By Dave Steward, Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation

Predictably, FW de Klerk’s death – just before 11:00 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – unleashed a storm of comment. While the silent majority was, on the whole, sympathetic – the EFF, far-right Afrikaners and much of the woke mainstream media joined in a piranha-fest of shredding De Klerk’s reputation to pieces.

Free from the tethers of fact and basic journalistic standards, De Klerk’s critics could – and did – say anything they liked. Much of it was simply hateful: he was “a killer”; he was about to charged for the murders of the Craddock Four; and he never apologised for apartheid.

The trouble is that in the absence of continual and laborious refutation, such fabrications, if repeated frequently enough, eventually congele into the accepted version of “the truth” – even for some who may have been sympathetic to De Klerk.

So, once more unto the breach, …

According to his critics De Klerk bore the indelible stain of having been a leading member of former apartheid governments; he had participated in State Security Council (SSC) meetings that had ordered the killing of activists; and he had not initiated transformation because of “the goodness of his heart”, but because he had been forced to do so by the armed struggle and a collapsing economy.

He was also accused, once again, of never having apologised unconditionally for apartheid by critics who then went on to spurn, with undisguised contempt, his obviously sincere posthumous apology. In fact, De Klerk apologised for apartheid on numerous occasions – and most notably to the TRC on 14 May 1997. He apologised
“in his capacity as Leader of the National Party to the millions of South Africans
¥ who suffered the wrenching disruption of forced removals in respect of their homes, businesses and land;
¥ who over the years suffered the shame of being arrested for pass law offences;
¥ who over the decades – and indeed, centuries – suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination;
¥ who for a long time were prevented from exercising their full democratic rights in the land of their birth;
¥ who were unable to achieve their full potential because of job reservation; and
¥ who in any way suffered as a result of discriminatory legislation and policies.

“This renewed apology is offered in a spirit of true repentance in full knowledge of the tremendous harm that apartheid has done to millions of South Africans.”

De Klerk’s association with apartheid and its abolition was long and difficult continuum. As a young man, in another time and another world, he thought that separate development and the evolution of independent black states offered a solution to at least part of South Africa’s problems.

During the 1980s, although he administered apartheid legislation he participated actively in PW Botha’s reforms. He opened the way to non-racial sport and repealed the notorious Immorality and Mixed Marriages acts. He led the process that ousted Andries Treurnicht and his conservative followers from the National Party (NP).

Throughout the tumultuous 1980s he and his cabinet colleagues wrestled with the moral dilemma of apartheid and the very real existential threats involved in dismounting the tiger of white minority rule. Their fears included the loss of what most Afrikaners’ still regarded as their historic right to self-determination; the future of minorities in a black majority society; post-colonial chaos in Africa; and the pervasive influence of the SACP within the ANC.

De Klerk dedicated his presidency to repealing all remaining apartheid legislation and to the negotiation of a new non-racial constitution. He did so with enthusiasm and conviction. On 17 June 1991, when the last apartheid laws were scrapped, he said that

“the votes that have just taken place … finally brought to an end an era in which the lives of every South African were affected in the minutest detail by racially-based legislation. Now, everybody is free of it. Now, everybody is rid of the restrictions resulting from that racially based legislation. Everybody is free as well from the disparagement and denial which so often were the consequences of the legislation we are repealing. And everybody is liberated from the moral dilemma caused by this legislation which was born and nurtured under different circumstances in a departed era.”

By December 1993, with the adoption of the Interim Constitution, the process was complete.

Charges that De Klerk participated in State Security Council (SSC) decisions to kill activists are woven from misinterpretations of one or two ambiguous references sifted from mountains of SSC documentation – or from the testimony of such pillars of veracity as Eugene de Kock.

They are simply untrue. De Klerk was never part of PW Botha’s securocrat inner circle – and was not even a permanent member of the SSC. In his 2006 book “Rabble Rouser For Peace”, Archbishop Tutu’s biographer, John Allen, acknowledged that “no evidence was ever forthcoming implicating De Klerk in violence.” He writes of the TRC’s “frustration” at its failure to “pin responsibility for violations of human rights on de Klerk” and acknowledges “the embarrassing weakness of its finding against him.”

