Thursday, November 25, 2021

The last apartheid president

Michael - Thursday 

Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk at the Nobel awards

That may sound like a strange title for a blog, but Frederick Willem De Klerk did have a role to play in South Africa, and that role led him to a joint Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. One might imagine that his death two weeks ago would create some reaction, but apart from a few rather formal obituaries, there has been very little attention. A few ripples amid the waves and nothing more. By contrast, there was an outpouring of emotion that was almost universally shared by everyone in the country when Mandela died. 

De Klerk was elected to the white parliament in 1972. He quickly rose in the National Party hierarchy, becoming a minister. He was never regarded as a progressive. In his portfolios under President PW Botha, he made some minor concessions, but was staunchly supportive of the apartheid system and the nationalism of the Afrikaner people. 

The Rubicon speech and the PW Botha finger...

In 1985, PW Botha delivered his so-called Rubicon speech. It was widely expected that he would begin the phasing out of apartheid and make a variety of concessions including releasing Nelson Mandela from his Robben Island prison. I remember being on a road trip and stopping my car near a town so that I could listen to the speech as it happened. In fact, if Botha was crossing the Rubicon, the one in South Africa must have been a very small stream. He put forward a complicated (and ultimately pointless) tricameral system aimed at co-opting people of Indian and mixed descent into the existing system. He was adamant that the way forward for black African peoples was through the independent "homelands" with their collection of scattered land masses. There's a story that, in fact, a much broader and wider ranging proposal had been drafted by the cabinet, but it was Botha himself who refused to accept what he saw as "a capitulation to terrorists". I resumed my trip bitterly disappointed.

In fact, Botha was already ailing, and within a few years he gave up the leadership of the National Party and later of the government.

All the time, De Klerk had been building a political base, waiting for his moment. Pragmatism was what he was about. He'd had a number of contacts with overseas leaders, and realized that financial sanctions were starting to bite deep. As time went on, and South Africa became more and more isolated, he began to accept that major compromises would be required if the country was not to find itself in an ever escalating bush war that was ultimately unwinnable. No doubt he'd also been bitterly disappointed with the width of the Rubicon.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
De Klerk's own Rubicon came in 1990 when he publicly abandoned apartheid and put forward a vision of South Africa as a Western-style democracy, with a market oriented economy. Political parties previously banned would be accepted and political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, would be freed. This time the reaction was one of amazement, locally and abroad. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a respected church leader and anti-apartheid activist, said, "It's incredible. Give him credit. Give him credit, I do."

The rest of De Klerk's presidency was devoted to negotiations that eventually led to the first universal elections. The National Party had always claimed that the majority of black people supported their government. Maybe they believed their own propaganda and really thought they would be reelected. It didn't happen. Th ANC won 62% of the vote and the National Party 20%. Mandela put together a government of national unity with De Klerk as deputy president. That was his last public office.   

Mandela's first cabinet

In 1993 he made a speech in which he apologized for the effects of apartheid, saying, "It was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and to cause misery, but eventually apartheid led to just that. Insofar as to what occurred we deeply regret it... Yes we are sorry". It seems hard to believe that with everything that had happened, this was truly "not our intention".

De Klerk played a key role in negotiating a transfer to true democracy and majority rule. He was the right man at the right time - a pragmatist who met a visionary leader and worked with him. Perhaps he deserved his share of the Peace Prize - it's been awarded to recipients who have done much less.

The final words of the last apartheid president came in the form of a video released after his death. In it he apologized "without qualification" for the harm caused by apartheid and exhorted the country to protect its constitution and democracy and to try to work together. Perhaps, in the end, there was a touch of personal regret.


  1. Thank you so much for this, Michael. It is so much clearer than my thinking has been so far. I must say that, at the time, I did admire De Klerk’s pragmatism. Reading this, I guess I still think that the path he took saved the country in the world a lot of grief that anything less than what he did would have caused. I think, aReading this, I guess I still think that the path he took saved the country in the world a lot of grief that anything less than what he did would have caused. As far as the Nobel prize is concerned, once they gave it to Henry Kissinger, all arguments about whether recipients really deserved it or not became moot points. De Klerk may not be at the top of anybody’s list of heroes, but Kissinger is near the top of my list of villains.

    1. I agree with you. He may not have been a visionary, but he was a realist. He chose a path that led to a new South Africa - by no means perfect and struggling at the moment - but one that has a chance. That meant turning his back on everything he'd believed in before. That takes courage, and we're grateful for it.

  2. I apologize. One really can’t trust Blogger not to screw up what a person has dictated AFTER one clicks “Publish.” For a while, I gave up trying to comment at all. Now, when I succumb to temptation to say something, I get punished by blogger. It just makes me out to be a blithering idiot. Oh well. So it goes!

    1. Even through blogger's glass darkly we're grateful for your input!

  3. I think many would agree that the US (and other western democracies) could use more national figures possessing and practicing De Klerk's realistic approach to issues dividing his nation.