November 15, 2021 - 7:00am

The death of FW de Klerk last week, apartheid era President and Nobel Peace laureate, marked the passing of one of the last great forces behind South Africa’s painful and still uncompleted transition to a modern democracy.

Always counted amongst the conservative faction of the then ruling whites-only National Party, he astonished many by presiding over the country’s largely peaceful constitutional transfer of power from a white minority to a black majority in 1994.

Predictably, in death he has been described by his far lesser critics as a divisive and polarising figure; his legacy deemed unworthy and his recent apology for the sins of apartheid empty and self-serving.

Yet de Klerk was the first to properly understand in the late 1980’s the willingness of whites in general, and Afrikaners in particular, to accept radical political change. With a background steeped in Afrikaner Calvinism and Transvaal conservatism, he was in a much better position than P W Botha, his Cape-based predecessor, to judge the limits of the possible amongst his independent and wary tribe. 

In this he was only interpreting a long wave change in Afrikaner outlook. That change began when Afrikaner per capita income exceeded that of their English-speaking compatriots in the 1980s. This was a generationally different constituency to the one that had swept the National Party to power in 1948 and had imposed hardline apartheid to protect its economic interests, in effect the mother of all affirmative action programmes.

De Klerk’s tribe was now wealthier, better educated, cosmopolitan and fully aware of the absurdity of a small racial minority attempting to control an angry and assertive majority. Thus was born the National Party’s great outsourcing project: the transfer of political power to black South Africans on the understanding they would look after the politics and administration while whites would get on with the economy.        

Free of the incumbrance of the irascible and wounded P W Botha, whom he unseated in a cabinet coup in August 1989, de Klerk quickly settled Namibian independence, cajoled the National Party into embracing change, closed long-standing secret negotiations with Nelson Mandela in prison, freed political prisoners and unbanned the 110-year-old African National Congress in 1990.

He called a referendum amongst whites on the surrender of power to black South Africans in 1992 and won a handsome two-to-one victory: surely one of the few times in history when a minority holding all political, economic and military power voluntarily ceded office; a tribute to the trust he held with whites.

Tumultuous months followed: drawn-out constitutional negotiations; violent eruptions; a white far-Right armed revolt; virtual civil war between African National Congress and Zulu Inkatha factions (now internalised within the ANC); the assassination of leading ANC figure Chris Hani and sedition by renegade security force members.

Yet it held together, largely through the perseverance of two remarkable South Africans, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. In the end it was de Klerk’s white-officered apartheid army and police that stood ultimate guarantor for a peaceful election. 

It was during the worst of the tumult that Ken Owen, then editor of the South African Sunday Times and I, then his deputy, were invited to an informal lunch with de Klerk at Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The three of us sat a small table set up on one of the wide and colonnaded passages in the graceful Herbert Baker building, a cool breeze blowing up from the valley.

“Why do you hate Afrikaners so much?” asked the chain-smoking FW de Klerk of Owen.

“I do not,” was the reply, “but you cannot expect people to forget their painful pasts.”

“Ah,” de Klerk responded, “but my people also have painful pasts.… not least because of the British. But if we could forget, surely others must.”

Perhaps it was this that was to so disillusion de Klerk in his advancing years as from the vantage of his Foundation he observed the slow collapse of the values embedded in the hard-won democratic constitution, the betrayal by the ANC of the unique opportunity he and Nelson Mandela, with great personal risk, had gifted to South Africans.

The founding contract of the reborn South Africa, many feel, has been broken through corruption and incompetence to the point where only a fine constitution, a courageous judiciary and a strong constitutional court stand between the average citizen and bureaucratic anarchy.

Forgiveness is now in short supply: as South Africa stumbles to its uncertain future, it is blaming, scapegoating and pawing over the past that most occupies the black political elites: hence the intemperate attacks on the white co-architect of contemporary South Africa’s freedom. 

After 27 years of ANC misrule there is no political leader alive in South Africa today with the status of a Mandela or a de Klerk to effect such a complex and risky grand transition as occurred in 1994. There is no institutional capacity to manage it. And there is nobody in high office with the courage.

Brian Pottinger is an author and former Editor and Publisher of the South African Sunday Times. He lives on the KwaZulu North Coast.