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Who’s ‘that man’? The perspective of a 20-something ‘Whindian’ on FW de Klerk

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Alexandra Willis is a Machel-Mandela fellow at the Brenthurst Foundation, Johannesburg.

To unban the ANC and ‘play the game’ in the negotiation processes of the early 1990s were smart moves. But does someone deserve an award in a game of chess if they can see where the game is headed, and bow out gracefully by shaking hands with their opponent as opposed to playing until they’re check-mated? I think not.

I was born at the end of FW de Klerk’s administration in 1993 to an interracial couple: an “Indian” mother (who identifies as a black South African, in the Biko sense) and a white father. To some people I look (and sound) white; to other people I look Indian, but for a lot of people I occupy an uncomfortable racially ambiguous space which prompts the question, “what are you?”, sometimes phrased a bit more politely, and usually within the first five minutes of the meeting.

I’ve played with different answers to the question, but I’ve settled with the explanation “my mother is Indian and my father is white, so I’m a Whindian”.  Sometimes people say “oh, cool” and move on, but other times this makes people uncomfortable. They want to “box” you in so that they feel more comfortable.

I was once interrogated by an older white woman who insisted that my parents must have “registered” me as “something” (under the apartheid Population Registration Act, 1950, which FW de Klerk repealed in 1991, two years before I was born). She repeatedly asked me, “but what did your parents register you as?”, to which my answer was, “they didn’t”. She couldn’t comprehend my answer, but that’s really not my problem. 

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act were both repealed by De Klerk’s predecessor, PW Botha, in the late 1980s (when it was clear that the apartheid system was falling to pieces), making my parents’ marriage and my existence “legal”. So, I wasn’t “born a crime”, as mixed-race South African comedian Trevor Noah refers to himself.

Unlike my parents, my ID number does not indicate a race. I am still, however, required to fill out “equity group” on forms and to be consistent with this, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What I want to write here is not about me. It’s about “that man” whom I suspect whole-heartedly believed that superficial differences in skin tone, hair texture and so on were not superficial at all, but rather fundamental differences which denoted implications for one’s life chance, education, where one lives and who one should love.

I distinctly remember sitting in a lecture for my course in Contemporary South African Politics in Political Science at Stellenbosch University (where I did my honours degree — the rest of my education, BA and MA, was at Wits University) when my lecturer made a passing remark praising De Klerk for his role in bringing apartheid to an end. My stomach churned and my jaw dropped. I couldn’t look around the room to see my black peers’ reaction without making an obvious scene, as I sat right in the front. I also couldn’t get myself to put my hand up and say “that’s offensive”, because that’s not what you do when you’re a minority. My lecturer’s comment made me feel queasy, and here’s why.

FW de Klerk came from a family line of leaders in the National Party. De Klerk’s uncle, JG Strijdom, was the second apartheid prime minister, and his father, Jan de Klerk, served as a Cabinet minister under three apartheid prime ministers. De Klerk himself served as minister of education between 1984 and 1989, during which time he supported the continuation of “Bantu Education”, which has had lasting generational effects.

It is no coincidence that an image of a first-year university lecture hall may look “transformed”, but the graduation image four years later (particularly in STEM fields) tends to be a picture of predominantly white faces. The life chance for the black child, generally speaking, is poor. It breaks my heart that large numbers of us can get to university, but we’re not on an equal footing when it comes to who survives, who thrives and who does not.

I don’t believe De Klerk had some grand revelation that apartheid was fundamentally evil and that it ought to be done away with. I don’t believe he welcomed inter-racial couples as guests for dinner, or that he suddenly changed his mind to believe that black children could excel at maths if given the chance. I’m certainly not the first to say this — it’s been said in many media commentaries over the past few days that FW de Klerk was a pragmatist and not someone driven by moral reckoning.

“That man” won the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993, which, in my opinion, he was not deserving of, but it made a convenient “happy ending story” for international news on the demise of apartheid.  De Klerk was clever, for sure. To unban the ANC and “play the game” in the negotiation processes of the early 1990s were smart moves.

But does someone deserve an award in a game of chess if they can see where the game is headed, and bow out gracefully by shaking hands with their opponent as opposed to playing until they’re check-mated? I think not.

