Exactly 30 years ago today FW de Klerk, who had been president of South Africa for barely five months, made an announcement that broke political deadlock and led the country out of centuries of conflict and into an era of negotiation and democracy. His legacy though remains deeply contested, writes Pieter du Toit.
When Frederik Willem de Klerk, then 53, approached the podium in the Great Hall of Parliament in Cape Town just after 11:00 on the morning of February 2, 1990, to deliver his annual address to the legislature, very few believed he would go as far as he did. After all, the National Party (NP) government, by then in absolute power for more than 41 years, did not look like it would succumb to any pressure, domestic or foreign.
And De Klerk, the son of a Cabinet minister in Hendrik Verwoerd's government, nephew of hard-line premier JG Strijdom and a lawyer schooled at the Afrikaners' Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, was considered a flag-bearer for the ultra-conservative section of the NP.
His older brother, Willem de Klerk, writes in FW de Klerk: The Man In His Timethat expectations of the newly-minted president was low to zero. There just weren't any indicators that he was going to be the great reformer he turned out to be.
But De Klerk wasn't an ideologue, he was a pragmatist. And after becoming president in September 1989, replacing the increasingly cantankerous and inconsistent PW Botha, he saw an opportunity.
The Berlin Wall had fallen and communism was crumbling. De Klerk believed the time to take the initiative and claim the moral high ground had arrived.
"There is no time left for advancing all manner of new conditions that will delay the negotiating process," De Klerk sombrely said in the middle of his address, before he went on.
"The steps that have been decided upon are the following: the prohibition of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and a number of subsidiary organisations is being rescinded"
In her celebrated account of the transitionAnatomy of a Miracle, journalist Patti Waldmeir writes there was an audible gasp among MPs as De Klerk reached the part about unbanning the SACP. "With those words FW de Klerk destroyed the world as whites knew it, and opened up a whole new universe to everyone else," she writes.
His government, De Klerk told the world, had taken "a firm decision" to release Nelson Mandela unconditionally. He also announced the release of political prisoners and that the state of emergency will be suspended. De Klerk and his government were determined to commence negotiations towards a democratic dispensation, based on equality before the law and protection of minority and individual rights, he said.
"The time for negotiation has arrived," he said.
De Klerk: A dyed in the wool party man
Historian Hermann Giliomee, in his book The Last Afrikaner Leaders, says the speech illustrated to what extent De Klerk managed to lead his party from rigid apartheid philosophies and its fears of communism a year before, to a place where it started to accept a shared country and society based on shared beliefs and values.
Willem de Klerk, the president's older brother and a noted member of the so-called "enligtened" section of Afrikaner intelligentsia (and a founder of the Democratic Party), wrote he never considered De Klerk to be progressive, he was "a veritable Mr National Party".
De Klerk Sr argues his younger brother was a "forceful" proponent of apartheid, propagating and executing his party's policies of "racial grouping".
"As leader of the white 'own affairs' administration, moreover, he became an advocate for white interests, thus projecting himself as Mr White as much as Mr National Party.
"He certainly never formed part of the enlightened movement in South Africa."
Giliomee says De Klerk was a popular figure in the party, but that he was a tactician and pragmatist, rather then acting out of conviction or belief. His reform initiatives were therefore carefully planned.
Waldmeir, who was a correspondent for the Financial Times, describes De Klerk as calculating, a consummate politician who was able to respond to the demands of the moment and who crafted his own beliefs to correspond with the zeitgeist. And, despite the far-reaching announcement on February 2, he certainly was not willing to let the process run out from under him.
"He was not, as many outsiders assumed, recognising the historical inevitability of black majority rule his plan, on February 2, was to share power with blacks, subject to an effective white veto, not to hand it over," she believes.
