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FW de Klerk was the biggest risk-taker of them all, gambling the future of South Africa to create a legacy for himself

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David Forbes is an independent filmmaker, writer, artist, photographer, tour guide and political and social commentator. The views expressed here are his own.

Both enemies and apartheid securocrats have derided FW de Klerk’s claim that he ‘knew nothing’ about police and military hit squads and other illegal covert activities. Colonel Eugene ‘Prime Evil’ de Kock, the Vlakplaas hit squad commander, described De Klerk as an ‘unconvicted murderer’.

Many ex-presidents who had presided over repressive regimes drew vehement and mixed responses from both sides upon their deaths — from those who hated them, and those who eulogised them. The death of FW de Klerk was no different.

Now that the official mourning period is over, we should reflect upon some facts, and assess the legacy left by the last president of apartheid.

Circumstances, not a “Damascene conversion”, forced De Klerk to adopt a new strategy that was the only possible path to avoid a civil war. Conveniently, it would give him a legacy too. His pragmatism in freeing Nelson Mandela, and subsequent events, was the very opposite of his racist roots and beliefs, but his decisions changed South Africa’s trajectory.

Those circumstances included a number of powerful factors which later events showed to be the reasons behind his earth-shaking announcement on 2 February 1990 that signalled a reversal of National Party (NP) strategy as it attempted to shed its tainted reputation and ensure a place for itself in a new democratic regime. Policy, however, remained largely in place.

Global sanctions were biting hard, the apartheid state was basically bankrupt due to the escalating costs of the so-called “Border War” and a failing war against the general populace in the townships, as the United Democratic Front (UDF) could inspire 10,000 people or more to hit the streets for a single protest.

Fears within the party were mounting of what could happen if an ageing Nelson Mandela died in jail. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, signalling an end to the Cold War. South African businesspeople were pressing for a negotiated settlement to preserve capital and assets. Already they were meeting informally with the banned African National Congress (ANC).

Unable to finance the increased military “solutions” advocated by then-Defence Minister and hawk Magnus Malan, De Klerk’s new strategy was to seize the initiative by freeing Mandela and unbanning organisations, which would create the presidential legacy he was looking for, as well as forge an opportunity to protect white privileges through the “sunset clauses” of a negotiated Government of National Unity.

Author Antjie Krog, who wrote so movingly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process, said after his death: “FW de Klerk never had any moral intention, and he left us behind as white ‘kansvatters’ (literally chance-takers).” He was the biggest risk-taker of them all, gambling the future of South Africa in order to create a legacy for himself.

Until the end of his days, De Klerk believed the repugnant apartheid policy of racial segregation was no bad thing — even though he was forced to apologise for the “pain and suffering” it had caused.

He never apologised for the dehumanising policy itself. He insisted it was “an honourable vision of justice” that proved unworkable, a “mistake” rather than an immoral and structured repressive machinery designed to subjugate black people with legislation and guns and deny them basic human rights.

A policy that cruelly consigned 40 million black people to poverty-stricken “homelands” with only workers allowed into urban areas using the hated “passbook system”. An ideology that wrecked their lives, their families and tore their dignity from them.

The advisory State Security Council (SSC) set up in 1972 had become by the early 1980s a secret parallel government of mainly unelected securocrats who took major decisions.

It used a “total onslaught” ideology to demonise the ANC and its “communist surrogates” (“die Rooi Gevaar” or Red Danger). The SSC coordinated State responses using a “Total National Strategy” implemented through the National Security Management System which extended control down to small-town level.

The FW de Klerk Foundation, managed by Dave Steward, a former head of apartheid’s Bureau of Information and SSC member, claimed apartheid security forces had killed fewer than 5,000 people between 1960 and 1994 and said the UN declaration that apartheid was a crime against humanity was an “agitprop project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC/SACP allies to stigmatise white South Africans”.

Both enemies and apartheid securocrats have also derided De Klerk’s claim that he “knew nothing” about police and military hit squads and other illegal covert activities. Colonel Eugene “Prime Evil” de Kock, the Vlakplaas hit squad commander, described De Klerk as an “unconvicted murderer”. Having received jail sentences totalling 212 years as one of the only fall guys for apartheid politicians and generals, De Kock should know.

Ironically, De Klerk acknowledged there was a strategy to murder prominent anti-apartheid activists, but then claimed it was carried out by “rogue elements”, and he was “horrified” when he found out.

“I was never part of policies that said murder is fine — cold-blooded murder is fine, rape is fine, torture is fine,” De Klerk said. But he never denied ordering the October 1993 Mthatha Raid on what was described as a Pan Africanist Congress safe house used to plan “terrorist attacks”, in which five boys were killed.

Mzwandile Mfeya (12), Sandiso Yose (12), twins Samora and Sadat Mpenduko (16) and Thando Mtembu died in a hail of bullets during the raid. The SADF said the dead were men who had been armed and were shooting, but photographs of the scene showed the boys dead in their beds, and no guns in sight. Two months later, De Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize, with Nelson Mandela.

De Klerk later described the killings as a “tragic mistake”. Advocate Howard Varney, a TRC investigator who drew up questions for De Klerk at the hearings, said De Klerk’s denials were not credible. 

“It’s untenable that a Cabinet minister who sat in the SSC meetings from 1985 to 1989 claims that he was unaware that gross human rights violations were being committed on an ongoing basis.

“Aside from the fact that plainly unlawful programmes were being considered by the SSC meetings he attended, he would have been aware that the security forces were running amok on the ground. He took no steps to voice objections or distance himself, or to restrain them in any way,” Varney said.

Among other decisions De Klerk was party to was the establishment of Inkatha’s covert paramilitary force, secretly trained and armed by the SADF, that wrought havoc in the mid-1980s. More than 14,000 people died in state-fuelled political violence between 1990 and the 1994 elections.