De Klerk was not a “hero” and it makes me ill when (white) people speak of him as if he was. He was clever and tactful, but that’s it. He never made any apology for the evil that was done by apartheid, or the lasting aftermath of apartheid with which my generation is grappling.

In his statement before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, he protested against the 1973 international assignation of apartheid as a crime against humanity. He reaffirmed this position in 2020 in a public statement. 

“That man” was not a hero.

But fine, if we must give him credit for “undoing” something awful that should never have happened in the first place, I’ll acknowledge that at the time of the early 1990s when I was born, there was the possibility that South Africa could descend into a bloodbath. And so the “peaceful” negotiations and unbanning of political parties are perhaps worth acknowledging. DM

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  • I think we were just so incredulous that he did what he did. Imagine if he hadn’t. The conflict would have escalated and thousands would have died at the hands of the 18 year olds thrust into the townships. At least that was averted by De Klerks chess moves. And the Nobel prize was strategic to assist with giving the new country a stable start. It was not all about De Klerk. At the time it helped stabilise a fragile peace.

  • Have a full understanding of your article, as well as the difficulty dealing with the circumstances at the time. Whenever I read something like this, I always go back and listen to the poem delivered by a young girl, Amanda Gorman, at the inauguration of President Biden on 6 January 2021

    • Ultimately he was just a politician. He did what he needed to do to save his own skin and at that stage he really had no other choice. Why do politicians have to get a cookie when they do the right thing? As it is, it was too little too late.

    • After listening again to Amanda’s poem: “The Hill we Climb”, and surveying all the other articles in today’s edition of DM, I decided to come back to your article and read some of the other comments. This I found most interesting, especially one by a Mr Richard Hogben, who I believe hit the right chords with me. I really do not want to talk about de Klerk, simply because I have no desire to. My own anger more aimed at his predecessors, PW Botha and Verwoerd. What intrigued me about your article is actually, why did your write it? You are an attractive women, well-qualified, and appeared to be successful. Now being a Whindian can actually be a blessing. After all, racism is still live and well in this country, across the racial spectrum, amongst many people. Certain Whites against Blacks, or all other race groups. Blacks against Whites, or all others racial groups. Indians against…, and Coloureds against…. To be honest, I would have liked to be a quarter of each race group…then I should be in the clear. Or would I? You were born during the most incredible period of this country’s history. Hell, on the eve of the first democratic election in this country, I went to celebrate with an African Black friend of mine in Yeoville, and had a ball. In contrast, you, like half our population, could not have known or understand apartheid because you, and they, were born after it all ended, thankfully so. For the sake of this country, and true freedom, look forward, and not backwards

  • Exactly right. No hero. Merely an unrepentant pragmatist. However, certainly the right man at the right moment. As we look at the world, too often – mostly? – we do not find those pragmatists. The result? Disaster. Ethiopia, anyone? Yugoslavia? Make no mistake, a different road could’ve been taken and decades of catastrophe would’ve been the result. (Mandela was BOTH heroic & a pragmatist.)

  • You must mix in strange race obsessed circles if you are regularly interrogated ( within 5 minutes) about your racial make up. And in my opinion a decisive pragmatist beats a hero hands down in historical terms. Wouldn’t it be nice for instance if Ramaphosa turned his back on his ANC loyalties and gave SA half a chance by embracing private sector economics even if he only did it for pragmatic reasons. Grand revelations not needed.

    • Be kind Sydney, this is a young girl with unfortunately what appears to be a deep hatret for a lot of things, likely Whites. Never have I read an article in DM with so many sentences starting with the word I. Certainly studied in the right field though. Political Science, as politicians in general are also the I/me type of people. and possibly also spend a lot of time protesting on street corners or university campuses, with posters condemning the world. Nevertheless, she is still young, and has a lot to learn, and read her article in that light. Lets see if her next article is worthwhile reading, and I for one am looking forward to that.

