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FW de Klerk’s death is an opportunity to liberate ourselves from the prison of bitterness

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Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

‘Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon. Reconciliation does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict, but that reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.’ — Nelson Mandela 1995.

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

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All Comments 9

  • Thi is a perspicaious and rational analysis of DeKlerk’s place in history as a willing participant in an immoral regime. It also highlights some of the grossly hypocritical responses by ANC mermbers and fellow-traveller gangsters whose avarice and brazen indifference to the plight of millions of South Africans almost belies belief.
    Yet the assessment of Mr Naidoo seems to me to be incomplete.
    The reality is that South Africa has been appallingly governed from at least 1948 ( and probably before as well ) until the present.
    In 1994 a brutal and irredeemable regime was replaced by a mafia-type cartel , mendacious in the extreme and not averse to thuggery when it suits them.
    Hopefully at some point some fair analysts or historians will deal in with the past century in Soth Africa with an appropriate mindset of academic impartiality.

    • I would beg to differ from your perspective , that 1994 we got a “mafia-type cartel”. It belittles or denies the fact that during the Madiba era, we had a truly non-racial government (since then rapidly replaced by Mbeki’s misguided but unintentional “I am an African” reverie) and a relatively ‘forward looking’ period. Jay’s analysis is commendable .

  • the pent up emotions are real but perhaps, maybe perhaps it is being used as a distraction from the mess the ANC has placed this country in. yes De Klerk was a Nat and supported apartheid, but then we must go back to Strydom and all those that followed him. History (correctly and incorrectly) and God (correctly)will judge De Klerk and all the current writers will not write the history. at this point we are hearing the same old same old comments. let the man rest in peace and focus on the mess we are currently in and the legacy we all will leave our grandchildren which is not good!

  • Fantastic article. The best so far and I enjoy your pieces always. Thank you for highlighting the need to forgive. I was no fan of FW. I am sad that Nelson could not serve two terms. The moral fibre of our beloved country would be different if that could happen. That is on PW. Now that all of them passed on, let’s forgive the almost unforgivable. Including the atrocities of Mama Winnie. Don’t worry Julius. No streets will be named after FW.

  • I think the younger generation who were either too young to understand what was happening or not born at the time, do not have any appreciation for the dynamics and tensions of the time. Perhaps if they thought about this scenario it may help them understand – Imagine that Julius Malema and the EFF are the government, Julius takes ill and has to step down. Floyd Shivambu is elected President and makes the decision to turn totally against Julius’ doctrine and accept negotiations with whites. He sits down with them to effectively negotiate a transfer of power to the whites! This is what de Klerk did. I believe it took an enormous amount of guts and tenacity to go against all that he had believed in for most of his life. Knowing full well that he would end up being reviled by his own people and the people he negotiated with. I feel it showed enormous leadership and the pity was that he and Mandela could not make their “Unity” work. I think their combined leadership skills would have made this country a phenomenal place and a true world leader.

  • From the beginning of the common era and some records indicate even further back, England (including Ireland) was invaded by a succession of Vikings, Danes, Saxons, Romans and others and the indigenous Celtic people and the Piques from up north were systematically plundered and landed up being ruled by a succession of foreign Kings. This process took hundreds of years and eventually in the mid 1800’s Lord Blackstone codified English and harmonised all customary law into one body of law. This in effect largely united the UK and soon thereafter English became the common language being an amalgamation of Latin, French and other dialects. This enabled the UK to be united under one language, one King and one Church.
    This unification unfortunately never happened in SA and many other British colonies because the British had this strange idea that they were the dominant race and the indigenous peoples just had to toe the line. This despite the fact that many other European nations had since the 1600’s inhabited SA. I dont recall SA ever having one official language despite the influx of other cultures like the Malays and Indians as well as the many indiginous tribes.
    So I guess it’s no surprise that SA still battles to establish any sense of unity despite the efforts of many in the liberation movements. I believe de Klerk would have served his cause better by just passing on without making any final statements that would understandably reopen wounds.

  • Best article I have read on this whole issue of de Klerk, and fantastic comments by all at time of writing. I have read so much rubbish on this subject, including one or two articles yesterday on DM, but mainly on News24. I clearly remember the referendum held in the eighties for South Africans (only white voters naturally), my personal first ever experience as a voter, to vote either yes or no for the abandonment of the apartheid system. Being from an extreme conservative right wing area in Germiston, most analysts predicted that apartheid will stay. Cometh the hour, cometh the results, voters overwhelmingly voted for the abandonment of the apartheid system. Even in my voting area. And I thought my father was going to go through the roof he was so happy, being an ultra opponent of the nats for his entire life, bless him. Mr Naidoo, you became a hero overnight in the nineties. But there were others as well, including Roelf Meyer and….Ramaphosa himself. The latter two off course major players in the drafting of our constitution. The Mandela era was the most fantastic era South Africa ever had. And what an incredible man Madiba was. But since then, it all started to go south. The election of Zuma as the President of this country ultimately lead to a situation as bad, or worse, than those experienced by so many in the eighties and before. And at this stage, I fear, it will take many years before we recover from the evil that Zuma and his cronies brought us, maybe never.

    • De Klerk was definitely the enemy, as far as I am concerned, but let’s give credit where credit is due – and not a milligram more. We need to move on from that dark place, and concentrate on where the light shines. In all honesty, I cannot blame De Klerk for the mess we are in today. I’m afraid the ANC government and their cadres have a virtual monopoly on that. Let’s fix today, so that we can imagine a tomorrow. Thank you Jay… a well balanced response to a tricky issue.