Antjie Krog: FW de Klerk never had any moral intention, and he left us behind as white kansvatters

Celebrated writer Antjie Krog at an event held at the University of the Western Cape. (Lerato Maduna)
Celebrated writer Antjie Krog at an event held at the University of the Western Cape. (Lerato Maduna)

For FW de Klerk political reforms and reconciliation was never about moral intention, but always about political strategy, writes acclaimed author Antjie Krog. He has become the failed unrepentant face of white people.

When FW de Klerk and his hostile delegation left the venue of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), something irretrievably slipped through our collective fingers.

People in the room and passages were outraged, the commissioners stood around dejected. Someone said: "This is De Klerk, always formulating with legal consequences in mind… He asks for forgiveness in a way that does not legally implicate him. So he needn't apply for amnesty!"

When I interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu afterwards, his skin hung dull and loose from his face. Why did he look so defeated? What was it that he so desperately wanted from De Klerk? Unfailingly the Archbishop honed in on ethics: acknowledging that our inter-connectedness humanises us.

"I'm deeply committed to reconciliation and I care enormously for all the people in this country… You see, we can't go to heaven alone. If I arrive there, God will ask me: 'Where is De Klerk? His path crossed yours.' And he also – God will ask him: 'Where is Tutu?' So I cry for him, I cry for De Klerk – because he spurned the opportunity to become human."

In front of the TRC, De Klerk did not have, and actually never had, any moral intention, any kind of visionary ethical lodestar whatsoever. His release of Nelson Mandela and unbanning of the ANC a few years before, were not embedded in any clear recognition of the utter wrong that apartheid was, but was plain and simple smart political strategy.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - 11 November 1997: Dr.

Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Archbishop Desmond Tutu listens as his deputy, Alex Boraine, makes a point. (Media24 Archives)

Although it may be all that one can expect from a politician, the consequence of his behaviour has been profoundly influencing us up until today. Most white people do not believe that apartheid or colonialism were horribly corrupt and deeply destructive; it was wrong and unforgivable.

To make dramatic decisions, without embedding them verbally – even if for strategic reasons – in an ethical vision, means not taking the tools on board that will enable a leader to take his or her followers with on the road of change. De Klerk drew a lot of anger from white people over the years for selling out especially the Afrikaans language and minority rights.

Historian Hermann Giliomee has argued that De Klerk promised his voters in the 1992 referendum power-sharing and then surrendered it completely. Other roleplayers described De Klerk's negotiating strategy as "woeful".

Giliomee was told: "We had no plan, no strategy, no bottom line where we would refuse to yield any further. We had no clarity on the goal at which we wanted to arrive." And he details the times without number when Roelf Meyer brought news to the cabinet which led De Klerk to thump the table and say "never!" only to concede meekly a little later on.

No one saw a moral imperative behind his negotiations with the ANC – it was merely a strategy to safeguard, as Joe Slovo guessed, large pensions. And so we were left as a community of white kansvatters (chancers)…

This is the one side.

The other side, as I've said before, is that every South African has an imprint of a powerful black man, on behalf of a collective, reaching out, forgiving whites, as a collective.

There is Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey, or holding up De Klerk's arm with that of Thabo Mbeki as his two deputies. Thus, every white and every black person has a memory of a powerful black man extending a hand to whites, but none of us has any image of a powerful white man in a definitive gesture of asking forgiveness.

Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog's account of the TRC process. (Media24 Archives)

Although former West German chancellor Willy Brandt had actively resisted the early Nazi regime, and went into exile during Hitler's reign, he went to lay a wreath at a monument for the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw. The inscription reads: "For those who fell in an unprecedented and heroic struggle for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish people, for a free Poland, and for the liberation of mankind."

Surrounded by politicians, journalists and photographers, Brandt approached the monument on a grey, overcast day. He straightened the ribbon of the funeral wreath, stepped back and then, to everyone's surprise, suddenly spontaneously sank to his knees. This became the famous Kniefall at Warsaw - a simple gesture signalling the first indication of German political remorse, sorrow, repentance and guilt.

But here in South Africa, we have no such imprint. And yes, year after year, with grim weariness, De Klerk has to come to his own defence – neatly stipulated in dates, clauses and legalities. And year after year, often around Reconciliation Day, his spokesperson puts forward "the right facts".

Although he has gone further and did more than any of his predecessors, decades into the new dispensation, De Klerk has become, and at times deliberately seems to want to be, the failed unrepentant face of white people.

The TRC report was already printed when the commission received a court order to temporarily remove its final finding on De Klerk. A TRC official had to rush down to the printers where the first copies were being packed into a van to be transported to Pretoria.

Half an hour later people were sitting all around the printer's works, blotting out in black ink half of page 225 and a sentence on page 226 – carefully placing pieces of paper on both sides of the censored pages to prevent smudging.

Raised on the brackish water of the Dopper Kerk, educated in the white sinews of Potchefstroom, tamely drifting his way upwards among the bullies and crooks of the National Party, De Klerk keeps on stepping into contemporary South African spaces like a man void of senses and communal radar. And as always, it is about strategy and never about the morally right thing to do.

Every act of his is legally hedged – this time, perhaps, to avoid the International Criminal Court in The Hague which investigates genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression.

** Antjie Krog is an internationally acclaimed poet, author, journalist and academic. She wrote about covering the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the SABC in the award-winning book, Country of My Skull. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Should pension fund members be allowed to access their savings before retirement?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's their money to do with as they please.
35% - 999 votes
No, more people will end up without enough savings in retirement.
36% - 1031 votes
Depends on how big the withdrawal limits will be.
29% - 842 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.