FW de Klerk was a pragmatist – not a man driven by ideology

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Former South African president, FW de Klerk, poses outside his office in Cape Town, South Africa in 1992 (AP)
Former South African president, FW de Klerk, poses outside his office in Cape Town, South Africa in 1992 (AP)

In 1986, I overheard a heated row in a parliamentary corridor between the relatively liberal South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, and fellow cabinet minister, who was also the leader of the most hardline right-wing National Party – FW de Klerk. “You have to retract your statement, you have to apologise, or else you’re dead meat,” shouted De Klerk.

Botha’s crime, in the eyes of hardliners in the National Party, was to have suggested hours earlier – at a briefing for foreign journalists, including me – that it was possible one day for a black man to become president. Pik Botha (no relation to the South African premier PW Botha) humiliatingly apologised in parliament the next day.

Within eight years, the unthinkable became reality. The government – now under President De Klerk – released Nelson Mandela and on May 10, 1994, a black man did indeed become president. De Klerk became his vice-president. (And by the way, Pik Botha joined the ANC.)

I first realised De Klerk may be charting a new course when I ran into him at a by-election (whites-only, of course) in Springs, a conservative town in the heartland of his province, Transvaal. His party was demanding that the government forcibly remove black people from Hillbrow, a downmarket part of Johannesburg that had originally housed only whites, but into which more and more black people were moving. That, in effect, contravened the strict laws of residential apartheid.

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“Why are you forcing blacks and whites to continue living completely separately?” I asked him. I expected the well-rehearsed Nationalist reply that whites and blacks are different and they needed to be fully separated otherwise there would be racial friction. Instead, De Klerk said: “If I let them live together there in Hillbrow, I would face a revolt within my own party, as things now stand.”

I realised right there and then that this man was not driven by ideology. He was a pragmatist, and if aspects of apartheid became an obstacle to his overall ambitions, things might just change. I still did not really believe he or his party would abandon it for some form of joint white-black control, let alone hand over power to the black majority.

I had escaped from South Africa in 1977 after several nasty encounters with the regime’s police as an anti-apartheid student activist, and worked for the BBC in London and Cairo. I was able to slip back into South Africa in the 1980s, to report, using a different name. The longer I stayed, the more I was becoming convinced the country was destined for escalating violence.

Yet an epoch-making moment came about as parliament opened on 2 February, 1990, just months after De Klerk had officially been sworn in as the country’s president. I was watching his formal opening statement on a black-and-white screen inside the home of Nelson Mandela’s first wife Evelyn (I had tracked her down to a remote village in the Transkei, where she ran a small grocery store). We stopped talking for a minute or so, to hear what De Klerk was saying. Both Evelyn and I were astonished. He announced: “We are unbanning the ANC [...] and we are ending the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.”

Evelyn was absolutely delighted – not because she foresaw anything so unlikely as a transfer of political power, but rather because, she explained, Nelson would surely now make sure she and their two remaining children got some financial support. (Nelson’s second wife, Winnie, had garnered and hoarded most of the money being sent to the Mandela family from abroad.)

By March, De Klerk proved as good as his word. Mandela was free. No one expected that De Klerk and Mandela could actually transform the country into a non-racial democratic state. De Klerk and Mandela only pretended to be good friends, while deep underlying distrust remained.

FW De Klerk, right, shakes hands with Nelson Mandela, after they received the Peace Prize in Paris in 1992 (AP)
FW De Klerk, right, shakes hands with Nelson Mandela, after they received the Peace Prize in Paris in 1992 (AP)

But they both worked miracles behind the scenes to quell the threat of uncontainable violence. One of De Klerk’s greatest achievements, seldom recognised, was to ensure that the predominantly white-led South African army did not mount a coup. He also astounded the world by declaring South Africa had a secret nuclear weapons programme, which he would dismantle.

A stroke of genius allowed De Klerk to cede power with astonishing grace. A “sunset clause” was added into the draft constitutional settlement, allowing De Klerk’s party to appoint several key cabinet ministers – including De Klerk as first deputy president.

To me, the most moving moment came during the presidential inauguration at the formerly all-white seat of power in Pretoria – the ornate Union Buildings. Through a security breach, I found myself ensconced in the small amphitheatre alongside De Klerk and top ANC and National Party bigwigs. I sat alongside around 60 heads of state and prime ministers, as more than a dozen jet fighters roared overhead. They were coming in peace – to salute their new rulers, leaving trails of smoke in their wake.

Still, De Klerk made a really crucial mistake, thanks to what I am sure was his own ego and hubris. He found it hard to come to terms with how little influence he was having in the post-apartheid government – and within three years, without consulting the rest of his party, he pulled out of the Government of National Unity. Within a short time the party that had founded apartheid had collapsed.

By then though De Klerk had left his greatest legacy: a functioning and peaceful South Africa. Despite his regime’s disgraceful past, he was a living symbol to me and to all of us who fought apartheid, showing that injustice can be successfully combated, and that leopards can change their spots.

Paul Martin is editor-in-chief of MediaZones.net and Correspondent World

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