De Klerk also attended a specific SSC meeting that discussed “shortening the list of politically sensitive individuals by means other than detention”. At the TRC hearings, he refused to answer a question about that meeting. Until his end, he declined to interpret what the phrasing might have meant, but vehemently denies ever endorsing a decision to assassinate activists.

“I was not present at any meeting in any context where decisions to murder people were discussed,” he claimed. Secret minutes of an SSC meeting on 18 March 1984, however, show De Klerk supported a decision to “remove” activist and teacher Matthew Goniwe, who security forces had described as “at the forefront of a revolutionary attack”.

The Afrikaans word “verwyder” means “remove, get rid of, put out of the way, dispose of, eliminate, estrange, obviate”. In 1999, De Klerk claimed that “verwyder” merely referred to transferring Goniwe to another teaching job. The Afrikaans word for transfer is “verplaas”.

Two days after that fateful SSC meeting, the head of Security Branch intelligence, former student spy Major Craig Williamson, sent operative Jacobus “Jaap” van Jaarsveld down to Cradock to see how Goniwe could be “taken out”. Days later, on 30 March, Goniwe and colleague Fort Calata, cousin Mbulelo Goniwe and youth leader Madoda Jacobs were detained for six months under Section 28 of the Internal Security Act. Meetings in Cradock were banned for three months. Riots followed.

Van Jaarsveld’s reconnaissance report suggested Goniwe be stopped “along the road”. This is exactly what happened 15 months later, when Goniwe, Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhauli, on their way home at night after a UDF meeting in then Port Elizabeth, were abducted and brutally murdered by the security forces.

Although the Security Police were monitoring Goniwe and Calata 24 hours a day, the police blamed the murders of the Cradock Four (as they became known) on “black-on-black violence” between rival groups, and claimed no knowledge of how they died. A huge cover-up ensued, and to date no one has been brought to justice for one of apartheid’s most heinous atrocities.

At an SSC meeting on 10 June 1985, attended by De Klerk, Goniwe’s future had been discussed. Senior police officers confirmed to the TRC later that their orders to plan the killing came from “higher up”.

The Cradock Four were murdered within weeks of the Eastern Province Joint Management Committee’s assassination proposal being made to the SSC Secretariat in a top-secret telex which later was revealed by the media. The full SSC, chaired by then-President PW Botha and attended by De Klerk, must have approved it.

The denials continued. In 1999, De Klerk claimed that although he was an SSC member, they were not briefed on “clandestine operations involving murders, assassinations or the like — all of which were evidently carried out strictly on a ‘need to know’ basis”.

Then why did De Klerk, in his last months as president, order the wholesale shredding and incineration of tons of documents, microfilms and computer tapes that dealt with things like the chain of command for covert operations?

Why did De Klerk quietly grant amnesty to members of the SA Defence Force while diverting public attention with news that he was dismantling South Africa’s nuclear arsenal?

Why did his underlings from the police enter blanket amnesty negotiations with the ANC? (The negotiations failed after six years.)

De Klerk told the TRC that apartheid atrocities were the work of a few bad eggs and that his Cabinet was blameless. He lied in making this submission. The TRC itself said his claim was “indefensible”. Eugene de Kock accused De Klerk in 2007 of approving gross human rights violations and said De Klerk’s hands were “soaked in blood”.

As a self-confessed apartheid assassin who was congratulated in many private ceremonies at their Vlakplaas farm base by politicians and his commanders for his vicious and bloody operations, De Kock should know.

De Klerk can never claim he didn’t know, says investigative journalist Jacques Pauw. Scores of people and organisations told him about the atrocities being carried out, and he “ignores the bloody trail”. And he did nothing to rein it in.

Newspapers Vrye Weekblad, the Mail & Guardian and New Nation exposed death squads, Vlakplaas and other atrocities. Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Helen Suzman, Albertina Sisulu, Popo Molefe, Trevor Manuel and Mosiuoa Lekota all told him what was going on, says Pauw.

So did Lawyers for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Black Sash. The South African Council of Churches and prominent clergymen like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev Frank Chikane and Beyers Naudé told him.

The Goldstone Commission made 47 reports to De Klerk about “dirty tricks” and state-initiated violence in the pre-election period. The Steyn Report in 1992 by the SADF chief detailed malfeasance by Military Intelligence and its operatives.

The police and military (often through the shadowy front, the Civil Cooperation Bureau) became a “Third Force” which fomented violence in the pre-1994 period. De Kock armed Inkatha with 60 tons of weapons seized in the “Border War” — weapons used in the Sebokeng Night Vigil Massacre (38 mourners died) and the Boipatong Night Massacre (nearly 50 people died, including children).

Three years after De Kock had been exposed as a state assassin, he was still at work.

After a marriage of 39 years, De Klerk deserted his college-met sweetheart and wife Marike for a much younger and recently divorced wife of a Greek shipping tycoon and sanctions-buster with whom he had done business.

We must ask what kind of a man he really was behind that sly smile.

De Klerk was an unrepentant liar, an apologist for apartheid, and a murderer. He left life without answering for his role in apartheid-era crimes.

We may forgive him his human frailties. Can we forgive what he allowed on his watch? Certainly, we can never forget. Perpetrators should be brought to justice. De Klerk escaped it. DM

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    • Yes, Ms Landman: One sided & extremely nasty. That is exactly what De Klerk was. He is the essence of the ‘banality of evil’…the technocrat who was only doing his job, hands-off & at a distance (kerchief held delicately to his nose). His problem? He WAS the boss. The buck stops with him. In law it’s called inference. No matter his denials (which have been thoroughly shot down in this fine article), he should’ve known, therefore he ‘knew’….inferentially.