Reaction to De Klerk's speech was, predictably, positive. The international community lauded De Klerk and Britain announced it was dropping sanctions. Thabo Mbeki, then Oliver Tambo's right-hand man and the ANC's de facto minister of foreign affairs, conceded that De Klerk had stolen a march on the ANC, telling Frederik van Zyl Slabbert: "What do we do now? We can't put Mandela back in jail!"
Rejected by his own people, dismissed by the rest
Thirty years later De Klerk, as the last living head of the apartheid state and the leader who opened negotiations, is a contested if not reviled figure. He has been broadly rejected by large sections of his own people, the Afrikaners, and is generally dismissed as a transformative figure by black South Africa.
De Klerk managed to bring white South Africa with him to the negotiating table, winning a popular mandate in the 1992 referendum. But after 1994 and certainly after 1996, when the NP exited the Government of National Unity he lost influence and became a scapegoat for whites who blamed the loss of power on him.
Along with Roelf Meyer, who led his government's negotiating team, De Klerk is often criticised for his assurances of constitutional checks and balances, which he promised would safeguard the rights of whites and individuals, and which many whites believe have failed.
Letter columns in Afrikaans newspapers are often filled with vitriol directed at De Klerk and Meyer. And with Afrikaans society, especially in the northern parts of the country, seemingly increasingly disillusioned with democracy as Afrikaner nationalist organisations such as AfriForum gain traction, De Klerk is not looked upon as a distinguished elder statesman.
"FW must explain about his famous 'checks and balances'" or "De Klerk was nave" and even "He sold us down the river" are sentiments regularly expressed in letter columns or by Afrikaans opinion writers.
There is a popular school of thought among Afrikaners that De Klerk and Meyer were outfoxed by the ANC during the constitutional negotiations, and that language rights, schools and issues around cultural heritage were poorly managed. This school of thought, espoused by the emergence of a modern, white conservative movement and fanned by prominent commentators, traditional media outlets and new alternative voices, have sought to cast doubt on the transition and De Klerk's role in it.
And among black people De Klerk is nothing more than the last apartheid president and someone yet to pay for his role in the violence, murder and mayhem of apartheid.
Journalist and author Fred Khumalo, writing in Sowetan last year, said De Klerk and his government should be blamed for South Africa's violent culture.
"While De Klerk was being feted for a miraculous transition, the killing squads that he had helped create and finance, some of them operating under the aegis of Inkatha, were busy killing ordinary black people.
"Boipatong, Shobashobane, Thokoza, Richmond, Crossroads are not just place names. These are names of specific massacres on the eve of our 1994 election, while De Klerk was in office," Khumalo contends.
The EFF call him a "murderer" while journalist Lukhanyo Calata, son of murdered ANC activist Fort Calata, implicated De Klerk in his father's death last year.
And although Parliament annually invites De Klerk to the State of the Nation Address, he attends as a former deputy president of democratic South Africa, and not as the last head of state of apartheid South Africa. He is hardly called upon to give his views on the country and is rarely, if ever, given space in the media, and when he does opine it is roundly and summarily rejected.
Condemnation and plaudits
De Klerk's biggest moment was the year between his elevation to the party leadership and his February 2, 1990 speech, Giliomee writes. He grew into his role as head of state and conducted himself in a dignified and gracious manner. "His speech on February 2 was masterful, indeed it was one of the big moments in the country's history and without doubt one of the most important speeches in the history of the twentieth century."
Mandela called the speech "breathtaking". "In one sweeping action he had virtually normalised the situation in South Africa. Our world had changed overnight."
But, Giliomee judges, De Klerk had no masterplan for the negotiations, nor an experienced negotiator. Mandela says De Klerk never wanted to give up power, but Waldmeir one of the most astute observers of the transition says she doesn't share Madiba's condemnation. "He censures De Klerk for being a politician and not a saint. But if South Africa had had to wait for a holy man for its liberation, it would be languishing still in apartheid captivity."
De Klerk, who turn 84 years old this year, lives in Cape Town with his second wife, Elita. He remains involved with a foundation for constitutional rights bearing his name.
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