This is the thing with FW de Klerk. So eager is he to have us mark the start of his political career as February 2 1990 that he wants us all to help him revise history.
De Klerk this week convened a press conference – his first in quite some time – to deal with allegations that he knew about apartheid-era atrocities and human rights violations.
Emotional, on the verge of tears and with his voice cracking at times, he denied that he knew about the atrocities and even charged that there is a conspiracy to tarnish his good name. “What motivates such attitudes?” he asked.
“I have reached the conclusion that an important part of it might result from the current Manichean analysis of our history in terms of which everything and everyone from the past was irredeemably evil, while those who were on the side of the struggle were more or less good. For such people, it is unacceptable that any leaders from the past could possibly have acted from worthy motives.”
He went on: “There is also no truth in the Manichean analysis of history. The vast majority of the politicians, public servants and security force members with whom I served – including Mr Adriaan Vlok and General Johann van der Merwe – were good and honourable men who were struggling as best they could with huge historic forces, often in the most difficult circumstances. It is to their credit that they joined me in overcoming extremely well-founded fears and concerns in putting an end to the injustices of apartheid and in helping to create our new non-racial democracy.”
Therein lies the problem: the simple refusal by so many of the old-Nat establishment to accept that they were on the wrong side. And that they presided over one of the most evil political systems ever devised.
By engaging in these futile denialist theatrics, De Klerk is at risk of undermining the great respect he enjoys among all of South Africa’s peoples.
De Klerk’s great role in allowing the apartheid state to die was one of the 20th century’s great political moments.
He was a courageous leader who had the wisdom to realise that apartheid was unsustainable and that South Africa’s future had to be a shared one. He took risks by unbanning liberation movements, freeing political prisoners and repealing many of the apartheid laws.
For this he earned the ire of the Afrikaner Right. And, as he pointed out in his statement, there are many in the Afrikaner community – feeling alienated in this age of employment equity and black economic empowerment – who accuse him of having sold them out.
Future generations of South Africans will owe a great deal of gratitude to him, for had he not seized the moment in 1990, civil war and economic disintegration would not have been far off.
But (and this is a big and loud but), De Klerk cannot cleanse himself of the sins of the ’80s Nats. That was the period in which the party of Malan, Verwoerd and Vorster sank to its lowest level of depravity. State death squads were formed to carry out assassinations of political activists, people were abducted and buried in secret graves, the state invested in biological poisons to be used against its own citizens, and policemen braaied and ate meat while torturing victims.
Children were jailed and tortured during that time and the state sponsored vigilante groups to conduct reigns of terror in townships and villages.
The most vicious of those vigilante groups – which I will not name for fear of offending the country’s most prickly traditional leader – murdered thousands of innocent people in various parts of the country.
From 1978 De Klerk sat in the Cabinet that ran South Africa during those dark days. For much of the ’80s he was in the National Party inner circle, the kernel of evil.
During those years most South Africans knew that the government had an official dirty-tricks department that carried out illegal acts. Nobody believed the official denials of state involvement in assassinations and disappearances.
It would have taken immense effort for a senior Cabinet minister to remain ignorant of this.
In defending himself this week, De Klerk said there were “incessant attempts to strip me – and, I believe, the 70% of whites who supported me in the 1992 referendum – of an honourable place at the table as co-creators of the new South Africa” .
Nothing could be further from the truth. As pointed out above, South Africans value De Klerk’s pivotal role in the creation of our democratic republic. We value his role as Nelson Mandela’s partner in the process of reconciliation.
However, any exercise in reconciliation requires full honesty on the part of those involved in the process.
And, I’m afraid, De Klerk is failing us on that front. For him to retain his place in history as the great South African we all want to remember him as, De Klerk will have to do so much better.