De Klerk: why are we surprised?

2012-05-15 00:00

THE apparent defence of the ideology of apartheid by the last apartheid president, FW De Klerk, in a CNN interview shown on Friday unfortunately harnesses the past in order to destroy the future. Many keen observers of SA knew that De Klerk and his cabinet colleagues probably still believed in apartheid minus its excesses, but hoped that they would keep that to themselves and when on public platforms rather harness the goodwill built on our transition. But an increasing number of prominent white politicians are harnessing the pre-1994 period in a manner that weakens our delicate national unity and dream of a rainbow nation.

For readers who may not have watched the interview, when asked whether he would apologise for contributing to the apartheid, De Klerk said:

“I don’t apologise for saying that what drove me as a young man, before I decided we need to embrace a new vision, was a quest to bring justice for black South Africans in a way which would not, that’s what I believed then, destroy the justice to which my people were entitled. My people, whose self-determination [was] taken away by colonial power in the Anglo-Boer War.”

He went on to explain that as an idea, the concept of separate development on which the apartheid system was built, was noble and unproblematic. He argued that there is nothing wrong with the idea of races developing separately. When pressed on the practical application of this idea in the creation of Bantustans, De Klerk said: “This … is what has happened in such societies all over the world — in the territorial divisions of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and more recently in Sudan. It is the solution that has long been advocated for Israel/Palestine.”

On the idea of a guilt tax suggested by Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, De Klerk felt it was unnecessary because white people were already paying taxes. He felt doing their normal duties just like everyone was enough to atone for the terrible sins of the past.

Those who occupied key positions in the apartheid system did not take up the opportunity to apologise and admit the wrongs of apartheid and repent before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So I do not understand where critics of these statements have been for the past 18 years and why they are surprised at De Klerk’s pro-apartheid stance. I wonder what made them think that De Klerk had made a break with his past. I was surprised when many quite rational beings demanded that his Nobel Peace Prize be withdrawn. It was not given to him for embracing the new South Africa necessarily, but for taking bold political decisions when apartheid had become untenable. Unlike his cabinet colleague, Adriaan Vlok who repented in public, De Klerk did not disavow apartheid as an ideology of state building and national development.

De Klerk and his ilk were rational political actors who saw negotiations as the way out of a quagmire. As the apartheid economy approached near-collapse and the struggle for democracy gathered such momentum that it was on the verge of victory, they understood that the best way to preserve their livelihoods and that of the privileged white minority that owned almost all capital and productive land was to negotiate with their enemy. Their purpose, as we have come to know today, was to protect this privilege and to ensure the transformation process was as slow as possible. This is why his tendency to praise the Constitution and not the democratic dispensation per se is about what his constituency secured through this legal document, which his party negotiated with success.

The interview and the debate that has ensued in various e-platforms has cast a spotlight on the meaning of “post-apartheid” in South Africa. This and Pieter Mulder’s denial of Africans’ historical citizenship in the Western Cape has helped people all over the world to understand the contradictions of our transition. Of course, these men have every right to hold views, including those that are retrogressive, as long as this does not abrogate the rights of others to disagree.

But these statements cannot be good for the rest of the white minority, including those who embrace transformation. It is not in their interests to be projected to the outside world as still attached to a system built on racial superiority and declared a crime against humanity. They should not be seen as uncommitted to the building of a truly non-racial and democratic society as the black majority may see this as betrayal.

De Klerk should harness the past to promote a bright future. As Winston Churchill once said: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.


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