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South Africa on the Edge

The main achievement of South Africa’s state president, F.W. de Klerk, has been to take the difficult political steps necessary to begin dismantling the system of white supremacy. Unfortunately, he has not shown similar courage or wisdom in leading the country toward the future. He has been particularly unsuccessful in dealing with the struggle over what will replace apartheid, which has pitted white against black and black against black, and which has resulted in some of the most appalling violence ever seen in South Africa. Since de Klerk was inaugurated in September 1989, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the townships, largely in fighting among black political groups. A smaller number of people, an estimated 2,300, were killed between 1984 and 1986, the years in which the government used extreme force to suppress black uprisings.1

In the California-like suburbs where many whites reside, life goes on much as usual, but some of the townships, where gunmen stand watch at street barricades and gunfire is heard after nightfall, remind me of Beirut. Nearly every day, the Johannesburg Star, the Sowetan, and other newspapers report new acts of violence in a black community—the ambush of a carload of activists, the assassination of a local leader, the lynching of a suspected informant, indiscriminate shootings of commuters on trains and busses.

De Klerk has blamed the bloodshed on black political intolerance. He has admonished Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, the two most prominent groups representing blacks, to cease their destructive rivalry. Undoubtedly that would help decrease the number of killings; and there is no doubt that the violence between the black groups has been increasingly fierce. What de Klerk ignores, however, is that a large part of the continuing violence derives from repressive and divisive policies conceived and administered by his own National Party. During the past three years he and his fellow party leaders have been working out an approach to political reform that has increased political tensions.

The objective of the Nationalists, to put it no less frankly than de Klerk has done, is to keep themselves in power when apartheid is finally dismantled. I first heard de Klerk say something to this effect in November 1990, when he spoke on behalf of a National Party candidate in a parliamentary by-election in Randburg, a half-Afrikaans, half-English suburb of Johannesburg. During the question period following his prepared speech he said flatly: “We plan to be part of the majority winning the first election.”

If de Klerk now professes to support democracy, it is difficult to see how the party that institutionalized apartheid could expect to win a free election in a country of thirty-three million blacks and five million whites. In formulating its strategy for staying more or less in control, the party, I’ve been told, has drawn on the advice of the National Intelligence Service and the leading members of the Broederbond (“band of brothers”), the secret society that has always been an influential force in Nationalist Party politics. For the party to maintain power, two conditions are necessary.

First, de Klerk would have to negotiate a new constitution that would hinder if not block the ANC’s hopes for majority rule by explicitly giving minority parties, such as the Nationalists, a de facto veto in government decisions. Second, when the first free elections are held, the Nationalists and their coalition allies would have to make a good showing, and win at least 30 percent of the vote. With somewhere between 45 and 60 percent support in recent opinion surveys, the ANC is the country’s single most popular political organization.

From the day that de Klerk gave the order in February 1990 to release Nelson Mandela from prison, he and his colleagues have been engaged not so much in a historic act of reconciliation as in preparing for the toughest re-election fight of their lives. They have made the most of their very considerable assets: control of the country’s television, the tacit support of the powerful military and police apparatus, and a relaxation of international pressure on the Nationalist government. They have kept their adversaries, including the ANC, constantly on the defensive.

As with Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, the loosening of Pretoria’s hold was bound to rekindle political and tribal rivalries. But the Nationalists’ strategy has tended to increase rather than cool down the conflict. Richard Goldstone, a justice of South Africa’s supreme court, who has been conducting an official inquiry into political killings, has repeatedly criticized the government and the security forces for not taking actions that might have reduced the violence in the townships. Instead of producing a climate for putting aside past divisions and negotiating new political arrangements, de Klerk has helped to let loose a scramble for power.

When I arrived in South Africa three years ago, during de Klerk’s presidential campaign, I called on his brother, Willem de Klerk, a professor in the communications department at Rand Afrikaans University, who helped me to understand how deeply the family had been involved in the history of apartheid. Willem’s office is on the university’s Johannesburg campus, a monument to Afrikanerdom in the mining city built by the Oppenheimers and other English-speaking capitalists (“the Hoggenheimers,” as anti-Semitic Afrikaners used to call them). The clean-cut white students might have been at an American Bible college. The modern high-rise classroom buildings were constructed in a broad circle, symbolizing the laager, the wagon circles of the Great Trek, which brought the Afrikaners to the Transvaal from the Cape in the nineteenth century to escape British colonial domination.

