ELITA DE KLERK: THROUGH MY GRIEF, I SEE SOUTH AFRICA’S TRAUMA
Anneliese Burgess intervews Elita de Klerk for Vrye Weekblad, 08/12/2023
11.30am. The heavy iron gates open slowly onto an ivy-covered courtyard. A housekeeper (in sneakers) opens the front door. A smiling Elita appears down the passage.
The sitting room has butter-yellow sofas and a view across the rooftops of Sea Point. Art, books, orchids in pots. Elita pours us tea. Offers a plate of oatmeal crunchies.
There is an aura of fragility about her. But also a steeliness in the way she approaches difficult topics.
She was always known for her elegance and good taste and is perfectly turned out for our interview (her purple amethyst earrings match the colour of her appliqued floral blouse). But there is the unmistakable brittleness of grief and the startling honesty of someone who says she “just can’t do small talk”.
“I speak to the soul. If I can’t speak to the soul, we shouldn’t speak. I can’t speak superficialities.”
And she doesn’t. Not once in more than two hours I spend with her.
Reaching out in grief
An interview I did last year with the journalist Lukhanyo Calata triggered my interest in Elita. His father, Fort, and three comrades from Cradock were abducted and killed by apartheid security forces in 1985. When the former president died, Lukhanyo told me he was overcome with anger that nobody had been brought to book for their murders. With the death of FW, he felt yet another person was slipping away from accountability. Shortly after he spoke about this in a television interview, he received a message from Elita asking if he would meet her.
They met in a park. Lukhanyo brought his wife and son.
“She reached across the table and took my hand,” Lukhanyo told me. “Here was this woman who used to share a bed with the man who decided my father’s fate. But she was looking at me like someone seeing another human being and acknowledging me and acknowledging my pain. She was trying to reconcile with me.
“At that moment, it didn’t matter that she was De Klerk’s wife. What she was in that moment was a grieving woman who was in obvious pain and was reaching out. And she was saying, ‘I see you. You are not a black person to me. You are just a person who is hurting.’ “
I am perplexed by Elita willingly putting herself in the firing line of someone with such evident and deep anger against her husband. Wasn’t she afraid?
“I was a fresh widow,” she says of the decision to contact Lukhanyo. “I felt I had lost everything; what more could I lose? I realised that in the process of healing myself, I would have to face my grief. And to do that, I had to go into my grief and speak about my grief. I have always felt we haven’t done that in South Africa.
“I don’t remember what I said to him. It was just me, my heart and God.”
But she does remember that Lukhanyo’s wife confronted her about FW’s National Party past.
“She said, ‘Are you telling me that FW was not an apartheid supporter?’ And I answered with the way I make sense of it.
“If you are born in this park, and people tell you this is the grass and these are the trees, it takes a special personality, a special character, to start questioning whether the grass is grass or a tree is a tree.”
That is what FW did, Elita says. “We are all conditioned by how we grow up, but FW got to a point where he questioned whether the grass was grass. FW wasn’t sad about being a contested figure. He had accepted it. But it hurts me very much.”
Elita later met Lukhanyo’s mother and sisters. “Lukhanyo said we had unfinished business and needed to go through a process with the rest of the family. I wanted someone to go with me. I am good friends with Lungi Makgoba, so I thought of asking her. But then Dr Lucky Mathebula of the [FW de Klerk] Foundation offered to accompany me.”
Once again, it wasn’t an easy meeting. But it was necessary. “I could sense I was not liked,” she says.
“Mrs Calata said that she never got to say goodbye to the love of her life, an opportunity I was given. And Lukhanyo’s sister lost her childhood. She had to become a caretaker of the family after her father’s death. I completely understood why they did not like me.”
Elita’s eyes pool with tears. She fidgets with the tissue in her hands.
“I also spoke about FW and the fact that the man I knew would not have been able to give an order for schoolteachers to be killed.
“You can’t forget apartheid so easily, no matter what you say. It’s in your blood, so it’s better to talk about it. Lukhanyo and I are committed to each other. And we want to do something around reconciliation together, but we haven’t found the platform yet. I believe in God. God will bring a project to us.”
The De Klerk Foundation has a new CEO, Christo van der Rheede and Elita has been voted in as chair.
“I am not typical chair material, but I know the direction we need to take.
“FW’s last words before he died were an apology for the past, and I will follow this path. And Christo agrees with reconciliation in the sense that we can’t pretend. If you have a problem, it’s better to talk about it because the elephant leaves the room when you give it a name.
“All of us are traumatised, and we need to address the trauma. We can only move forward if we deal with this. And yes, we’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but we have not spoken to each other naturally, away from the media and in a space where nobody is putting on a persona.”
