The man who still divides South Africa


FW de Klerk and his wife Elita Georgiades at the State of the Nation address at the Parliament opening in Cape Town, South Africa on February 9, 2012.

For some in South Africa, FW de Klerk was a great statesman, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped put an end to the system of legalized racism he inherited.

For others, he benefited enormously from that same system and deserved to be prosecuted for his many crimes.

Indeed, he was a man of many sides.

The 85-year-old was the last president of South Africa’s apartheid. During his tenure, the security forces inflicted extreme violence against black South Africans who simply wanted the country’s white minority rule to end, fighting for the release of Nelson Mandela and other leaders from prison.

Apartheid was not long ago and remains extremely crude in South Africa, not least because no one was prosecuted for the violence of the time. The crimes were committed – his victims are traceable – but there were no criminals, it seems.

Some people believe that De Klerk could and should have done more to change the situation, to ensure accountability for what the apartheid system has done to black lives and the violence of his government, and also that he should have faced the justice.

After all, it has been inside for many decades – it had a front row seat on the apartheid machinery at work and had benefited from it for many years.

‘Moment of Change’

A lawyer by training, who has been a National Party MP since 1972, De Klerk was well acquainted with the party that created apartheid and found a way to work within its structures to rise to the top, although he was undoubtedly more moderate in the his views compared to his predecessors.

It is perhaps this that allowed him to carefully guide even the most visceral defenders of the apartheid system within his party at the negotiating table where Mandela was offering the chance to help rebuild the country – a negotiated path from that. which many believed would have been a bloodbath.

The Archbishop Desmond Tutu Foundation recognized his contribution to the democratic transition:

“The late FW De Klerk played an important role in South Africa’s history. At a time when not all of his colleagues saw the country’s future trajectory unfold in the same way, he recognized the moment of change and showed a willingness to act. it. “

The custodians of Nelson Mandela’s legacy, with whom De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize, have punctually described him as a person with a “large” but also “irregular” inheritance.

Nelson Mandela and President FW de Klerk at the peace signing ceremony during the pre-election violence

Nelson Mandela did not think that FW de Klerk was a “great emancipator”

De Klerk chose to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC) at a time when many countries around the world and former allies had turned their backs on the National Party and their government was far from bankrupt. Skeptics say he was more of a pragmatist than an idealist – that he had little choice.

In his book, Long Path to Freedom, Mandela was quite clear: “Despite his seemingly progressive actions, Mr. de Klerk was by no means the great emancipator.

“He didn’t make any of his reforms with the intention of evading power. He did them for the very opposite reason: to grant power to the Afrikaner in a new dispensation.”

“Coward” and “sold out”

However, this decision alienated him from many in his party and years later some in his Afrikaner community still saw De Klerk as a traitor.

Some years ago I visited the white-only town of Orania – Home of people disillusioned with the dream of the “rainbow nation”, who choose instead to live in isolation.

There on a hill, in the small town where the old apartheid flag continued to fly and the bronze statues of the past leaders of the apartheid government were proudly displayed, De Klerk had disappeared, crossed from their list of “heroes”.

The people I spoke to saw him as a coward and believed he had sold them.

Even at the end, De Klerk seemed to be troubled by his place in South Africa as he battled the disease.

In the video message released since its founding shortly after his death, a frail-looking De Klerk claimed that while he had once supported the “separate development” project as he called apartheid, by the 1980s he had “changed completely” .

FW de Klerk campaigning in Soweto, South Africa, on March 15, 1994

The election campaign of FW de Klerk in 1994

He described this change of heart as a conversion and said that this is why he agreed to negotiate with Mandela and other political leaders.

He added that in the years that have passed since the end of the oppressive regime he had done everything possible to continue denouncing him, despite his skepticism.

“Let me repeat today in this last message: I, unreservedly, apologize for the pain, pain, humiliation and damage that apartheid has done to blacks, browns and Indians in South Africa,” he said. called De Klerk. in a video dubbed his “final message”.

For most South Africans, the apartheid legacy has led to millions of people living in poverty and persistent inequality.

Some here believe the compensation did not come in large part because there is no shared recognition that apartheid continued to go unpunished – De Klerk’s death leaves awkward questions about how to deal with this.

“De Klerk attended the State Security Council meeting where they discussed the fate of Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata in 1984 and 1985,” said Lukhanyo Calata of the Fort Calata Foundation.

His father, Fort Calata, was an anti-apartheid activist and was assassinated along with Matthew Goniwe and two other men by the apartheid police in 1985, the so-called Cradock Four.

He has worked for years for justice and in June of this year he turned to the courts to help them prosecute the apartheid-era murders. A sentence is still pending.

“It is sad that another apartheid criminal died without realizing the crimes he helped perpetrate against our humanity,” Calata said.

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