When one thinks of Frederik Willem de Klerk, the 7th state president of South Africa, one almost instantly thinks of the image of himself and Nelson Mandela holding hands in the air. Our hearts are filled with joy as we recall how crucial this partnership was in building a reconciliatory, democratic South Africa.
Students are taught in History that he was the National Party head who had the guts to stand up to the hard liners in his party, and point out the deeply flawed nature of the Apartheid government. More so, he emphasised and the need to engage in dialogues with the ANC to build a democratic society. These are in turn the exploits which resulted in him winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are a few nuances to this historical picture of De Klerk which I feel are ignored. Firstly , the fact that he was able to stand up to hard liners within the National Party as its leader lays within it an obvious but overlooked truth. The truth that he himself was part of the National Party. As such he was in favour of the principles for which this morally bankrupt political party stood.
These included the notion that black South Africans were not South Africans in the first place, and that as a result of this there should be separate development. More so, that due to those of colour being inferior to the superior white race they did not require the same standard of living as their white counterparts. The fact that he aligned himself with a party which held these views must make us question the rosy picture of this figure which we as South Africans have decided to paint.
Before he became state president he was Minister of Education in the National party government. During this tenure he was notorious for telling white students to spy on their teaches .He is quoted as say if these teachers were spreading progressive ideas or agendas – like the fact that the apartheid system was morally reprehensible- they should report these teachers to the relevant authorities. Does this sound like a figure that is worthy of such acclaims within our history books and a Nobel Peace Prize? I will leave that question to you as the reader to ponder.
To me it has almost seemed like we have applauded De Klerk for gaining a conscience and realising that Aparthied as a system, which he helped entrench, was morally bankrupt. And to make matters worse it seems De Klerk has not even done that. In an interview with the BBC in 2012 he is quoted as saying “What I haven’t apologised for is the original concept of seeking to bring justice to all South Africans through the concept of nation states.” Statements such as these unequivocally show that in his view De Klerk believed in the notion of separate development, but that it was just poorly implemented in the South African context.
Throughout the interview De Klerk defended the concept of “separate but equal” nation states. Later in this interview De Klerk repudiates the effects of apartheid, but not the concept. I believe as South Africans we need to have a honest evolution with ourselves about how we remember our former president and how we engage with him and chose to remember him. Because as his sentiments, such as those shown in his BBC interview, he, in my view, is not a man whom truly espouses the views of an inclusive , representative and unified democratic South Africa.
Mikhail Petersen holds a Bachelors of Social Science degree in Politics and Economic History as well as an LLB from UCT. Mikhail is an intern within the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town.