It’s with mixed feelings that I read of the death of F. W. de Klerk, last white State President of the apartheid-era Republic of South Africa.
F.W. de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela and as South Africa’s last apartheid president oversaw the end of the country’s White minority rule, has died at the age of 85.
De Klerk was a controversial figure in South Africa where many blamed him for violence against Black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his time in power, while some White South Africans saw his efforts to end apartheid as a betrayal.
It was de Klerk who in a speech to South Africa’s parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, announced that Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years. The announcement electrified a country that for decades had been scorned and sanctioned by much of the world for its brutal system of racial discrimination known as apartheid.
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The country would be, de Klerk told the media after his fateful speech, “a new South Africa.” But Mandela’s release was just the beginning of intense political negotiations on the way forward. Power would shift. A new constitution would be written. Ways of life would be upended.
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“Sometimes, Mr. de Klerk does not get the credit that he deserves,” Nobel laureate and former archbishop Desmond Tutu told David Frost in an interview in 2012.
Despite his role in South Africa’s transformation, de Klerk would continue to defend what his National Party decades ago had declared as the goal of apartheid, the separate development of White and Black South Africans. In practice, however, apartheid forced millions of the country’s Black majority into nominally independent “homelands” where poverty was widespread, while the White minority held most of South Africa’s land. Apartheid starved the Black South African education system of resources, criminalized interracial relations, created black slums on the edges of White cities and tore apart families.
De Klerk late in life would acknowledge that “separate but equal failed.”
There’s more at the link.
De Klerk had the political vision to recognize that in the late 1980’s, South Africa had reached an impasse, a no-win situation. The apartheid government could maintain its grip on power, but could not do so without brutally suppressing race riots and unrest that were sweeping the country, at the cost of thousands of lives every year. The opposition African National Congress and its allies could not overthrow the apartheid state by violence, but they could (and did) make much of the country ungovernable. Neither side could win; but neither side could be defeated, either. There had to be a new way forward.
De Klerk had the courage to take that step, releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, unbanning the ANC, and beginning negotiations to bring true democracy to South Africa. Many have pointed to the resultant corruption, chaos and anarchy in that country as “his fault”. Many have maintained that things were somehow better under apartheid than they’ve been under majority rule. I don’t agree, of course. I answered such objections some years ago, and my answer remains as true now as it was then. Apartheid was one of the most evil systems of government of the 20th century, fully comparable in its moral and ethical dregs to communism, fascism and Nazism. It had to go. The fact that what replaced it has not been much better in practical terms can’t be allowed to obscure the fact that the real evil underlying apartheid was conquered. That, in and of itself, was worthwhile.
De Klerk was a deeply fallible man (as are we all): but he rose above his fallibility to do the only honorable thing he could. He chose to step back from the bloodshed and chaos, and do his best to bring about a peaceful resolution. He may not have succeeded; but, for trying, I honor his memory. So did the Nobel Committee when they jointly awarded him and Nelson Mandela the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. It was richly deserved.
I remember listening to de Klerk announce, in Parliament, that he would release Nelson Mandela from prison and unban the ANC. It was like a bomb set off underneath the tangled morass of South African politics. Right-wing, pro-apartheid individuals and groups denounced him as a traitor. Left-wing, anti-apartheid groups called it a good first step, but not nearly enough. Most of us just hoped and prayed that what he’d set in motion would somehow end the killing and lead to peace. Eventually, after much more bloodshed, it did. Let that be his memorial.