In Shakespeare’s drama about the plot to kill Julius Caesar, the 16th century bard has Brutus warn fellow conspirator Cassius that the time for action had arrived.  

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,” says Brutus, “which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

For F W de Klerk the tide reached flood in November 1989 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev lifted Moscow’s boot from the necks of 70 million East Europeans, allowing the Berlin Wall to fall and freedom to flourish.

Communism, De Klerk correctly surmised, was dying and this was the moment for Afrikaners to break with their sordid past and make bold decisions to assure their survival. 

As with Gorbachev in November, De Klerk shocked South Africa and the world in February 1990 announcing not only an end to apartheid, but the unbanning of the communist party and African National Congress, and the release of political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, who had been confined for 27 years.

De Klerk was 54 and had been South African president for only five months. He unexpectedly ascended to the presidency when failing health forced hard-line nationalist P W Botha to resign. De Klerk was relatively inexperienced but from a prominent, loyal Afrikaans family, and party elders believed they had placed the leadership in safe hands.

Eminent South African journalist Alistair Sparks was astonished at the scope of De Klerk’s message to Parliament in Cape Town. “My god,” Sparks exclaimed afterwards, “he’s done it all.” 

From that moment it was apparent that something momentous had occurred. Afrikaner dominance over South Africa’s black majority would end.

Afrikaners and a sizeable number of English-speaking whites were shocked. There were shouts of betrayal but the ruling minority was exhausted from years of war, unrest, isolation, and sanctions. South Africans were hungry for change.

De Klerk’s chosen interlocutor was Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, the long-established liberation movement banned at home but active in exile, particularly in the east bloc.

Nine days after De Klerk’s epic speech Nelson Mandela walked free to rapturous welcomes, touching off waves of celebration. Freedom was coming and the evil system of apartheid – often compared to Hitler’s Germany – was on the run. 

All-party negotiations to produce a constitution enshrining the rule of law, human rights, and full democracy went on for years. But a deal was struck – full democracy, an independent judiciary, preservation of private property. Former US supreme court justice, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called South Africa’s constitution “a great piece of work, one of the world’s best.”

The ANC won a landslide victory in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, securing 63% of the vote. Nelson Mandela at age 75 succeeded De Klerk as president.

De Klerk did more than end apartheid and free Mandela. In 1991 he dismantled South Africa’s nuclear arsenal, destroying its six nuclear bombs and signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It was the first instance of nuclear rollback.

In addition, De Klerk’s bold move spared South Africa the death and destruction of a costly, unwinnable guerrilla war like the one in neighbouring Zimbabwe that dragged on for eight years and cost 20 000 lives.

Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk in 1993 were joint recipients of the Nobel peace prize.  The Nobel citation praised the two leaders “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”

Having been a reporter in South Africa during some of the darkest days of apartheid I returned to the rainbow nation in 2010 after a 24-year absence. On my first day back I met a rotund, friendly Afrikaner, Gert, whose job was selling the country’s ageing Mirage fighter planes to needy African states.

Gert was all smiles, telling me how good things were. “We had to change,” he said, “but it’s harder for older people.” Asked what he thought of De Klerk, he paused. “My father,” said Gert, “wanted to kill him. But for me, he’s fine. He had to do a deal.”

De Klerk had the courage to take a bold decision with gigantic risks. Heeding Shakespeare’s dictum, he acted when the circumstances around him were most advantageous. Did his action lead on to fortune? No, but I suspect that in the fullness of time history will judge de Klerk favourably.

Barry D. Wood was a reporter in South Africa from 1974 to 1977, and since 2010 has returned six times. 

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at Watch