Willem, or Wimpie, as everybody calls him, is sixty-four, eight years older than his brother. Speaking in Afrikaans-accented English, he told me that as a young man he had been ordained and served ten years as a Dutch Reformed pastor and then had been a professor of philosophy at the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education. In 1973 he turned to journalism, serving as editor for fourteen years of Die Transvaaler and then of Rapport, two of the largest Afrikaans newspapers. He was fired from Rapport in 1987 when his relatively liberal opinions became too much for its pro-Nationalist owners.

Willem and his brother had many heated arguments about politics over the years. Until he became president, F.W. de Klerk had always been thought of as one of the party’s hardliners. Willem, by contrast, was widely known as the spokesman within the Afrikaner establishment of a verligte, or more enlightened, approach to political relations with blacks. While F. W. was being elected leader of the National Party in February 1989, Willem was helping to establish the Democratic Party, the organization of mainly English-speaking liberals which grew out of the old Progressive Federal Party. Not long after he wrote F.W. De Klerk: The Man in His Time, published in South Africa in 1991, one of the best sources of information about his brother.

Willem jokes that his brother has been in politics since birth. Their father, Johannes de Klerk, who was always called Jan, was an influential Nationalist politician for thirty-seven years. In 1936, when Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg, Jan de Klerk was teaching Afrikaans and other subjects at a local high school. He was also a National Party organizer and he became party secretary for the Johannesburg area. In 1945, he was named secretary of the European Workers Protection Society, organized to safeguard the interests of white garment workers. A year later, he was promoted to chief Nationalist secretary for the Transvaal province.

He was carrying on a family tradition of Afrikaner nationalism and strong racial prejudice: during the 1930s and 1940s a relative, J.C. van Rooy, a professor at Potchefstroom University, was chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the organization established in 1918 to advance Afrikaner power. Jan’s father, an earlier Willem, had been a Nationalist organizer in the Transvaal.

Jan de Klerk became prominent in the party in 1948, when his work as an organizer in the Transvaal helped the Nationalists win an upset victory over Jan Smuts’s United Party. In 1954, Prime Minister Johannes “Hans” Strijdom, a former Nationalist leader in the Transvaal who had married Jan de Klerk’s sister Susan, brought him into the cabinet. For the next fifteen years, Jan was a member of the cabinet of successive Nationalist governments, first under Strijdom until 1958, and later under Hendrik Verwoerd and of John Vorster. He was variously minister of labor, of public works, of mines, of interior, of immigration, of education, arts and sciences, and of information.

Jan de Klerk tended to work behind the scenes, but as a high party and government apparatchik he was a member of the group that created the system of Afrikaner supremacy that was to make South Africa a pariah nation. He fought the 1948 election on the Nationalist platform which called for more rigid segregation than before, and charged that Smuts, a more tolerant Afrikaner with a long association with Britain, would accept unchecked black migration to the cities and would allow South Africa’s traditions of racial separation to break down. The first Nationalist prime minister, Daniel Malan, proceeded to enact legislation requiring strict apartheid in living areas, schools, jobs, and sexual relations.

Strijdom was even more fanatical than Malan. His supporters called him “The Lion of the North,” but his detractors preferred “Heil Hans,” a reference to his apparent pro-Nazi sentiments. In 1940 he presided over the Nationalist Party meeting in the Transvaal that voted to deny membership to Jews. During his four-year term, Strijdom advocated a frankly white supremacist interpretation of apartheid, called baaskaap, or mastership.

Malan had left it to Strijdom’s government to undertake the often brutal measures necessary to carry out apartheid, including the eviction of thousands of blacks and Indians from their homes. As Strijdom’s labor minister, Jan de Klerk supervised an amendment that legalized the previously informal system of reserving the better jobs, even menial ones, for whites. Overnight, all the black elevator operators in Johannesburg were discharged.

The Nationalist measures provoked an angry backlash among blacks, and Strijdom’s government increased its repression. Just before Christmas in 1956, the authorities arrested 156 anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, and put them on trial for treason. By 1961 they were acquitted, but one year later, under Verwoerd, the authorities again arrested Mandela, after he had formed the ANC’s guerrilla wing, and sentenced him to life in prison for trying to overthrow the government.

According to Willem, “F.W.,” as he has been called since childhood, was close to their father during the years when the Nationalists were consolidating their power. Father and son spent many holidays with the Strijdoms at their estate in the Kruger National Park. “He was quite somebody, my father,” Willem told me. “Capable. Active. Charming. Warm. A man who could present himself to the public. The typical politician. A real conservative.” Jan’s second son grew up to be “an Afrikaner establishment man.”

  1. 1

    Figures were taken from State of the National Report, South African Institute of Race Relations, January 1993.

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