensified. In his position as the last apartheid president, De Klerk was inevitably caught up in this conflict and in its resolution.

Fast-forward to January 2005. De Klerk has just finished his speech at the Oxford Union and the floor is opened to questions. A number of South African arms are waving. A college mate of mine is chairing the debate, and so he motions to my hand, and leans towards De Klerk for a quick, whispered exchange. De Klerk turns to me and says, ‘Yes, Rebecca…’, rolling the “r” and drawing out the “aaah” at its end in the classic Afrikaans pronunciation. He addresses me as if he knows me, and I am utterly disarmed.

I mutter through my question about his knowledge of state killings of apartheid resistance leaders during the 1980s, which he deflects with ease, along with a number of seemingly challenging questions posed by other South Africans in the audience. What I witnessed that night was De Klerk’s rhetorical brilliance, cultivated through decades of performance as a politician and, in his later years as Mandela’s supposed collaborator in the fall of apartheid, a statesman.

The frustration the South African students felt at De Klerk’s laudatory reception stemmed from our disappointment that others were unable to discern the deceit IN his account of how and why apartheid was made. In his apology for apartheid, De Klerk denies that the political system he served and eventually led created and sustained a pathogenic living environment for the majority of its population. But as De Klerk’s multiple awards and accolades attest, in the eyes of the world, his legacy is safe. DM

Rebecca Hodes is a medical historian who works at the University of Cape Town.

Access The Oxford Union speech.


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