Elita says FW was the love of her life. “We met at a dinner in 1989, before he became president, and it was instant.
“We are soul mates; we could read each other’s soul.”
Elita says being Greek and not having grown up in South Africa gave her a different perspective on the country and the world, which grew to be something precious for FW.
“He was an amazing human being. He did what he did because he believed in it. He was extremely soft and extremely alone. You can’t trust people when you are in that position. He was extremely modest and extremely correct.”
She tells of the first lunch they had with Madiba.
“He came to our farm, and it was just the three of us and my youngest daughter, and I made it my issue because both these two men were needed at that time. FW was deferential; maybe he was carrying guilt, I don’t know. So I brought the conversation so that Madiba and FW could get over that, and Madiba acknowledged him in a big way. I don’t know whether you heard his speech when FW turned 70, but Madiba saw FW for who he was. Although FW never sought recognition, it made me happy when he got it.”
It runs like a golden thread through our conversation: Elita’s feeling that FW was unfairly maligned and not given the recognition he deserved for decisively putting the wheels in motion to end apartheid.
“You know, even the apology he made. That phrase ‘apartheid was not a crime against humanity’ was separated from the context of the rest of the apology he made. Surely you look at something like that as a whole?”
How did the apology come about?
“It was something he felt strongly about. And I felt strongly about it. We discussed it. And it was hard to do because he was melting away, and I felt guilty that I was letting him do this in those last dying days…”
Elita’s eyes fill with tears.
“On the day of his memorial, when I returned from the service, I wrote a letter to the board. I said we must incorporate FW’s last words, that apology because I will listen to his instructions.”
Love and loss
Elita tells me how her grief about her husband’s death brought her to her knees.
“Initially, I was OK because I still felt FW by my side, even though he was gone,” she says. “But then I started falling apart.
“I suffer from clinical depression. My grandfather committed suicide, so I know that my biggest enemy is depression. I was prescribed additional medication to help me cope, but it turned me into a zombie. It required immense effort to be part of the foundation and to be part of the board. And then something frightening happened to me.
“I was in Greece. It felt as if I was losing my mind. I was like an 80-year-old woman. One day, when I went swimming in the sea, I fell and could not get up again. To cut a long story short, finally doctors realised that some of the medications I was taking were counteracting each other, so I stopped taking everything. And then the raw, raw pain arrived because nothing was blocking it any more. It was like nothing I had ever experienced.
“I don’t go to church, but I am extremely spiritual. When I lived in London, there was an Orthodox monastery in Essex that I used to go to. The nuns and the monks there repeat one prayer a thousand times a day: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,’ over and over like a mantra. And I remember asking why they did that. And someone explained that it’s like when you want to swim to a rock; the prayer brings the rock closer to you. I adopted that prayer, and it saved me because every time my heart was low and heavy, I didn’t fight it any more, that physical pain that grief is. I would say my prayer and every time, it would help me move a little bit. And finally, the pain started lifting.”
A hole in the heart
Elita’s three children and eight grandchildren live in London.
“I am lonely,” she says. “This is a huge house, and I am like a ghost. Eventually, I will buy an apartment and commute between here and London. FW was a wonderful grandfather. I miss the energy of my grandchildren.”
But for now, Elita wants to be around to help take the foundation’s work forward. She is excited about an exhibition project called the Centre for Constitutional Rights. “We want to help make the constitution a living document. We want communities and people to understand the rights the constitution gives them.”
I was supposed to be with her for an hour, but it was past lunchtime when our conversation ended. Then, almost as an aside, she tells me a remarkable story.
It was on one of the memorial days commemorating Chris Hani’s assassination that she saw his daughter on television talking about her father. “I admired her so much. I wrote to her. Eventually, Lindiwe and I met up in a coffee shop in Johannesburg. She hadn’t realised who I was. She only clicked when she saw the security detail. And with time, she and I became very close. And with time, I met her mom too. We had organised to have lunch together. When we met, I said to her, ‘You are the other mother who is never right’,” and from that moment, we just got on.
Elita eventually asked Lindiwe to meet FW. “She came here, to this house. Later, she told me she had been so scared that she felt as if she was going to meet the devil. But she came for me because I asked her. And in the end, she was like a daughter in this house.”
Elita excuses herself to fetch fresh tissues. She brings one for me, too.
“The hole in my heart will never be filled,” she says as she walks me to the gate. “But I can take the work further. I felt him there when I was in Washington recently for two foundation meetings. He was happy with what I was doing. And recently, I’ve started dreaming of him again. In the beginning, I couldn’t dream of him.”
She waves to me as the gate closes. A wisp of a woman with a big heart.
Image © Vrye Weekblad