FW de Klerk. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
FW de Klerk. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

One of the more unpleasant sights last week was that of EFF leader Julius Malema and his red brigade in parliament disrupting the state of the nation address and making South Africans wait an hour and a half to hear President Cyril Ramaphosa. What looked like the most unseemly aspect of it all was the deeply personal attack on former president FW de Klerk, who was there as a guest of parliament, in line with a convention that sees former presidents and deputy presidents being invited to state of the nation speeches. De Klerk qualified on both counts, as did Jacob Zuma, who was said to be away receiving medical treatment in Cuba.

This being SA, the madness didn’t stop there. Who would have put money on the EFF emerging as the winners out of all that? But somehow they did. By the end of the week, the main topic of discussion was not their childish and undemocratic behaviour, but the opposition DA’s troubled relationship with the country’s past.

It’s especially odd since the person who started all the trouble, De Klerk, was never a leader of the party or a member.  Instead of taking the moral high ground, somebody at the foundation run by SA’s last apartheid leader decided on Friday it was a good idea to issue a provocative and offensive statement denying that apartheid was a crime against humanity, but rather that characterising it as such was Soviet propaganda.

It was as if someone had turned the clock back to 1980 and the days of the “rooi gevaar”. That was an offensive term in itself, with the implication that black people who were resisting racial oppression couldn’t think for themselves and were being used by evil communists.

De Klerk himself issued a statement on Monday acknowledging this was unwise, having received a deluge of condemnation from across the country, including from the champions of reconciliation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah. Tutu, one of the last of the great South Africans and the man who gave us the term “rainbow nation”, must have been especially hurt by these utterances, noting that they had the potential to reverse the gains made since apartheid ended.

SA is still a fundamentally damaged country gripped by inequality and unacceptable levels of poverty. While those who seek to exploit that for their own ends have enough tools to sow division, the silent majority do strive in the course of their daily lives for healing and true reconciliation. So one would expect responsible leaders to refrain from actions that sow division and make the task of reconciliation even harder.  

But what is to be said about the DA? For a party that has ambitions of one day winning power,  its reaction to the controversy cannot be described as anything but a spectacular own-goal. It could have easily sat this one out, but some party members such as MP Ghaleb Cachalia felt the need to jump straight into it. People who used this term with reference to apartheid were “cavalier”, he said. It’s not clear if he was referring to UN resolutions from decades ago or to those who merely referred to them.

Offending South Africans wasn’t enough — he also had to bring in references to genocide and antisemitism. Of course, he didn’t bother with examples of where or when charges of antisemitism were not made with what he would regard as the required care.  This is especially unfortunate as it comes at a time when hate crimes against Jewish people are on the rise. The New York Times reported recently that more than half of all hate crimes committed in the city in 2019 were aimed at Jewish people. 

Not one to resist the temptation to immerse herself in unnecessary controversy, former DA leader and current federal council chair Helen Zille retweeted Cachalia’s statement, which highlighted the struggle interim leader John Steenhuisen faces if he is to stabilise the party and make it a national force.

At the weekend, Steenhuisen launched his bid to be the DA’s permanent leader. But hardly anyone would have noticed his pitch and policy prescriptions because the party was having a loud debate with itself about how bad apartheid really was. 

With friends like Zille and Cachalia, who needs enemies?