If there had been any evidence that De Klerk was involved in extra-judicial killings, the TRC – with all its investigators, with its clear intent, and with full access to SSC documentation – would certainly have made such a finding.

Subsequently, when he became President, De Klerk took decisive steps to normalise the role of the security forces and to get to the root of persistent media reports regarding ‘third force’ activities:
¥ he called together the senior officers of the Police and SADF and ordered them to limit themselves strictly to their statutory roles;
¥ he dismantled the National Management System (that had acted as a parallel securocrat administration during Botha’s presidency);
¥ he appointed the Harms and Goldstone Commissions – and gave Goldstone all the support that he needed;
¥ following the Inkathagate revelations, he instructed the Kahn Commission to terminate any questionable secret projects; and
¥ in November 1992, he appointed General Pierre Steyn to investigate Goldstone’s allegations regarding the CCB. He took draconian action after Steyn reported on continuing aberrations within Military Intelligence.

What could De Klerk possibly have gained from instigating – or turning a blind eye – to “third force” violence – as the ANC repeatedly charged? Continuing violence posed the greatest threat to the negotiation process on which he had irrevocably staked his presidency and his whole political career.

De Klerk did not deny responsibility for the actions of his government. He told the TRC that he “accepted overall responsibility for the period of my leadership and together with the Cabinet and the State Security Council, accepted joint responsibility for all the decisions that we took and the instructions that we gave, including all authorised actions and operations executed in terms of a reasonable interpretation of such instructions.” This included responsibility for the botched SADF raid on a supposed APLA target in Umtata in October 1993 in which five teenagers were killed. The raid was in retaliation for APLA attacks against civilians in South Africa – including the killing of 12 worshippers in St James Church in Cape Town.

What De Klerk could not accept was responsibility for actions that were taken by rogue security force elements that were in direct contravention of his orders, and that were aimed at derailing the negotiations and at undermining his presidency.

Neither was De Klerk “forced” to initiate the constitutional transformation process.

As he told the Cape Town Press Club last year, he launched the negotiations at the beginning of 1990 – “not because we were weak – but because we were far stronger that we had been for years”:
¥ by that time, following the restoration of order throughout South Africa, the ANC had accepted that it could not achieve victory through armed struggle;
¥ the 1988 Tripartite Agreement between South Africa, Angola and Cuba eliminated South Africa’s main strategic threat by securing the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola in conjunction with the successful implementation of the UN independence plan for Namibia;
¥ South Africa had survived its critical 1985 external debt crisis;
¥ in November, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the collapse of Soviet Communism and left the SACP in disarray; and
¥ despite serious problems – the economy was growing at 2,7%.

Why is it so difficult to accept De Klerk’s statement that “….above all, we genuinely wanted to find a just and lasting solution to the vexatious problems that had divided us for generations. We wanted to create a better country for all our children”?

Why is there such persistent and demeaning criticism of the man who, even his bitterest critics admit, played a key role in ending apartheid? Why was the TRC so intent on finding De Klerk guilty of a gross violation of human rights? Why did Nelson Mandela, according to Tony Leon, have more time for PW Botha than for FW de Klerk?

The reason, perhaps, is that PW Botha remained doggedly within the paradigm of apartheid. As a result the ANC knew where it stood with him. Ironically, the problem with De Klerk was that he broke the apartheid mould.

In the ANC’s Manichean world view – where it represented all that was good and noble and the NP was the epitome of evil – it was unacceptable that any former NP leader should emerge from the past without some or other indelible moral stain. As Angie Motshekga said a few years ago, the ANC intended to depict pre-1994 leaders as “Folk Devils”. De Klerk’s role in abolishing apartheid and in transforming South Africa was in jarring dissonance with the ANC’s core mythology that South Africa’s new society had been created solely by its own revolutionary struggle. It was, for De Klerk’s critics, as though the ANC Elves and Hobbits were being asked to accept that the King of the Orcs had suddenly been revealed to have redeeming qualities.

Finally, and as De Klerk told the Cape Town Press Club last year , “None of us can determine the nature of the worlds into which we are born or the injustices that we inherit from the past. All that we can do is to wrestle with the political forces of our time and try to leave the world a freer, a more just and a better place than we found it.”