| 6.4°C Dublin

FW de Klerk went to his grave with a chequered legacy, and no full accounting for apartheid

The imminence of death was the only thing that prompted his video apology 


Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk after being jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. File picture by Jon Eeg/AP

Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk after being jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. File picture by Jon Eeg/AP

Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie walking hand in hand after de Klerk was forced to release him in 1990 after 27 years in jail

Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie walking hand in hand after de Klerk was forced to release him in 1990 after 27 years in jail


Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk after being jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. File picture by Jon Eeg/AP

Frederik ‘FW’ de Klerk, apartheid’s last president, succumbed to cancer on Thursday at the age of 85, taking to his grave the last secrets of apartheid’s machinery.

The system was created to unleash a brutal war against black citizens in South Africa, and maintain the racial segregation whose patterns continue to beset the country today.

We cannot report on Frederik de Klerk’s demise without reckoning with his role in nearly sabotaging South Africa’s democratic project and derailing the path to inclusion. It may be hard to fathom that the man who freed Nelson Mandela and shared the Nobel Prize with him was simultaneously a tactical survivalist — a true son and later elder of right-wing Afrikaans Calvinism.

Rather than detract from his complicated legacy, this invites us to reflect on the Damascus moment that saw him boldly legalise South Africa’s liberation movements, release Mandela from 27 years of unjust imprisonment, and begin negotiations that finally led to the country’s current democratic dispensation  with all its flaws.

Apartheid’s rulers and beneficiaries accused de Klerk of betraying the white minority and handing the country over to the black majority. For him, it was a small price to pay in exchange for the accolades of being an international statesman who answered when the winds of change beckoned.

De Klerk did not free Mandela because of an impulse for democracy, inclusion and non-racism. A strong proponent of apartheid (he preferred the euphemism "separate development”), he was also a pragmatic man who recognised his state was at war and could not endure international pressure and isolation anymore.

For two decades before 1994, internal resistance grew, mandatory sanctions stifled the South African economy, and the brutality of the racist white regime toward black citizens was reported on and televised. South Africa, virtually bankrupt and ungovernable, had entrenched its place as the pariah of the world.

Before making the inevitable but monumental announcement in 1990 to free Mandela and end apartheid, de Klerk is reported to have told one of his ministers: “We are the liquidators of this firm.” And shortly before leaving office to make way for a new democratic government led by Mandela, de Klerk, in an act of self-preservation, ordered the destruction of thousands of records, documentary evidence of state-sanctioned oppression, violence and injustice.

In the early 1990s, as state president and leader of the National Party, de Klerk was at the table, negotiating with Mandela and the African National Congress. But guns and bombs continued to blast through the night air in the townships.

Under de Klerk’s watch, the police armed militias, unleashing a civil war that was cynically framed as ‘black on black’ violence. It was a divide-and-rule tactic that saw the government align with a Zulu nationalist party  the Inkatha Freedom Party  as South Africa’s defence forces provided the group with funds and training. Their message was clear: ‘See? Black people are not ready to govern.’ 

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Somehow, a fragile settlement was reached, and a democratic election wherein black people could vote for the first time was held in 1994. A ‘government of national unity’ was established, which included former oppressors and the oppressed. Yet the only way to reach a semblance of normality was for this ‘new nation’ to fully reckon with the gross human rights atrocities committed during apartheid.

Thus, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was born.

Much of its findings against de Klerk and his administration was redacted, after he approached the courts to challenge the final report. Nonetheless, the commission, led by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, found de Klerk “morally accountable for concealing the truth from the country, when as executive head of government, he was under an obligation to disclose the truth known to him”.

Last year, de Klerk said “the idea that apartheid was a crime against humanity was, and remains, an ‘agitprop’ project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC and communist allies to stigmatise white South Africans”. 

The man credited with dismantling apartheid was, three decades later, diminishing its devastating impact on black South Africans.

The reaction was immediate and loud. Condemnation reverberated throughout the country. He was forced to apologise — but the damage had been done. It seems he had spoken his real truth, not the one he had performed for the world.

In his final video message, released a few hours after his death, a frail de Klerk says: “I, without qualification, apologise for the pain, hurt, indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa.”

Words he wouldn’t utter before, flowing from his mouth with ease.

Perhaps the certainty of death allows us all to reconsider our harmful positions. But de Klerk goes to his grave with many untold secrets, and without properly and honestly accounting to families whose loved ones were murdered by the party and government he served for decades.

Redi Tlhabi is a South African journalist. © Washington Post

© Washington Post

Most Watched