FW de Klerk has died. And his passage has unleashed a cacophony of pent-up emotions that for nearly three decades we have swept under the carpet. A festering sore has broken and its pus oozes painfully into our public debate.
But De Klerk is just a proxy for the state of our democratic project.
The key question is: who stole our revolution?
I have never been social friends with De Klerk.
In the 1980s we were fierce opponents in a deadly struggle to reclaim our human dignity and the right to elect the leaders we wanted. Our demand was crisply encapsulated by our slogan, “One person, one vote in a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist society.” It captured our imagination and galvanised a mass struggle within South Africa, driven by young people coming out of the 1976 Soweto Uprisings — the watershed to a new era of militant activism.
Globally, the anti-apartheid movements mobilised millions into action in people-to-people solidarity even when the Western governments of the Reagan/Thatcher axis of neoliberalism saw the apartheid state as an ally and a bulwark against communism.
But let’s correct a piece of “fake news trending in established media”. De Klerk did not end apartheid. Neither did Nelson Mandela or any of us. The change happened when millions of South Africans rose up to delegitimise apartheid. The people lost their fear of the oppressor and the apartheid state lost its power and legitimacy. Into that vacuum a new leadership emerged that would rise above their constituencies and find common ground. But it was on that fateful day, 10 April 1993, when comrade Chris Hani was murdered by the assassin Janusz Walus that Mandela became the de facto head of our country.
De Klerk was a conservative who came from a long line of family who served the National Party, which was key in constructing the apartheid architecture that dominated our country.
He served in the Cabinet from 1984 as minister of education when troops occupied our townships and unleashed a torrent of violence against even our schoolchildren. More auspiciously, he served on the State Security Management Council that eviscerated even the democracy that was white-centric. It was one of the most brutal periods in our history. In every respect it manifested as a low-scale civil war that was heating up to an explosion.
The State Security Management Council organised, funded and implemented the covert agendas of shadowy right-wing hit squads who tortured and murdered scores of activists, some of whose bodies have still not been recovered; who bombed many of our offices, including Cosatu House, our headquarters, in 1987.
And I, and many others were on circulating death lists of the apartheid state and its collaborators. In that period of repressive actions that saw tens of thousands of young people in detention or forced to leave the country, there can be no escaping the culpability De Klerk had in what happened.
De Klerk and I remained fierce combatants even after Mandela was released in 1990.
On the political spectrum, we were the polarities. We fought on many issues: The National Party’s demand to write white minority rights into the Constitution. Our demand that the right to strike should be in the Constitution.
We fought against the arbitrary decisions about mobile licences and the introduction of VAT. Our view was that De Klerk and his government were illegitimate and therefore not in a position to make such economic decisions. Mandela had to mediate often in this conflict between a non-state actor like Cosatu and the apartheid government.
These issues were, in our minds, key to the content of the democracy we would negotiate. Although a powerful section of the ANC leadership had a “Don’t rock the boat” syndrome, Cosatu pushed for a Reconstruction Pack which morphed into the RDP which was our election manifesto that won us a landslide victory in 1994.
I never recognised De Klerk as my president in an apartheid South Africa. But I did serve in the first democratically elected government of South Africa in 1994 in which he was the deputy president. And I respect that office.
He also was the person in the warped environment of the racial politics of the National Party who took the brave step to unconditionally free Mandela and political prisoners and unban the ANC, PAC, SACP and all political prisoners. And I respect him for that.
And in the political negotiations, as the leader of the National Party, he accepted the advice of his negotiators led by Roelf Meyer and Leon Wessels to rise above his narrow constituency and abandon any notions of minority rights and accept universal franchise as the only solution.
And I respect that also.
So why does De Klerk’s death evoke such strong emotions? It’s because of the failures of our democratic project. And that has less to do with De Klerk who meddled in the politics of the foundation he set up and designed to guarantee him some leading role in South Africa’s transition. South Africa’s own Gorbachev. He is a useful scapegoat for our political elites and the Twitterati clicktivists. The loud voice of many who also seek their turn to feed at the trough of public largesse, driven by a belief that “I didn’t struggle to be poor”.
The elusive peace and democratic dividend that has been funnelled into the fattening carcass of corrupt officials and politicians, aided and abetted by global multinationals and our locally bred mercenary middlemen, is responsible for the sorry state of our democracy.
So who should stand in the court of public opinion alongside De Klerk for gutting our democracy?
Well, let’s look at the Zondo Commission. It’s been an unsightly parade of tarnished bandits from the public and private sector, who, irrespective of their political affiliation, have so muddied the waters of our democracy. And downright sabotaged it.
In his statement before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, De Klerk protested against the 1973 international assignation of apartheid as a “crime against humanity”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu characterised him well: “Mr De Klerk could have gone down in history as a truly great South African statesman, but he eroded his stature and became a small man, lacking magnanimity and generosity of spirit.”
Yes, De Klerk could have risen to greater recognition if he had played a role alongside Mandela campaigning for transformation and nation-building. We need to concretely redress the devastating legacy of apartheid that his ancestors co-organised with the British Crown in the 1910 Union of South Africa, which excluded the majority of South Africans. And then consolidated that exclusion by land dispossession in the 1913 Land Act.
But the annals of history will reflect his contribution, because he did play a role to bring his hardline conservative and fearful white minority into the democratic process. So let us rise above our smallness of mind, and wish his soul well in the journey to an afterlife where he will again have to face himself in what meaningful contribution he made to leave behind a better humanity and better world.
As Mandela so eloquently said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Let us liberate ourselves from the prison of bitterness, acknowledge our mistakes and reimagine a different country by working towards the realisation of all the dreams and hopes we had in 1994. Then De Klerk’s passing will be a more significant milestone in our country’s history. DM