Former president FW de Klerk spaks in Washington, DC, on May 5 2009. Picture: CHIP SOMODEVILLA
Former president FW de Klerk spaks in Washington, DC, on May 5 2009. Picture: CHIP SOMODEVILLA

Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk will always have a place in SA history as a central figure who paved the way for democracy. It was he who, after replacing PW Botha in 1989, sanctioned the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and, ultimately, the end of apartheid.

His later unwillingness to take full responsibility for the horrors of the system he presided over will, unfortunately, also be difficult to forget.

To understand De Klerk, one must have some grasp of the world from which he came. Born into an influential Afrikaner family on March 18, 1936 in Johannesburg, he was 12 years old when the National Party took power.

The ideology of Afrikaner nationalism had been born in the previous century, largely as a result of the Boer wars. Afrikaners had been subjected to brutal abuse at the hands of British soldiers. 

In his book The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaire’s Club, Pieter du Toit explains that the Afrikaners rose from being a close-knit traumatised community terrified of conventional capitalism and big institutions through supporting institutions created by their own for their own.

With the National Party’s 1948 national election victory, this ideology cemented its rise from the margins to the mainstream of SA society. To play a role in the end of apartheid, De Klerk, who had family ties to the National Party, had to accept being branded a traitor in his own community.

De Klerk studied at Potchefstroom University (now North West University after a merger) and pursued a career in law. After being elected to parliament under Botha, he replaced him as leader of the National Party, then as president, in 1989.

He was expected to continue the system of racial segregation and repression of dissent that had served his party so well until that point.

However, economic sanctions from the international community and the end of the Cold War each undoubtedly played a role in De Klerk smelling the coffee and realising that SA’s situation had become untenable.

On February 2, 1990, De Klerk gave a speech at the opening of parliament in Cape Town that stunned the world. He announced a series of reforms, including the unbanning of the ANC, the SA Communist Party (SACP) and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC).

Together with Nelson Mandela and other stakeholders, De Klerk negotiated the end of apartheid. On December 10, 1993, he and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For two years after SA’s first democratic elections in 1994, he served as the country’s deputy president with Thabo Mbeki.

However, there are many human rights activists who will never view De Klerk as the national hero which many in the international community may know him as.

In 1993, De Klerk apologised for the harmful effects of apartheid, saying: “It was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and to cause misery, but eventually apartheid led to just that. Insofar as to what occurred we deeply regret it... Yes, we are sorry.”

Though Archbishop Desmond Tutu publicly urged South Africans to accept De Klerk’s apology, he was reportedly privately frustrated that De Klerk refused to acknowledge apartheid as a fundamentally evil system.

Whatever Tutu did or did not feel during that moment, there can be no speculation over the outrage that De Klerk would go on to cause when he declared as recently as 2020 in an interview with SABC that he was “not fully agreeing” with the definition of apartheid as a crime against humanity.

He would later go on to apologise through his foundation for “the confusion, anger and hurt” his words had caused, but three decades after his speech in parliament, this was but one of many inflammatory statements he had made downplaying the horrors of the National Party’s reign of terror.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), he frustrated South Africans by claiming ignorance of the human rights abuses committed by Vlakplaas commanders during apartheid.

De Klerk conceded that “unconventional strategies” had been used by the apartheid state’s security forces to quell uprising and dissent, but added that “within my knowledge and experience, they never included the authorisation of assassination, murder, torture, rape, assault or the like”.

Former state president FW de Klerk died at his home in Cape Town on Thursday at the age of 85.

On the basis that he had been told as state president that PW Botha had authorised the bombing of Khotso House in 1988, but had not revealed this information to the TRC, De Klerk was initially found guilty of being an accessory to gross violations of human rights. 

The final TRC report in 2002 was more moderate in its condemnation of De Klerk, but nevertheless found that he had not made a full disclosure of events under his presidency and labelled his claim that none of his colleagues had sanctioned severe human rights abuses “indefensible”.

De Klerk was also widely accused of sanctioning violence between Xhosa and Zulu people as democracy dawned upon SA.

Nevertheless, De Klerk, a product of a violent system, certainly took steps throughout his political career which went some way, if not all the way, to dismantling it.

From playing a role in ending SA’s nuclear weapons programme to allowing members of previously banned political parties to take to the street, there were many steps he took which were once controversial in the Afrikaner community, but ultimately momentous in SA history.

He passed away in Fresnaye, Cape Town, on November 11, 2021, after a lengthy battle against cancer. De Klerk is survived by his wife Elita, two children Susan and Jan, and his grandchildren.

He leaves behind a country which, for all its many faults today, contains an infinitely greater number of redeeming qualities than the land he took charge of in 1989.

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