HomeOpinion & AnalysisWas de Klerk a repented man, or a strategic villain?

Was de Klerk a repented man, or a strategic villain?

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By Tapiwa Gomo

ON November 11, 2021, South Africa announced the death of its former President Frederik Willem de Klerk who died at the age of 85.

De Klerk served as South Africa State president from 1989 to 1994 and as deputy president from 1994 to 1996. His death has triggered debate on a number of issues which makes him a divisive character when the South African history is told.

The controversy arises from the fact that he was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for what others term his facilitation of the transition from apartheid to democratic South Africa during his term as State president from 1989 to 1994 and his acceptance to be deputy president in the democratic South Africa from 1994 to 1996. South Africa became independent in 1994 after Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, during de Klerk’s tenure.

Some have argued that the release of Mandela from prison and subsequent independence in South Africa were due to domestic, regional and global political pressure against the apartheid system.

Just to put it into perspective. South Africa is one of the last countries in Africa to attain independence from colonial rule. Most Africa countries had  attained their independence since 1960s. That wave of change was characterised by the “Wind of Change” speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa on February 3, 1960 in Cape Town. In his speech, he warned that: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact,”  before noting that the British government, had no intention to block independence to many of territories.

This partly meant that the colonial administrations that existed thereafter were doing so on their own. On November 11, 1965, Ian Douglas Smith the prime minister of then Southern Rhodesia now Zimbabwe, unilaterally declared independence from the British empire. International sanctions ensued but Rhodesia had the backing of South Africa which had declared itself a republic in 1961. The two countries had chosen to unite against the growing wind of change.

Let’s fast forward to de Klerk’s era in politics and power but noting that he was privileged and exposed to racial politics from childhood as his parents and grandparents had occupied high level positions in South African politics. But it was in 1972 that he was elected to the House of Assembly as a member of the National Party.

He later held several ministerial posts under the apartheid government of Pieter Willem Botha, an outspoken opponent of black majority rule.

This meant that de Klerk’s mandate, as an appointee of Botha, was to support and implement the apartheid system, a system of racial segregation that privileged white South Africans. They were several massacres under his watch.

From 1972 to 1992 there was no doubt over where de Klerk stood as far as racial inequality in South Africa was concerned to the extent that when Botha resigned in 1989, he was an automatic replacement both as the leader of National Party and State President. It is at this stage in the history of Africa in general and South Africa in particular where de Klerk’s character divides opinion.

Some argue that he was a repented villain who allowed negotiations that paved way for democratic transition in South Africa. While others disagree with this notion on three accounts; first that with most African countries having attained independence, their main focus was to ensure South Africa is liberated. Second, the growing domestic animosity and violence triggered unsustainable waves of racial civil war to which de Klerk responded by deploying security forces causing unimaginable massacres, human rights abuses and tensions among black tribes. South Africa was becoming ungovernable and his response to that pressure was an embarrassment to the world. Third, an apartheid system in a world that was advancing equality and equal human rights was morally primitive and, therefore, unsustainable to support. So, the apartheid government was on its own.

Upon assuming office, he had the burden of being seen as dismantling the apartheid policy. Of course, domestically he felt the mounting pressure from black people liberation movement groups. He would later relax some policies such as the one on demonstrations, legalised previously banned political parties, freed anti-apartheid activists such as Mandela and allegedly allowed the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations towards the end of apartheid in South Africa to progress between 1990 and 1993.

But the infamous Boipatong massacre on June, 17, 1992 by de Klerk’s security forces threatened to derail progress or rather was a show of who had power. Soon after the massacre, the African National Congress (ANC) pulled out of the negotiations only to return after assurances by de Klerk that he would control the security forces. Earlier that year, de Klerk had conducted a whites-only referendum seeking consensus to abolish the apartheid system and that outcome was a resounding “yes”with universal suffrage ensuing two years later.

As de Klerk bade farewell to the world, several questions on his legacy linger. Was he a repented man, or a strategic villain?

Did apartheid end in 1994 or de Klerk masterminded a system that brought black people into the political arena while keeping them out of the economy? Was he sincerely apologetic in his last video message or it was a way of making peace with his demise?

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