  • As I once said to Roger Jardine, I have not walked in your shoes. You have a perspective which I must respect even if I do not agree. I was brought up in a different world to you and, perforce, have a different perspective. Imagine you were called Smith and you lived in 1984 and you lived in the era of big brother. How do you change? We are all formed by the circumstances in which we live and are brought up. It massively informs our perspective. So for de Klerk, steeped in Afrikaner Nationalism from birth, brought up with a certain set of beliefs, AND having to be seen to avow those beliefs in order to get to a position of power where he could change it – and then doing so. Turning his back on all the beliefs he had espoused and on the people that held on to those beliefs. THAT is amazing. THAT is why de Klerk was deserving of the Nobel Prize and THAT is why he is deserving of a place of great honor in our history.

    • But isn’t that exactly part of the problem we are currently facing, the inability to discuss and debate another view without resorting to immediate accusations of racism (or some other “ism”) no matter the context, historical background and sometimes even inconvenient facts.

  • Yes “Who’s that man” ? If it wasn’t for him , where would the young generation of today be?
    Living in a devistated broken dystopic country?

  • Why does Bantu Education still impact STEM outcomes 27 years later? It makes it hard to explain the young (black) physics and math doctoral students I met. One specifically came from Eastern Cape rural school with one math teacher for entire primary school of about 250.

    Perhaps for those bright young people, in contrast with this author, it was not all about them. Explains why they studied physics rather than pursuing a masters in political science.

    As to FW, I wrote him off after Mandela apologised for ANC acts but FW refused despite sitting on Security Council. Spineless narcissist

  • Whatever your colour, character and values drive me! I couldn’t care a stuff about your colour/one’s colour.
    If you/one works hard, tells the truth and is kind, and believes in proper education you have a VERY strong chance of turning out to be liberal, and that includes politically liberal. You will then believe in an Economic Social Justice, Fairness of opportunity, the right to own land (where one becomes king of one’s own castle), and the commiserate Rule of Law (powered of course by a FULLY independent judiciary) and so on!
    And these last few characteristics will declare you actively non-racial!
    This essay of hers, hints strongly at much of the above – I would hope, desperately, for her sake, as well as and as much, for the rest of our land, that she has seen the light about political options to which her support ought to be aimed. And, she could take on more writings in this vein of hers, and qualify them accordingly with the above.
    Whether or not De Klerk did experience his own Damascus Moment will be debated for a long time – but that is of no consequence to me. We need to get our future going again, in this ‘the present’! And no De Klerk discussion will influence this gigantic need any longer.
    There are many ‘other’ horrible characters/persons (indeed, VERY horrible) who block the way of recovery and then progress.
    Shall we name them? Well, they are a collective of whom we are told, clearly and & forcefully, by such press as DM et al inter alia, daily!

  • The writer did not experience being a young person in 1980’s South Africa. I did, and it was backwards, oppressive, verkrampte, hateful and stifling – even for a young white person. I remember the amazing feeling of relief/joy when FW started to repeal ridiculous, bigoted and draconian laws in 1989 and everything started to open up – a cloud started to lift. He may have been an old National Party racist dutchman, but for me – he changed things for the better, or at least he kicked the wheel onto the right track.

      • Well said indeed, but why the reference to a “racist dutchman”? Would you like being called you a racist pommy, soutp**l, rooinek? Why spoil a good comment with a derogatory remark? Don’t you see where namecalling eachother got us in this divided country? Much better to practise kindness, don’t you think?

          • your thick skin wasn’t the point – the question was whether all of us wouldn’t be better off by being more kind in our approach toward others.

  • Interesting to have the perspective of a “born free”. Was FW a hero? No, he definitely wasn’t. The Nats were in a stale-mate position on the political checkboard so they really didn’t have a choice. I was a young man of 34 when he made that earth-shattering speech. Up to then, we all lived with the scourge of apartheid and all the many ills that came with it. The speech changed our lives overnight and freed a nation. Just for that, I will give the devil his due.

  • Interesting article … great comments!!
    What I take from this – we all have different backgrounds and therefore different perspectives which we all need to respect.
    What I can add to this – I was blown away by Singapore, not only because of what they had achieved after their “democracy” but how they, almost to a person, only looked forward. There was seemingly no time to waste on the past except to celebrate their diversity and the various contributions by the different groups (ethic and otherwise). It was refreshing in that all that mattered was how to make their country better … not complain about things in their past which they have no control over. South Africa learn!!

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