by Brian Pottinger
Monday, 15
November 2021
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FW de Klerk: a great South African let down by the ANC

He and Nelson Mandela held the country together after apartheid was lifted
by Brian Pottinger

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.

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Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
10 months ago

Excellent article. De Klerk has always been overshadowed by Mandela. Both were towering figures but DeKlerk, as the one who started the voluntary process of giving up power, surely had the most to lose.

I’m sure the usual suspects will say it was western sanctions etc that did it. I lived there at the time and that’s just nonsense. The National Party had the capability to stay in power for several more decades. De Klerk’s foresight in seeing what that would entail, and doing something about it while he still had cards to play, was unprecedented.

A sad loss.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

The National Party had the capability to stay in power for several more decades. 

Which is surely what it should have done for the sake of the whole population, black and white?

John Hicks
John Hicks
10 months ago

No pot of gold at the end of that Rainbow Nation. Or at least not the “pot” of democracy and good governance envisaged as being possible by De Klerk. Clearly a giant in the courage and foresight department; and a person most of us know so little about. Thank you for the article and for your alert that it is not a black and white problem, but the shades in between that are providing the tensions in South Africa. Is it possible that the multiplicity of clans and colours could be a salvation? Not without a saviour it seems.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
10 months ago
Reply to  John Hicks

So, what’s your theory?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago

I think we can be pretty certain that the problem was not that the leaders of the ANC had too much melatonin in their skin.
Unfortunately, unlike the case of India where the civil service and other organs of the state already had Indians who had been in post for a significant time the SA state apparatus did not have ANC members in place who had a tradition of abiding by democratic norms. Greed and a lack of a governing culture together with the problems of tribalism have dissolved the existing structures erected by the British and Dutch settlers.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
10 months ago

i remember an apposite comment that Paul Theroux made after spending much time in Africa “for whatever reason the Africans dont appear to have a concept of planning or working towards the future – rather the present is all dominating’…. seems relevant. a friend spent 20 years attempting to establish early child education and care programmes in Tanzania – at the end of it she had completely failed to establish an enduring structure and only one individual was left to carry on all her hard work – a woman of Indian descent. Dunno what the answer is – but at the risk of being stoned, it seems that different cultural skills are required eg management, forwards planning, big perspective stuff. I also worked with an escaped South African (white) in NZ who used to own and manage a large farm – he said it worked very well like a small t own – he organised housing, education and medical care for his staff and they were settled and happy. He has kept in contact with one/some of his staff and the farm has foundered and all the African staff are back in chaotic poverty. It took the Europeans etc 2000 years to learn and establish non-tribal (ish) democracy and stable rule of law – how on earth were the black South Africans going to acheive that overnight. what is unfolding is entirely predictable but probably could not have happened any other way bar a 20 year graduated hand over situation – and the global naive woke types would never have sanctioned something as sensible as that !!

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
10 months ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

yeah – Socrates 2500 years ago – ‘the first stage of wisdom is to recognize that one knows sweet f a ‘ (paraphrased). Seems to be that indeed those who dont study history etc are doomed to repeat it etc etc. That first stage of being able to learn might hurt one’s feelings aka a tender little narcissistic ego. Gosh I thought that was the whole point of an education – what an idiotfest we live in !

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
10 months ago
Reply to  John Hicks

Ghana and Botswana seem to be doing ok. Namibia and Zambia too.

Give it 50 years and then we’ll see which African states have sorted themselves out compared to those that haven’t.

I fully expect places like Ghana and Sierre Leone to be doing ok, but I understand a large number of other states will remain dark age tribal states.

It takes time for states to pull themselves together- how long did it take for England to end its mutual bloodletting after Honorius withdrew the Roman Army?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
10 months ago

The main concern in South Africa (besides the howling from the fringes), is that he never apologised for what he did and oversaw in the National Party and further, that he was never required to part with his secrets and nor was he held to account.
No doubt this was part of the deal struck when the new democratic government was formed. Bottom line is that he has gone to the grave with his secrets.