It is a testament to the irreducible contribution of F W de Klerk – who succumbed to cancer yesterday, aged 85 – that if the inter-war world into which he was born made him the man he became, his own role was profound and far-reaching in shaping the world in which he died.  

In just a few moments – the less than a minute, perhaps, that it took De Klerk to announce the unbanning of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party in his opening of Parliament speech on the morning of 2 February 1990 – South African life was altered irrevocably and politics was steered right off the chart.

There will always be arguments about the true scale of his agency; by the end of the 1980s, apartheid was, in the customary idiom, already collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. In a world almost universally hostile – for good reason – to South Africa’s racialised order and the ‘racist regime’ of which De Klerk was made leader in the closing months of 1989, was a political settlement not inevitable?

Equally, as De Klerk himself argued, his own initiatives were less a departure from than an extension of the reformist efforts of his predecessors – all of which were driven as much by the economic imperatives of socio-economic freedoms as the moral force of intensifying opposition, domestically and internationally.

Doubtless, unsung millions made choices and acted in ways that fashioned the conditions of crisis and opportunity.

But which would it be? It is inescapable that in the early weeks of 1990, De Klerk understood the cost of mistaking the crisis, and of misappreciating the opportunity, and acted decisively.

The risks were very great. It is a matter of tragic fact that more people died in political conflict between 1990 and 1994 than during the entire 1980s, when apartheid reached its brutal apogee. To be sure, there were missteps and errors of judgement. But to De Klerk must go a large measure of credit for a transition that was constitutional, not revolutionary, and so provided a credible basis for the democratic statehood that was for so long considered a liberal pipe dream.

In his final posthumous address, De Klerk himself exhorts South Africans to cleave to the ‘courage and ingenuity’ now required to sustain the constitutional democratic order he played so great a part in bringing into being.

Whether they are moved to honour him or not, thoughtful South Africans will recognise that it was precisely his own courage and ingenuity that enabled De Klerk to be persuasive and convincing in keeping his constituency with him in working towards a lasting settlement.

As he foresaw it in his 2 February 1990 speech – which the Daily Friend publishes in full today – this settlement would deliver a ‘totally new and just constitutional dispensation in which every inhabitant will enjoy equal rights, treatment and opportunity in every sphere of endeavour – constitutional, social and economic’.

This was a vision which, for many at the time, seemed breathtakingly unthinkable. Strikingly, it was a vision which, for much of his political life, De Klerk had fiercely opposed. When he changed his mind, it made all the difference – not least because he was determined that it should.

Much will continue to be made of the sufficiency or otherwise of his stated contrition about the devastation caused by apartheid. It’s unlikely the question will ever be settled. Yet, if he was not alone in making a democratic South Africa a viable reality, it is surely incontestable that his very considerable investment in it will remain his honourable legacy.

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