2023 FW de Klerk Memorial Lecture

Delivered by Professor Chester Crocker and published by the FW de Klerk Foundation on 11/11/2023 


I am very honoured to be asked to make a few comments at this second memorial lecture of FW de Klerk. I have been asked by Elita to do it, and I was asked by Dave Steward, FW’s close friend and associate, who is the chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation in South Africa to make these remarks. 

It was suggested to me by Dave that I offer an insider view of the final two years of the Southern African negotiations that preceded immediately the rise to the top job of FW de Klerk. And the final phases of that negotiation took place from 1987 to 1989, which set the stage for a real transformation in South African politics. 

Dave added, and I’m quoting him, that “if things had gone wrong in Angola and Namibia, as they nearly did, it would have disturbed the balance of forces in Southern and South Africa, and made it much more difficult for FW to move ahead in South Africa as boldly as he did.” So before saying a few words about FW’s rise, I’m going to do what Dave asked me to do, to say a few words about the final stages of the negotiations in Southern Africa.

The essence of our approach was to find a way to link the independence of Namibia – Africa’s last colony – to the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. Now, Namibia is a territory larger than Texas. And at the time, there was a Cold War legacy in Angola, and there was an apartheid system in South Africa. So, what we did was to take the issue of Namibian independence – which had already been dealt with in some considerable detail – there was a UN plan for the transition to independence, which had been negotiated in 1978  in large part by our fellow member and by my great friend, Don McHenry.  

So, we were taking this UN plan and linking it to the Cuban withdrawal issue from Angola. It took the better part of seven years to establish the link and get it agreed. It took another 15 months to define the schedule of the withdrawal – because everybody wanted to know in what month, and how many troops had to move, and at what point does the reciprocity exist between South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia and the Cuban withdrawal from Angola. It was a hard slog.

As you can imagine, the South African view was that they didn’t have to do anything until the Angolans and Cubans had withdrawn, so that wasn’t going to be a winning proposition. And the Angolans and Cubans said that the idea of linkage itself was immoral, illegal, a Western plot that had nothing to do with Namibia (which, of course – if you look at the map – you can see that the truth was otherwise). 

Things changed during 1987 to 1988. Under Gorbachev, Russia’s eyes were off the African ball. But not Fidel Castro’s. Fidel Castro’s eyes were very much on the African situation. And Angola was going through a tough patch. There had been a big offensive by the Russian supported Angolan troops in the fall of 87. It was a disaster for the Angolan forces. And the Russians seemed to be rather disheartened and disoriented and not really paying close attention. Gorbachev had a lot of other things on his mind. Castro had Angola on his mind. He went to the seventieth anniversary celebration of the Communist revolution in Moscow in November 1987 and he said to the Russians, “I’ll take over the diplomacy. I’ll take over the war. If you let me do it.” By implication, he wanted Soviet backing for this plan. So, what does he do? He asks to become a member of the negotiating team with the Angolans – we accepted that – and then he increased the number of Cuban forces from 25 000 to 50 000. Which, for Cuba, was a larger dispositive in Angola than US forces in Vietnam during the peak of the Vietnam War. Just think, 50 000 Cuban troops all the way across the ocean to  Angola. South Africa had strong forces, terrific artillery, excellent mobility, but they had lost air superiority and the issue of relying on white draftees was a very controversial issue in South Africa. 

The Cubans had problems of their own. They were in a very difficult situation in the chaos of war-torn Angola. So, the two sides – that is to say, the Angolans and Cubans on one side and the South Africans on the other – were like scorpions in a bottle – they were looking at each other and not wanting to really sting each other seriously, but wanting to convey a message that they were ready for real combat if that’s what it would take.

During a negotiating round in the summer of 1988, I took my Cuban counterpart for a private lunch. He said to me, “Why don’t your South African friends understand that we want to leave? We want to leave with honour. It will be a proud day in the history of Cuba when our troops can come home from Angola having made a contribution to the independence of Namibia.” You see the linkage. He said, “Yeah, the linkage – it’s real.” So, I said to this fellow, “Can you say that at the plenary session after lunch in front of the South Africans?” “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “That would be a concession.” I said, “Well, you know, building peace is about concessions. It’s about the exchange of reciprocal concessions.”

