FW De Klerk road rage: Give De Klerk his due

2015-01-18 15:00

The City of Cape Town’s decision to rename Table Bay Boulevard after FW de Klerk, apartheid’s last president, has hauled the controversial man back into the limelight.

After hearing this news, many black people reached for their sledgehammers and swung them towards the city of Cape Town’s officials – and understandably so.

How could they be so insensitive? How can a man like De Klerk be accorded such a special place in history, alongside illustrious men such as Nelson Mandela, Beyers Naudé, Oliver Tambo and Chief Albert Luthuli? After all, De Klerk, who was president between 1989 and 1994, knowingly kept quiet while a team of elite and professional killers wreaked havoc at Vlakplaas.

De Klerk has repeatedly denied this charge, although people close to him claim that even though he may not have sanctioned the killings, he must have been aware of them.

Other people, mostly whites, contend that De Klerk should be honoured because he brokered the end of apartheid.

His detractors point out that he didn’t decide to negotiate out of the goodness of his heart, and after stumbling on his Road to Damascus. They claim that he had carefully read the writing that had been long on the wall.

They argue that endless protests, economic sanctions and a looming civil war had put the country on a knife’s edge. This left De Klerk with no choice but to head to the negotiating table.

There is no question about the legacies of the six apartheid presidents who came before De Klerk. But unlike his predecessors, De Klerk’s reputation and legacy is contentious and disputed.

This is because, whether by design or default, De Klerk happens to find himself on both the wrong and right side of South Africa’s history.

Controversial statements that were made by his foundation and by him personally do not help his cause. In an interview with CNN in 2012, he reportedly defended apartheid’s homeland system.

It is close to impossible to know if De Klerk ended apartheid willingly or whether he was pushed by the set of circumstances prevailing at the time.

He could have been pushed or he could have been convinced, by the time 1990 rolled around, that apartheid was morally repugnant. His decision to negotiate could have been influenced by the two factors above.

Whatever the case, the fact that he decided to begin these talks should earn him a spot in our history. De Klerk could have resisted change and employed scorched earth and cloak and dagger strategies to neutralise the revolution. Who knows how things would have ended if he had?

Moreover, De Klerk worked hand in hand with Mandela to end hostilities. Based on these reasons, we believe that not only is it fair but also just for De Klerk to be honoured with a street named after him. The role he played in the negotiations that led to the first democratic election in 1994 should not be downplayed.

Of course, the other argument that history is written by the victors is also true. The ANC itself has renamed many buildings, parks and streets. So why not allow the DA, which governs the Western Cape and runs the provincial capital, to name roads after whomever the party so wishes?

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