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South Africa on the Edge

As an undergraduate law student at Potchefstroom, the younger de Klerk was vice-chairman of the student council, an executive member of the Afrikaanse Studentebond, either of the student newspaper, and active in the National Party’s youth wing. He was a minor celebrity on campus because his uncle was prime minister and his father was in the cabinet. Not long after graduation, de Klerk set up a law practice in Vereeniging, a conservative industrial city south of Johannesburg. He began dabbling in local Nationalist politics and in 1964 was invited, like his father and brother before him, to join the Broederbond.

In 1972, while his father was serving as president of the senate, F.W. de Klerk stood for a seat in parliament and won. As Jan’s son, he moved swiftly up the ranks. At age forty-two, young by Nationalist standards, Vorster made him a minister, in charge of white social welfare and pensions, and he went on to become minister of sport, of post and communications, of mining, of interior, and of white education. He gained experience in running white South Africa, but he did nothing in particular to distinguish himself, seeming to take pride in his party obedience. “The silver thread throughout my career,” he has said, “was my advocacy of National Party policy in all its various formulations. I refrained from adjusting that policy or adapting it to my own liking or convictions. I analyzed it as it was formulated, to the letter.”2

De Klerk’s first notable achievement was in helping to defeat the threat to Nationalist dominance that was posed by Andries Treurnicht, the ultranationalist Transvaal party leader who, in 1982, formed the new Conservative Party, which is committed to strict apartheid. Nationalist elders turned to de Klerk to take on Treurnicht and stop the flow of Transvaal followers to the new right-wing Afrikaner camp. In February 1989, President P.W. Botha resigned as party leader following a stroke, and the Nationalist caucus elected de Klerk to succeed him. After three rounds of voting, he defeated Barend du Plessis, the finance minister, by a vote of 69 to 61. De Klerk became acting president six months later when Botha was forced to retire, and he was elected to a full five-year term in September.

Ironically, de Klerk was regarded as the conservative, Du Plessis the reformer. When I spoke with Willem de Klerk in September 1989, however, he was optimistic that F.W. could bring about change. “For the first time in his life,” Willem told me, “he is really being exposed directly to international attitudes, African attitudes, and to the black leadership within South Africa. As he is a pragmatist, I am sure this exposure will be for the good. He acknowledges that, to be successful, he must introduce solutions.”

De Klerk made history on February 2, 1990, when he announced in an opening session of parliament that his government was lifting the bans on liberation groups, easing security measures, and releasing Mandela. I was in Cape Town that day, and everybody I spoke with, including anti-apartheid leaders like Reverend Allan Boesak, was surprised by the boldness of de Klerk’s moves. What was new about the speech was its unequivocal acknowledgment that the various liberation groups, and not merely blacks of Pretoria’s liking, must be directly involved in negotiating the country’s future.

The truth, though, is that, as some of his colleagues have acknowledged, de Klerk acted because apartheid was reaching a state of acute crisis as a result of mounting social and economic pressures, exacerbated by sanctions, withdrawal of investment, and loan cancellations. South Africa has had a zero or minus-zero economic growth rate in each of de Klerk’s years in office. Notwithstanding the to-hell-with-the-world posturing of the Nationalist leaders, international isolation was a devastating blow. Du Plessis, the minister of finance from 1984 until his retirement this year, recently said in a radio interview:

There would have come a time when the backlogs [i.e., unmet social costs] would have become so large as a result of the extremely large numbers of unemployed people that there is no way any government could have governed this country. So, we had to move politically, internally, to change the situation.

With the demise of communism, de Klerk saw the chance to make a virtue of necessity; he was convinced that any strategic gain the ANC would make if it were legalized would be offset by the benefits to the Nationalists, such as a greatly improved international image. “The ANC,” he said in 1991, “was formerly an instrument of Russian expansionism in southern Africa. When that threat fell away, the carpet was pulled from under the ANC. Its base of financing, counselling and moral support had crumbled. It was as if God had taken a hand, a new turn in world history. We had to seize the opportunity.”3

De Klerk accepts credit for taking the initiative in changing government policy, but he also emphasizes that the reforms were drawn up by the cabinet and then unanimously approved by his party colleagues. He praises his fellow ministers, notably the justice minister, Kobie Coetsee, for having earlier laid the groundwork for the reforms. Amid the turmoil of the mid-1980s, Coetsee and then other officials had secret meetings with Mandela, at Mandela’s request, aimed at resolving the country’s racial conflict.

Coetsee had Mandela driven from his prison quarters and brought to Coetsee’s house for discussions about history and politics. By the time de Klerk released Mandela, he had twice met with him himself and had become confident that Mandela would be willing to negotiate with him in good faith. In his speech from Cape Town City Hall only a few hours after his release, Mandela pointedly described de Klerk as a “man of integrity.”

