De Klerk ducked responsibility

THEN president Nelson Mandela, left, and the deputy president F W de Klerk outside Parliament after the approval of South Africas new constitution in 1996. De Klerks role in South Africas transition to democracy was motivated by circumstance, says the writer.

Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are. This was a mantra my granny often used and probably lived by. Google says that motivational speaker, Randy Gravitt, upgraded the mantra a bit by stating: show me your friends and I’ll tell you your future. Gravitt says that he was able to update the version by basing it on the scriptures. A biblical concept, he contends, from the Book of Proverbs: “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.”

Mikhael Petersen, based on his onion piece, “Why does history judge FW de Klerk so lightly?”, probably needs no need to seek for friends for he may well find many. However, UKZN Professor Emeritus, George Devenish, clearly shows who his friends are in his response to Petersen’s piece. 

Devenish appeals to Nelson Mandela and his “exceptional moral and political courage” to point out the contribution De Klerk made to contemporary South Africa. The professor points out their joint peace prize as a means of speaking “volumes as it was a judgement made by the international community which had for decades had censured the atrocities and oppression of philosophy and practice of apartheid.”

Sadly, one has to question whether De Klerk is “a person of moral integrity.” Not sure whether either Petersen, or Devenish in his follow-up, was correct in citing a BBC rather than a CNN report, De Klerk, whose legacy Professor Devenish wishes to defend, refused flatly to declare apartheid as system that was morally repugnant. 

In his interview with Christine Amanpour, on CNN, in 2012 De Klerk, insisted on defending apartheid and desisted, over and over, to declare the system, a crime against humanity, as morally repugnant. How can we describe such a man as someone with “moral integrity”? Someone who refuses to take responsibility for the atrocities of apartheid and continued to defend the “original concept”. 

Researchers, like myself, studying South African politics today question what causes leaders in our country, whether in politics, business or civil society, to shy away from taking responsibility. Our leaders seem to think that they can act with impunity and, even worse still, refuse to take responsibility for their decisions in public office.

Daily, South Africans live with the reality that some politicians, public servants and those responsible for service delivery simply do not live up to their duty. Corruption, maladministration, nepotism, inefficiency and at times utter laziness make the majority of people suffer unnecessarily and yet none of these politicians and public servants avail themselves to be held accountable.

Not a single cabinet minister, post 1994, has resigned, of their own accord, because he or she took responsibility for a mishap or misdemeanour. Brian Molefe must be one of the few CEO’s of our state-owned-enterprises who fell on his sword because he took responsibility for what he had done wrong. What makes our leaders fail to take responsibility?

This trend certainly started with the failure of those, like De Klerk, who actively and devoted their lives to pursuing apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was certainly envisaged as a method of holding people responsible for their misdeeds. We were not going to go the Nuremberg trials route but the reality is that people, like De Klerk, have literally gotten off scot-free. 

In the wake of the Ahemd Timol case and holding his alleged murderer responsible, former TRC commissioner, Yasmin Sooka, was recently forced to write to President Ramaphosa requesting a commission of inquiry into, what appears to be, a deliberate cover-up of apartheid atrocities and not holding those responsible who did not apply for or who was denied amnesty. She has also requested an apology from the president at the upcoming SONA to the victims and their families for the state’s failure to hold people responsible.

It would be unthinkable that senior Nazis would not have been held responsible for the Holocaust, yet in South Africa, senior academics, see it fit to defend leaders who allegedly ordered the deaths of thousands, if not millions. “Allegedly” because hitherto South Africans have never had the opportunity for these apartheid leaders, like De Klerk, to be held accountable.

Petersen is right. De Klerk has gotten off too lightly. With the result, a culture of impunity and shying away from taking responsibility for public crimes has been interwoven into our political culture in South Africa. Indeed, we see Professor Devenish now for who he is; for we have seen his friends. Even worse still, because we have made a friend from the likes of De Klerk, South Africa’s future is as bleak as it gets.    

Wesley Seale taught South African politics at Rhodes University and UWC.