I was having brunch with my mother on Thursday, 11 November when she received a message from a friend notifying her of FW de Klerk’s passing. I was in the middle of stirring my almond milk cappuccino when she expressionlessly told me the breaking news. She put the phone down and carried on with the business of pouring her tea. I had nothing to say and neither did she. It was a non-event to us. There was no anger or inner conflict. Just indifference.
Shortly after our brunch, I searched for an image of me interviewing De Klerk a few years ago and started to write a caption. I was not sure I would have anything worthwhile to say, but these are the words that flowed surprisingly with no effort: “I remember preparing to interview De Klerk and being concerned that I wouldn’t be able to be in the same room as him – I thought my rage would shut the interview down. I spent about two hours with him and was surprised at my lack of emotions – he said things I disagreed with but that didn’t anger me like I thought they would. I was indifferent. I knew that I knew better than him. He was so entrenched in his own narrative – and realising that my narrative didn’t matter to him was freeing rather than angering. He could have his version of events. I listened but was unmoved. I am also unmoved at the news of his death. Antjie Krog once wrote that “every white and every black person has a memory of a powerful black man extending a hand to whites, but none of us has any image of a powerful white man in a definitive gesture of asking forgiveness”. Had De Klerk extended this gesture it would have enhanced him, but he didn’t, so I’m indifferent to his passing, as he had been to the truths of our history.
One of my close friends saw the caption when I posted it on social media and remarked that she thought she knew everything about me; why did she not know that I had interviewed De Klerk? I honestly forgot to mention it to her, that’s how unmemorable the interview was. De Klerk was polite but he felt scripted and that made for a rigid conversation. He was still a politician. There was no room for new insights or exploration. Unfortunately, what we will never know is what De Klerk would have discovered or who he would have grown to be had he had the courage to interrogate the very foundation of his life and beliefs honestly. Perhaps it would have made for a more memorable interview and a life worth remembering.
Writing about the infamous Robert E Lee, a Confederate general who fought in the American Civil War, writer Adam Serwer had this to say in an article in The Atlantic: “The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.” Serwer goes on to say that there are those who lack the knowledge to separate history from sentiment and those whose reverence for Lee relies on replacing the actual Lee with a mythical figure who never truly existed… it’s simply historical illiteracy.
The response to De Klerk’s death shows that many of us are not plagued by historical illiteracy. The myth of De Klerk has also died. The heroism attributed to De Klerk, which saw him share a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, was a fiction.
In certain respects, by the time De Klerk was in power as president of apartheid South Africa, apartheid was on its last legs. But he still had one card that he could leverage and that was the might of the apartheid army. De Klerk saw and took the opportunity to salvage some kind of a win out of the impending defeat of apartheid and that was through refashioning himself into Mandela’s counterpart as peacemaker.
But even his own opportunism had limits. It would not allow him to unequivocally apologise for apartheid. It would not let him be humanely honest about what he knew of state-sanctioned killings. Well into his old age he remained defensive. A part of me hoped that, as our constitutional democracy matured, as we moved further away from the myth-making of the 1990s, De Klerk would get real with himself, too. I hoped that our constitutional democracy would enable him to locate a deeper morality.
A revolution is about changing regimes. We have done that in South Africa. We changed from an apartheid regime to a constitutional democracy. Transformation is about changing hearts and consciousness-raising, and De Klerk’s inability to unequivocally apologise reminded us of how elusive transformation would continue to be despite the benevolence and concessions we had made all those years ago.
Apologies are welcome even if they come 20 years too late. It is never too late to reflect, grow and change, but unfortunately for De Klerk it is now too late. And I guess the question for those cut from the same cloth as a De Klerk, those who are still living but who are not former presidents but live among us, is whether they will choose to stubbornly hold on to the myths and their denialism of our history, or whether they will take the opportunity to enhance their humanity. DM168
Lwando Xaso is an attorney and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @Including_Inc
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.