Unpacking the role of De Klerk – an accidental icon

THEN president Nelson Mandela and then 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.

There is no doubt that corruption is the greatest threat to our democracy. Everyone agrees. The recent moves to address the rot at Bosasa and other state-owned enterprises, and the general anti-corruption posturing of Ramaphosa has inspired renewed hope and confidence in our country. This past week, when sections of society celebrate the role played by former President FW de Klerk in February 1990, 29 years ago, when he is said to have changed the course of South African history, we should remember that he represented a party synonymous with corruption of the highest order; and it was his party that plunged South Africa into its deepest crisis ever in the late Eighties. Hennie van Vuuren’s Apartheid Guns and Money is well worth a read in this regard. 

FW de Klerk certainly did not take a suicidal leap of faith in February 1990, because he wanted to change the course of history. There was just too much happening around him. The country was in flames. The late 1980s saw the apartheid state plunged into its deepest crisis ever. Revolution was knocking. Hundreds of thousands of people, of all races, were taking to the streets in a mass democratic movement. Apartheid laws were routinely flouted, forcing the authorities to either relent or turn a blind eye. The country wobbled on the precipice of ungovernability. The former National Party was in complete disarray. PW Botha, the “Groot Krokodil”, under whose watch the tentative overtures were being made to the then incarcerated Nelson Mandela and exiled ANC, was ousted. 

The new leadership under De Klerk was hardly enlightened. In fact, many pondered why De Klerk had not earlier gone with Andries Treurnicht’s “verkrampte” bloc into the Conservative Party. One can surmise that the puppet masters on Diagonal Street, Wall Street, in Whitehall and Washington DC had some ideas. Big business and apartheid’s traditional supporters in the councils of the world were willing to hedge their bets on De Klerk, despite the fact that sanctions and disinvestment were biting. Capital was in flight. Outspan oranges were rotting in the warehouses. Fine Cape wines were being turned back from ports like Dublin, Rotterdam and Le Havre. Kruger- rands were stockpiling in the South African Mint. 

Thousands of South African whites were cutting and running to places like Perth and Toronto. White mothers, Afrikaner and English, were receiving their sons in body bags from the border. They were seeing through Pretoria’s tales about the noble, Christian war being waged against the so-called black communist terrorists. The “verligte” among their ranks were heading to talks with the ANC in Dakar and other capitals on the continent. The apartheid state was a diplomatic polecat with its ambassadors forced to turn tail and head home, unwanted and unloved. The ANC and, to a lesser extent, the PAC, were gaining respectability in the capitals of the world, with their chief representatives elevated to the status of ambassadors. 

Both sides of the Atlantic were deeply antagonistic to black majority rule in South Africa. One need not scratch too deeply in the official statements to discern that. As the 1980s drew to a close, De Klerk was up against the ropes clutching at the wobbly lifeline thrown from London and Washington. Internal insurrection was at its peak. The armed insurgency was scoring huge propaganda victories even if its actual military capacity was limited. De Klerk was not looking for a Nobel Peace Prize. He was looking to defend the interests of big business and, to put it crudely, whatever vestiges of white privilege that could be protected. 

The ANC also faced a conundrum. Thirty years underground, in exile and in jail, were taking their toll. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the unbundling of the Soviet Union all but put paid to a bulwark of financial, military and diplomatic support. Former Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was slashing a political swathe with perestroika and glasnost. The old world was changing and very fast. If the ANC ignored De Klerk’s overtures, it risked losing control of a runaway transition from authoritarian rule to an as-yet unknown alternative. The rest of the story has been told in countless volumes. 

Looking back 29 years, there is no amount of revisionist claptrap that can take away the fact that De Klerk was marched into the transition, kicking and screaming. He is an accidental icon; and no herwo in my book. 

Imran Buccus is a senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.