FW De Klerk – A holistic approach

FW de Klerk

I refer to Mikhael Petersen’s op-ed on 7 June ‘Why does history judge FW de Klerk so lightly?’ In this piece Petersen refers to certain isolated comments attributed to de Klerk to make a prejudicial judgement of his life and character. The first relates to an allegation that when he was Minister of Education ‘he was notorious for telling white students to spy on their teachers’. 

The second relates to a BBC interview in 2012 in which he claims that de Klerk is quoted as failing to ‘apologize for the original concept of seeking to bring justice to all South Africans through the concept of nation states’. On the basis of merely these and related views he comes to the conclusion that de Klerk ‘is not a man who truly espouses the views of an inclusive, representative and united democratic South Africa’. In defence of F W de Klerk, nothing could be further from the truth.

In fairness to de Klerk this very negative assessment by Petersen needs to be vigorously rebutted with a different more objective viewpoint. I don’t pretend to be totally impartial, but merely to present, as I see it, as a liberal democrat, a more intellectually honest and informed assessment of De Klerk’s role in the remarkable political transition that has occurred in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela in his monumental autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, paid tribute to his fellow Nobel Prize Laureate F W de Klerk in the following words: He had the courage to admit that the terrible wrong had been done to our country and its people through the imposition of the system of apartheid. He had the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants in the process, together determine what they want to make of their future.

Posterity is likely to assess de Klerk as a singular reformer, who acted with both exceptional moral and political courage in contributing with Mandela in taking South Africa from state of notorious injustice and oppression that constituted apartheid to new liberal democratic dispensation, which holds great promise for us as a nation.

His heroic and morally courageous speech of 2 February 1990 in which he announced the unbanning of the liberation movements and the imminent release of Mandela will probably be perceived as one of the most epochal political speeches of 20th century, ranking with Harold Mc Millan’s ‘Winds of Change speech’ delivered in Cape Town, before South African Parliament, in 1960. De Klerk’s speech has been aptly described as a ‘quantum leap’, because it involved not merely incremental reform measures, but a fundamental reform. It involved metaphorically a leap of faith.

Although the relationship between Mandela and de Klerk was indeed as times a tempestuous, the former expressed a belief and respect for the integrity of the latter. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize. This speaks volumes as it was a judgment made by the international community which had for decades had censured the atrocities and oppression of philosophy and practice apartheid in South Africa.

Besides being a person of moral integrity, he proved to be a statesman of consummate ability in the way he managed the politically fraught period of transition. The manifold and testing demands placed on him in relation the turbulent state of the country and the party political problems he faced were extremely demanding, almost insurmountable. In an almost miraculous manner both Mandela and De Klerk were able to put aside their personal differences and act in a mature and statesman like manner.

De Klerk has never claimed to be a saint or pretend that he was perfect or did not make mistakes. In some respects he is a controversial figure and he has his detractors. Nevertheless he is modest about his achievements having walked with ‘Kings, but without losing the common touch’. In retirement he continues to make a significant contribution to reconciliation in SA as well as peace-making in other parts of the world through negotiation and dialogue.

History will, it is submitted, assess him as one of the exceptional sons of South Africa, who together with Mandela brought into being a liberal democratic dispensation and an exemplary Constitution for this country. In so doing he has acquired an international and domestic reputation that is well deserved.

George Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.