The furious disagreement over how we should remember F W de Klerk arguably draws more attention to the political dynamics of South Africa today than to those of the country that the late National Party leader tipped towards its democratic transition three decades ago.

In a world in which growing legions seem willing to be swayed by the fantastic promise of human perfectibility, it’s perhaps no surprise that the death of the former president has rekindled so widely the uncomplicated moral judgement of South Africa’s ‘last white leader’ as an irredeemably tarnished figure on the grounds that the only meaningful test of his character, which he is held to have failed, was to confess that he was a criminal against humanity.

Having lived through apartheid’s last three decades, I have always tried to make room for an appreciation of the sum of feeling and memory that, as hurdles go, must form an alp for the vast majority of South Africans, and to consider that it is a lot to ask people to scale it and, reaching the other side, summon whatever it takes to look back and be moved to forgive.

Indeed, it is a marvel of the South African condition that the magnanimity is so great.

It is at least understandable that, a quarter of a century later, many will subscribe to the view expressed by Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s clip shared on Twitter this past week that De Klerk was merely undoing what shouldn’t have been done in the first place, so nullifying the ardour of his praise singers.

Yet, it was precisely this undoing that was the notable feat.

De Klerk’s was a volte-face that was neither self-serving nor capricious but bore directly and deliberately on the material fate of the South African people, and was in any event predicated on his surrendering his status and influence to a larger process his own actions made inevitable, and whose outcome was unpredictable.

Vanishingly insignificant

Against this, the De Klerk confession-that-never-was, which some seemed to have pinned their hopes on (for what purpose, it’s hard to tell), is vanishingly insignificant.

Of course, the historical moment at the end of the 1980s was propitious, and, as the Daily Friend editorial on Friday pointed out, apartheid itself was on its knees. For all that, if a collapse of some kind was inevitable, the striking thing about De Klerk’s initiative was that it handed the country the opportunity to pre-empt a meltdown – which, while undoubtedly benefiting his successors, saved South Africa’s people from the consequences of the deeper crisis that surely loomed.

I often got the feeling that De Klerk’s thorough, rational preparation for the change he sprang first on his party (he described how the NP parliamentary caucus was ‘a bit stunned’ and that there was an ‘almost eerie’ absence of resistance), then on the country tended to obscure his actually unequivocal re-assessment of apartheid.


It was a status quo, he told me in an interview on the eve of the 10th anniversary of his 1990 speech, ‘that could basically be defined as injustice’.

‘My platform was not just that we had to avert a problem and therefore that we had to do what I advocated. I advocated it on the basis that we could not secure a safe future unless it was based on a foundation of justice for all. I said very clearly that separate development had resulted in a situation which was morally unjustifiable, which could basically be defined as injustice, and that we could not build the security of one section of the population on the basis of injustice to the majority of the population. So, for reasons of principle, for moral reasons, religious reasons, we had to change dramatically to bring justice to all.

Responding to claims that he was perceived as cold and unfeeling, he said:

I am not a cold fish in the sense that I am just clinical and methodical and coldly logical and have no feelings or emotions. But my legal training, firstly, has influenced me to first get all the facts, analyse a problem and decide what cannot be changed, and then to decide, within that framework, and the framework of the value system in which I believe, what must be done. So, yes, I am methodical. I think it is an essential principle of the management of change that if you want to achieve good results, if you want to take your constituency along with you, you have to be methodical and you have to be sharply analytical. You have to have a well-thought through masterplan which must be adaptable in a situation where there is negotiation, and of course that means compromise, from both sides. Had we not done that, and developed this approach, I do not think we would have succeeded.

Wholly certain

It was no surprise that he was wholly certain of his address to Parliament on 2 February 1990, ‘the speech I worked most on in my whole life’.

I had no doubts … I was sure that I was doing the right thing, that there was really no alternative to the fundamental underlying principles in the speech.’

He was convinced, in early 2000, that were the 1992 pro-reform referendum to be re-run, ‘we would still win it’.

I believe that the majority of those who would vote yes realise that the new South Africa, warts and all, with all the problems, and all its concerns because there is reason for grave concern about some issues is much preferable to what the situation would have been in South Africa had we not done what we did at all the major moments. And I urge people not to make the comparison with what they remember liking in the old South Africa and what they now dislike in the new South Africa, but to just imagine if we had not done what we did. And I can tell you, we would not have exported one ton of coal, one case of fruit, one case of wine … the whole world would have been united with the majority of South Africans to overthrow the regime. Unemployment would have been even higher, we would have had a tremendous negative growth rate. Planes would not fly. That’s where we would have been.’

While it is unlikely that there will ever be unanimity about what F W de Klerk represented, taking all of his long political career into consideration, his lasting endowment is surely the example he set not merely in gathering the courage to think beyond the unthinkable, but in taking his followers with him on the journey.

Serious crisis

I am not convinced that even the worst of the crisis today is comparable with apartheid, but it is at least a serious crisis that impinges most heavily and most heartlessly on the very people who suffered most before 1994.

And one does wonder, is there a man or woman in the ruling elite today who could muster the same strength of character and selflessness of vision to put South Africa ahead of their own lifelong beliefs and invest their convictions and influence in realising what to them might be an unthinkable alternative?

[Image: World Economic Forum,]

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IRR head of media Michael Morris was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.