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Luthuli House in Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Luthuli House in Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

In 2003 I was director of Shawco, the charitable arm of the University of Cape Town, and we arranged a tour for a posse of American students. One of the stops on the itinerary was a lecture by FW de Klerk. I was invited, and snuck into the back row as the 30 Americans gathered around the podium (“De Klerk was a leader at war with his history”, November 11).

FW began by checking that there would be no recording (this was before smartphones), and ensured there were no journalists present. He offered to speak freely, and did — he spoke off the cuff for 15 minutes, painting the general picture of the transition and his subsequent work with The Elders before offering a lengthy question time so he could deal with their questions.

The audience’s questions were hostile — pointed and confrontational: why this, why that, why not ... FW dealt with them all in turn for about 45 minutes, and my takeaway was clear:

  1. The National Party wanted to end apartheid in the early 1980s — for moral, ethical and economic reasons (some Stellenbosch academics had made a strong case for this).
  2. The evidence for this was the breakaway (in 1982) of the Conservative Party faction, which did not want reform.
  3. The problem, as FW saw it, was the Cold War, which was very real in Angola and Mozambique at the time.
  4. The fall of the Berlin wall was the key milestone: FW said he knew at that point that the Cold War was over, that this was the event that led to the unbanning of the ANC and SACP a few months later. In his words, “communism was no longer a threat”.
  5. It was the first time I realised the ANC had little to do with the liberation of SA: the Cold War ending was a far larger factor than sanctions, Umkhonto we Sizwe and so on.
  6. It also explained why the US and UK were at times supportive — or at least not more antagonistic — towards SA: they did not want Southern Africa to go red, or to be involved in another Vietnam.
  7. His comments on feeling alone and isolated after taking the plunge were noteworthy, as was his solution to call for the yes-no referendum. Many fail to remember the circumstances or the outcome of this: many spoke of reverting and then the overwhelming majority endorsed change.

It was the most important history lesson I ever had, one where my understanding of the past was completely changed (I was too young to vote before 1994, and never voted for the NP after). I am sure there is more to the story, but this anecdote is a meaningful contribution to the story of SA, and in line with the facts.

FW and Mandela jointly got the Nobel peace prize, I believe deservedly. It took two to tango, and they danced the Rainbow Nation into democracy.

Greg Bekker 
Via BusinessLIVE

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