Opinionista Ferial Haffajee 19 February 2020

The myth of FW de Klerk

I have never bought into the myth of what FW de Klerk or his foundation means. Here’s why. 

As part of the interviewing panel of journalists for a 1994 pre-election debate between apartheid’s last president FW De Klerk and Nelson Mandela, I remember thinking in the television studio how much less presence the balding leader had than his media image suggested.

Short in stature and with a thinnish voice, his answers were rehearsed, clearly meant for the television cameras. 

In the flesh, he lacked the substance that the reams of adulatory copy about him as a great reformer had suggested since his surprise decision to unban the ANC and a string of liberation movements and organisations on 2 February 1990. 

This image of a De Klerk press conference in the wake of that decision may offer one explanation of how the myth was constructed.

Then South African president and political leader FW de Klerk surrounded by the press at the international press conference where De Klerk announced the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa, 2 February 1990. (Photo: Gallo Images / Media24)

Because of journalism and the media’s structure at the time (a reflection of the apartheid hegemony), almost the entire political reporting corps was white.

Of course, there were large and radical differences among the journalists and analysts who wrote about what De Klerk had done, but on the whole, the moment and how it was covered began the myth of De Klerk, not as a wily politician who read the writing on the wall, but as a great liberator. The black and independent media of the time covered it differently.

The key texts which flowed out of this period like editor Allister Sparks’s ‘Tomorrow is another country’ and foreign correspondent Patti Waldmeier’s ‘Anatomy of a Miracle’ fall straight into this seductive narrative as subsequent events have revealed.

Throughout his time in office, De Klerk was not the statesman he is projected as, but instead adopted an obstreperous and conservative mien despite the multiple political acrobatics Mandela had to perform to accommodate him. He eventually quit the government in a fit of pique. 

The upcoming film, Influence, by Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak and Diana Neille reveals that the myth-making was the work of Lord Tim Bell, who later founded Bell Pottinger, and who claimed to the directors that he was paid by billionaire Johann Rupert to assist De Klerk. (Rupert has denied the allegations). 

The late Lord Bell revealed in the film that he had created the idea of the liberator and boosted De Klerk’s image in order to win a greater slice of the vote for the National Party to ward off a landslide black majority election victory in 1994.

Like Bell’s work on crafting the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s image, De Klerk was then made for the media, a construct. To learn this now has filled in a lot of blanks I’ve encountered about the man I have covered for over 30 years as a journalist. (The film will premiere in South Africa in June).

A vanishing smile

I followed De Klerk on the election trail through the 1994 election and watched with some alarm how his team used a coloured electorate to bolster its fortunes, a narrative lost on many, but not all, of my white colleagues as they would not have understood the nuance of what was happening.

Perhaps my alarm related to the fact that I grew up in Bosmont, a coloured area in Johannesburg which suffered, like all black group areas did, the worst of the Nats’ separatist policies. 

It was like all townships, a deprived reserve, its people placed where we were a buffer between the white suburbs and the southwestern townships which make up the acronym for Soweto.

We all know how budgets were cut up for the four constructed race groups that apartheid’s master-planners spent in different group areas. To live it was a whole different story of appalling public transport, deprived schools, broken third-class train coaches, deep poverty and a life of struggle. 

To then see De Klerk pretend to represent coloured people sickened me to my core and to see how people were bused into his events, given lunch packets and told to wave Nat flags of blue and yellow was cynical politics of the worst order.

On stage, he spoke Afrikaans to these constituents smiling and promising the world like the patriarchal populists who dot the globe today. Journalists were positioned behind the stage for some reason and I watched at meeting after meeting as the smile was wiped clean off his face as soon as he left the stage and got into his limousine. He looked on occasion as if he found his newfound constituents almost as distasteful as I felt about his performance politics. These were not “his people”, that look seemed to indicate to me.

Recently, a friend asked where I was on 2 February 1990 as journalists deliberated on the 30 years after De Klerk’s unbanning of liberation movements, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize and began a life as a global statesman.

I was on the streets near Wits University that day, but, to be honest, we celebrated the day as a fruit of struggle, not for it being bequeathed by a white knight, another myth that is sustained to this day by De Klerk’s foundation and by his supporters.

For me, then and today still, my abiding memory of De Klerk at the time was of the man who passed the university bills which sought to make more difficult the access of black people to white universities by cutting the subsidies which were lowering the colour bar. 

Not then and not now have a generation of us bought into the myth, so his statement, now retracted, that apartheid was not a crime against humanity was hardly surprising to many of us.

We know through lived experience that apartheid was criminal, no matter what Dave Stewart, the chair of the FW De Klerk Foundation, said in his statement last week. 

The foundation alleged that the UN resolution declaring apartheid a crime against humanity was “Soviet agitprop” (classically apartheid “rooi-gevaar”-speak, or fear of communists), but it back-pedalled on Monday 17 February 2020 when activists threatened to start a campaign to have the Nobel committee take back its peace prize. 

Stewart is said to be the hardliner at the foundation who likely scripted De Klerk’s apartheid denialism, so creating the storm. Stewart was chief of staff for FW when he was in office. 

De Klerk’s identity (and income, through speaking engagements) rests on the Nobel and it’s likely that the advisory committee, as well as foundation funders, pushed for the apology and retraction of the statement. It’s worth noting that the foundation has lost its most significant black staff members in the recent past.

The idea of the white knight persists

Here’s how the foundation apologised this week:

“The FW de Klerk Foundation has accordingly decided to withdraw its statement of 14 February unconditionally and apologises for the confusion, anger and hurt that it has caused. 

“By 27 April 1994, under my leadership, the whole legislative framework of apartheid had been dismantled and the way had been opened for the adoption of our present non-racial democratic Constitution.”

In this statement, it’s clear that the myth of a white knight persists and it’s clear in the words “By 27 April 1994, under my leadership…” 

As history shows us, the road to a peaceful election on 27 April was not because of De Klerk alone, but rather the work of a well-regarded political negotiation headed in the main by a junior minister in De Klerk’s Cabinet, Roelf Meyer, and now-President Cyril Ramaphosa. In fact, the historical record shows that De Klerk’s role was less than salubrious and that he became increasingly focused on protecting group rights, the tight protectionism of which continues to haunt South Africa more than a quarter of a century into the new democracy.

Which brings you to whether De Klerk and his foundation support the central pillars of the Constitution – a united and non-racial South Africa? In my dealings with the foundation, I would argue that they do not. 

Instead, the foundation peddles difference instead of unity, it avows a system of minority rights against a bogey of majoritarianism. South Africa is seen less as one people in one country and rather as a set of minorities (that it clumsily and unsuccessfully tries to “own” and represent) arraigned against a majority.

Of course, the ANC and the EFF play exactly the same identity politics and the DA is headed in that direction too. It is a politics that is the polar opposite of the non-racial, non-sexist society sculpted so beautifully in the Constitution and while all politicians, including De Klerk, pay lip service to these principles, their actions often turn these into paper tigers.

To wit, De Klerk has done so in spectacular style, 30 years to the month since he began to cultivate a new profile for himself. It was a case of back to the future. Or otherwise of the mask of myth slipping. DM

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