Defend Truth


No, Mr de Klerk, what you did was not an act of generosity and courage


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

As president of apartheid South Africa and its loyal servant, you knew that the apartheid project was no longer viable. You had no choice but to unban the liberation movement and release political prisoners. 

Hey Mr de Klerk, let’s cut to the chase. You offended us in this month of love. Imagine that. Apart from commemorating the beauty of women like Reeva Steenkamp whose life was cut short by a chauvinist boyfriend, we were marking 30 years since Madiba’s release. And you came and put your foot in your mouth. 

But what did we expect? A man cannot achieve in his twilight days what he did not cultivate in his vital days. True to form, you continue to reproduce racial divisions and resentment in our democratic polity. Bigotry is what you planted, irrigated and harvested in your vital days. It nourished you in your sunset years, just as it did to Botha, Vorster and Verwoerd. 

Let’s get this straight, Mr de Klerk, what you did 30 years ago was no act of bravery, vision, heroism or benevolence. You merely reacted to a rupture that was unfolding. It was time-out for the illegitimate racial minority rule. 

As president of apartheid South Africa and its loyal servant you knew that the apartheid project was no longer viable. You had no choice but to unban the liberation movement and release political prisoners.

The government you were running had turned our beautiful land into a skunk of the world. Many talented sportsmen and women, black and white, could not compete globally because of the fascist system of apartheid you oversaw. 

You had spent the money as president and in your previous capacities in government buying arms to terrorise townships and neighbouring states. Your government became broke in the mid-1980s. 

Those who believe the lies of your purported bravery forget three important points.

One: the secret talks between the ANC and representatives of the apartheid regime began long before 1990. And De Klerk was not part of them. Some among your own ranks had had their Damascus moment. 

Two: through the Harare Declaration the liberation movement had thrown down the gauntlet and made it clear what kind of a constitutional order it envisioned. Something De Klerk was fully aware of when he made his inevitable speech. He could not stand against the logic of the Harare Declaration. 

When De Klerk made the so-called historic announcement in 1990, Nelson Mandela had given clear conditions for the talks. They included releasing all political prisoners (“the prisoner cannot negotiate,” he told De Klerk), unbanning all political parties, lifting the state of emergency and renouncing violence. 

Therefore, as much as reformist historians would want us to believe, De Klerk performed no act of generosity and courage. He had no choice. The march to Pretoria was unstoppable. The mass democratic movement had grown like wildfire. Apartheid was falling in Namibia. Massacres against our people could no longer deter them from demanding full democratic rights and unconditional participation in SA’s main body politic. 

In 1990, the government of De Klerk was bankrupt as sanctions were biting and money to fund the military was running out. White capital, which had kept apartheid alive for decades, was moving on. 

Third: globally, De Klerk’s partners were drifting away from him after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their biggest fear had been relinquishing the strategically important and mineral-rich South Africa to any organisation with favourable links to the Kremlin. Now that the Berlin Wall was down, Washington and London no longer needed apartheid South Africa. 

In short, De Klerk was dumped. 

And so we look back and say, amandla to all the heroes and heroines of our struggle who forced De Klerk to do what he and his predecessors had postponed for decades: to free political prisoners and unban the liberation movements. 

We remain indebted to them and celebrate them as the real architects of democratic South Africa, moving determinedly towards a national democratic society.  

While we respect the decision of the leadership to recognise De Klerk in post-apartheid South Africa, we are not changing our minds about his complicity in the massacres of Africans. 

In fact, nothing is as hurtful as seeing his bust standing shoulder to shoulder with Madiba, Albert Luthuli and Desmond Tutu at the Waterfront in Cape Town, as Nobel Laureates. A Nobel Laureate who says apartheid was not a crime against humanity? 

He will say that for two reasons. First, he is not only a beneficiary but was also the commander-in-chief of apartheid. Second, as his comments suggest, he does not believe that black people are human. 

That was the internal locus of apartheid, that only whites are human. Apartheid ideologues were scholars of Darwin, admirers of Hitler and other fascists. Like Hitler, they waged biological warfare against those they saw as posing an existential threat to Caucasian wellbeing. They used education, the church and other cultural institutions to commit epistemicide. They even made interracial mating a criminal offense. 

Like other colonisers and apartheid high priests, De Klerk offends the black majority and the peace-loving international community. Like the current leader of his old party, he sees colonialism and racial oppression as a civilising mission to a people without agency and history.

Remember Bisho!

Remember Shobashobane!

Remember Boipatong!

Remember Chris Hani!

How can we forget October 1993, in Mthatha, where 12-year-olds were mowed down by De Klerk’s forces?

Remember the scores of people who died in the hostels and townships of the East Rand, Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Who armed the killers?

The name FW de Klerk is inscribed in blood in all these tragedies. In fact, there were more mass murders under De Klerk (1989-1994) than under his mentor, PW Botha, not that it makes the latter a lesser monster. 

Former dictators like De Klerk must live long, even when they continue to offend like he did when he said apartheid was not a crime against humanity as declared by the UN. 

As one senior leader of the movement said:

“The most effective way of punishing a dictator is to let him live for long so that he can be tormented by the sight of seeing his unjust legacy unravel. Killing dictators ends their pain quickly. Don’t do that… Let them see democracy and black progress in action. Let them see apartheid melt in front of their eyes. That way, they die a slow painful death. They get tortured by their lies for many years. That is how racist dictators must be punished – they must experience non-racialism and see blacks flourish which truly breaks their hearts because it is irreversible…”.

It must be painful to sit in Parliament next to the young black people who carry the crowns of Miss Universe and the captain of rugby world champions. Seeing scores of black youth graduate in science and maths must be heartbreaking for the apartheid-era minister of education. 

Do you know, Mr de Klerk, that Joseph Shabalala, the leader of the most decorated music group from Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, departed on 11 February? Shabalala, as he once sang, joined “the home of the triumphant heroes” alongside Nelson Mandela and Charlotte Maxeke who conquered adversity, rising from barefoot village kids to become global icons. 

On whether or not you should have been invited to Parliament, well, I respect the decision of the leadership. They have a greater responsibility to society than most. 

But I couldn’t resist the extract below from social media which mimics a letter some believe you should have received from the speaker:

“Dear Mr FW de Klerk,

“This year’s SONA coincides with the 30th anniversary of the release of President Nelson Mandela in 1990. In commemoration of this historic occasion, I sought to invite you to be our distinguished guest alongside other former presidents and deputy presidents of our republic. 

“However, in the light of the alarming statement attributed to you in suggesting apartheid was not a crime against humanity, I have decided not to invite you. Inviting you under these circumstances could be an insult to all those who suffered under apartheid, and many of whom paid the ultimate price.

“I believe it would be in the best interest of our democracy and continued efforts at nation building that you retract unconditionally your ill informed statement. 


“Speaker of Parliament.”

By the way, Mr de Klerk, when I am not at home under a tree writing such letters on weekends, I occupy an office at the Union Buildings which used to be yours. It is from it that we coordinate such projects as the National Health Insurance which seeks to consolidate the undoing of the injustice of inadequate healthcare that you and your predecessors prescribed. 

Former minister Trevor Manuel wrote the antithesis of apartheid, the National Development Plan, from the same office. 

I am inspired daily to enter that office and do whatever possible to serve the people of South Africa. Whatever you say and think, the wheels of human advancement are turning and South Africans are regaining their humanity. 

Tragedies like you notwithstanding, the trajectory of South Africa is that of progress. DM


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