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Was FW Africa's biggest loser?

05 December 2011, 07:01

The New York Times newspaper columnist Bill Keller wrote  earlier this year how South Africa's FW de Klerk and Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev were the 21st century's biggest losers. Is that true though of FW de Klerk?

In apologising for Apartheid in 1993, did FW de Klerk lose his grip of control of South Africa gracefully?

The superlative “greatest” applies both to the scale of the loss,the magnitude and the manner in which they lost it — Mikhail Gorbachev lost Russia and all of its colonies whilst F. W. de Klerk lost the richest country in Africa.

Our hearts understandably thrill to the courage of those who stand up to power — from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square and all the streets that were teeming with the young and freedom-hungry.But there is another sort of unspoken heroism which is rather scarce and undervalued and which  accrues to those who know how to stand down gracefully.

What Gorbachev and de Klerk did was not always pretty, and neither man is much celebrated in his own country since then.But each of them relinquished the power of an abusive elite without subjecting his country to a civil bloodbath. Afterward,neither did either of them  flee to the comfort of a Swiss bank account.

On the contrary,they managed a feat that was almost unthinkable in most of today’s erupting Autocratic Governments after succumbing to democracy.They contributed to its legitimacy by becoming candidates for high office — and in so doing losing  fair and square.

De Klerk actually pressed the flesh and pleaded for votes in the poorer black townships,professing a kind of civic kinship most of us thought he genuinely felt. De Klerk and Gorbachev were triumphant partners in their own defeats,and thus in their countries’ victories.

It is always tricky comparing one country’s experience with that of another’s,but in the examples of these great losers there are some broad lessons for all the countries that were convulsed by the revolutionary spirit — and for those of us who watched and assess them,not to mention those who bankrolled and armed them.

Freedom is a slippery slope.

Both Gorbachev and de Klerk began as reformers —that is, politicians devoted to making a dreadful system less dreadful, not to actually abolishing it.

Because of the pressure exerted by years of international boycotts and decades of domestic insurgency,FW de Klerk was quicker of the two to realize and recognize that the Apartheid Regime's life project —ie a South Africa carved into a commonwealth of separate and independent nations,majority poor black ones and prosperous minority white ones — was cruelly absurd and totally ungovernable.

In 1992,he was already dragging his own party and a few diehard white separatists into a raucous convention of factions, races and tribes to write a new constitution.Minority white rule was clearly ending, and the only question was how the end would be for South Africans.

Those regimes along the Mediterranean rim that are now trying to hold back an angry tide by shuffling the cabinet or promising so-called reforms  like Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia may buy themselves some time,but revolutions have a way of overrunning reformers.

A little glasnost here and there is a very dangerous thing.
The regimes that have sent their thugs against the press and tried to unplug the Internet are right to fear the media.Media reporters have cringed under the truncheons of Iran’s official vigilantes for example.

Watching how the seep of information stirred ordinary Russians in the Moscow’s spring back in the day tells you what can happen.That Cold War voice of Radio Liberty in Central and Eastern Europe, the underground copies of Solzhenitsyn and especially Gorbachev’s own attempts to deputize the Russian press by letting it expose corruption and incompetence — they all chipped away at the invincibility of the Soviet Union.

Today it is newsmakers like Al Jazeera or WikiLeaked cables that tell about the extravagant lifestyles of the ruling elites and social media are the fuel of popular insurgency.This is how the unhappy learn that their complaints are justified and that they have company. And with their vast reach and immediacy, Facebook and Twitter are not only sources of information but also organizing tools — samizdat on steroids.

Some of your best allies are in your jails...

Gorbachev freed Andrei Sakharov from exile and de Klerk released Nelson Mandela.Both leaders then enlisted their liberated adversaries as negotiating partners,buying some credibility at home and abroad.These partnerships inevitably fell victim to mistrust,but they helped assure that the end of the old order was manageable rather than catastrophic.

Armies are people, too...

We tend to think of armies as just instruments.But they are also constituencies with families to feed, jobs to protect, a stake in the future,a yearning for respect. If a leader can command his army only with threats of summary execution or by holding family members hostage, as Libya’s desperate despot, Muammar el-Qaddafi did,then you can safely bet your days are numbered.

One of the smartest things de Klerk did to prevent the civil war many feared in South Africa was to negotiate job security for the Apartheid-era army.And one of the smartest things Nelson Mandela did was accede to that demand,so that when he became the first president of free South Africa,he inherited a military that regarded him as their paymaster.


Winning was the easy part...

Congratulations,you ousted an evil regime, you won an election, your inaugural address stirred the hearts of your people.

Today South Africa is a disillusioned democracy.Wretched poverty,high crime,corruption allegations and bad governance bedevil South Africa.Yet South Africa has grown a bigger middle class,expanded individual liberties and mostly kept its army at peace. And if South Africans do run out of patience with their imperfect leaders,they have some hope of remedies other than the streets.

De Klerk is 75 and made history by gracefully getting out of its way.


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