De Klerk has had remarkable success in changing the sinister image of the National Party. Blacks still do not have the vote, the government remains bloated with Afrikaner bureaucrats and state-managed industries, yet the Nationalists have appeared to reinvent themselves as the party of democracy and free enterprise. Simply by agreeing to negotiate, de Klerk gained acceptance for the idea that his party has as much right as any other political group to govern the “new South Africa.” Part of his success is explained by the contrast between de Klerk, an unassuming and approachable man, and such arrogant leaders as Strijdom and P.W. Botha. AndrĂŠ Brink, the Afrikaans novelist, who went to school with de Klerk in Potchefstroom, described him as “a man who wants to be liked.”

As South African leader between 1978 and 1989, Botha started out as a reformer but came to manage the apartheid crisis in the manner of Pinochet. A former defense minister, he ignored his cabinet and parliament and used the security forces to enforce his “Total Strategy” against the “Total Onslaught” on South Africa by global communism. De Klerk immediately restored the primacy of parliament in Nationalist rule. “The most important thing about de Klerk,” a British diplomat told me in 1989, “is that he is a civilian.”

By his own testimony, however, de Klerk has been doing nothing more remarkable than putting into effect a Nationalist reform policy adopted nearly a decade before he took office. Ideologically, the great leap, such as it was, actually occurred under Botha early in his administration. Two years after the Soweto uprisings of 1976, he began to dismantle the policy of “separate development,” Verwoerd’s ruthless, expensive, and ultimately unworkable policy of banishing blacks to remote and impoverished tribal homelands so that South Africa could be purely white.

Botha proposed a system of “power sharing,” as distinct from the ANC’s idea of “majority rule.” In what Nationalists regard as the first stage of power sharing with nonwhites, Botha changed the constitution in 1984 to enable Indians and Coloreds to have representation in racially segregated chambers in parliament. The so-called “tricameral parliament” was a sham because it kept all meaningful power, including responsibility for the armed forces and the economy, in the hands of the white chamber. It provoked the black reaction that led Botha’s security forces to clamp down on most forms of black protest. It nonetheless introduced a precedent that gave a jolt to many Nationalists: it tacitly accepted that South Africa was a unitary and multiracial country where whites would no longer have exclusive political power.

De Klerk sees his political policies as essentially in line with Botha’s. The difference is largely tactical: where Botha hesitated, de Klerk had the courage to start serious negotiations with blacks and to accept the implication contained in “power sharing”: the days of unilateral white decision-making are over. In his brother’s book, he justifies himself as follows:

When those of us in the inner circles, courageously led by P.W. Botha, had reached the conclusion that our policy had to shift from separate development to power sharing, I gave it my full support. Once we had gone through the process of reassessment I took a leap in my own mind, more decisively than many other National Party politicians, that power sharing with blacks was the right course for a new political dispensation. From then on, for example in the 1987 election, I was the one who stuck my neck out furthest to sell that idea all over the country.4

Many religious leaders, including Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, feel that de Klerk, as leader of the Nationalists, should go further and apologize for apartheid. Especially in view of the Nationalists’ determination to continue having a share of power, they believe genuine reconciliation requires that de Klerk’s party seek forgiveness for the misery its policies inflicted on generations of blacks. This de Klerk refuses to do. Part of his strategy, in fact, involves a subtle effort to establish a moral equivalence between his party and the liberation groups. Apartheid may have had bad effects, de Klerk says, but so did communism, an ideology embraced by many ANC leaders. On two occasions, in order to get the ANC to open negotiations, de Klerk had to release hundreds of its members who had been imprisoned for offenses involving violence committed during the fight against apartheid. Determined to deny their actions any legitimacy, de Klerk arranged for the simultaneous release of tens of thousands of common criminals, including murderers and thieves.

In a speech in October, de Klerk addressed the moral questions about apartheid more extensively than he had previously done. “We have sinned,” he said, “and we do not deny this.” The statement rang hollow, though, because de Klerk did not identify the sin or sins being confessed to. In fact, his speech sounded more like a defense of apartheid than an apology for it. Speaking to an audience of Afrikaners celebrating the 150th anniversary of a Vortrekker town in the Orange Free State, he warned them against glorifying their past. Then he proceeded to condemn people he believed were trying to “manipulate” the country’s history to present it in a negative light. Speaking of the Afrikaner people, he said:

  1. 2

    Quoted in Willem de Klerk’s biography, F.W. De Klerk: The Man in His Time (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1991), p. 24.

  2. 3

    Quoted in F.W. De Klerk, p. 27.

  3. 4

    F.W. De Klerk, p. 25.

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