The Namibian independence process got under way in early 89. So, this was the backdrop of the situation which suddenly emerged in South African politics in the early weeks and months of 1989. The Tripartite Agreement between Cuba, Angola and South Africa was signed in December of 1988, and less than a month later, State President PW Botha of South Africa suffered a stroke on 18 January 89, causing a major crisis within the National Party. 

What happened is, PW Botha said, “I no longer want to be leader of the party, but I’ll stay on and State President.” The National Party – and I’m taking a lot of this directly from the wonderful videos that you have put up on the website of the FW de Klerk Foundation.  The issue was, who becomes party leader of the National Party? There was a contest and to the surprise, I think, of PW Botha, FW de Klerk became the leader of the National Party in February of 1989. It was an amazing story, and it made a huge difference. 

But you had a period where PW was State President, FW was the leader of the party.  FW de Klerk had ideas about the need for change. He went travelling to Zambia, he went to Europe, he said, “ We intend there to be big changes in South Africa.” 

PW Botha was fuming when he heard about it, but he had lost control. By September of 1989, PW was no longer State President and FW de Klerk became the State President of South Africa. Here was the context of his assumption of power. His assumption of power in September of 1989. By November of 1989, here was the situation.  The Namibian independence process was fully launched. There were UN troops in Namibia implementing the plan that Don McHenry and others had worked on years ago. The Namibian elections were successfully held in November of that year. In the same month, Eastern Europe was in turmoil. In the same month, the Berlin Wall came down. 

I remember visiting  South Africa at that time and giving a speech in Johannesburg. And I made this point: “The time has come for South Africans to celebrate their reconcilers and their peacemakers, and there are many. But the problem is that many of them are not really free. Some of them are behind bars. And some of them are imprisoned in racist and nationalist dogmas. But when they get free, this will become a land of hope.” Those were my words. 

So, as a veteran NP stalwart, FW de Klerk was also a realist. He believed in seeking common ground with adversaries. He had served in a number of cabinet posts in the National Party Government, the Apartheid Government of South Africa, but he knew that basic change was essential. Change in the direction of international norms. He was tired of South Africa’s polecat  status in the international system, its isolation, its domestic gridlock. Instead of treading water he wanted to negotiate change. He was inspired by the regional peace process I’ve mentioned. He was inspired by Gorbachev’s new thinking. He was inspired by the vast changes in Europe. And he was highly impressed with his first meeting with Nelson Mandela in December 1989. I think he said to himself, “We can do business. We can do business, maybe we have a partner for negotiation and peace.” 

So, it was a remarkable time. One year after becoming Leader of the National Party in February 1989 and becoming State President in September 1989, on 2 February of 1990, FW made the speech that opened the floodgates of change in South Africa. He announced the end of the state of emergency, he announced the unbanning of the African National Congress and other proscribed organisations, and the release of political prisoners. He abolished the Land Acts and the Group Areas Act. His speech was irreversible, but the consequences for him and for everyone else were unpredictable. It was an act of stunning political courage. In my view, these two men – FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela – liberated each other. 

I remember visiting South Africa in 1990, and FW invited me to his office in Pretoria and we had a catch-up. At one point FW said to me, “Chet, how are we doing? How am I doing?”  It was an amazing question to be put to a visiting American after all our two countries had been through together.  And I said, “Are you sure you really want to ask that question?” Knowing full well that the room we were sitting in quite likely was tapped by the South African security forces, some members of which may not have liked the programme that FW had launched. I said to him, “You’re doing pretty good.  The time has passed for visiting Americans to give sermons, because South Africans are shaping their own destiny.” I’ll never forget that meeting. 

I think it was an amazing time. FW, in one of the excellent videos that Dave has put up on the FW de Klerk Foundation website – recorded his final message, which is a very interesting one. He says this: “I want to share with you the fact that since the early 80s, my views changed completely. It was as if I had a conversion. My conversion motivated us in the National Party to take the initiatives we took from the time I became leader of the party. We not only admitted the wrongs of Apartheid, we took far-reaching measures to ensure a successful negotiation which could bring justice to all.” 

I want to thank Elita for inviting me to make these remarks this evening, and Dave Steward as well. What I’ve talked about is leadership and that’s what we’re all about here at the Global Leadership Foundation.

View the recording of the lecture here and the highlights video here