FWDK Matthew Willman SMLIt is perhaps appropriate to reminisce on the eve of one’s 80th birthday – and at this age I can assure you that there is great deal about which I can reminisce!

I spent my childhood on a smallholding near Krugersdorp. I remember our garden, the rockeries that my mother lovingly tended and our little orchard of peach trees. I used to help harvest the peaches that we would sell in the nearby town. I remember growing up, more or less an only child because my brother Willem was eight years older than me. My father was already busy with his political career and was often away.

One of my first memories was sitting on his shoulders amidst a huge crowd at the laying of the foundation stone of the Voortrekker Monument in 1938.

Growing up as an Afrikaner boy in the 30s and 40s was so different from the South Africa of today that we could have been living on a different planet. Our primary concern was Afrikaner nationalism and the re-establishment of the Republics that we had lost only 40 years earlier. Our main opponents were the “Sappe” – members of the United Party – who favored closer ties with Britain.

Relations with black South Africans did not, at that time, feature in the equation.

My uncle, JG Strydom, became Prime Minister in 1954. He was an ardent Afrikaner nationalist and an unrepentant white supremacist. His views would today – quite rightly – be regarded as absolutely unacceptable. However, at that time they were not unusual.   Throughout much of the world the 50s were still the era of white supremacy: there was segregation in the southern states of the USA – and virtually all of Africa was still under the colonial domination.

I attended Monument High School in Krugersdorp and later studied law at Potchefstroom University. Potchefstroom played a special role in my life: my grandfather had helped to found the university and had been its first registrar. It was also the centre of the Gereformeerde Church, the small reformed church to which our family belonged.

It was a carefree life that was little troubled by politics – except for the growing absences of my father who by that time was a cabinet minister.

Still, we were students and were searching for answers. At one stage – to the chagrin of the university administration – we arranged an off-campus meeting between some of our students and Albert Luthuli. I remember him as a man of great dignity, who spoke with conviction of a South Africa in which all citizens, black and white, would enjoy equal rights.  At that time it seemed to us to be an impossible idea! What then would become of the Afrikaner people and our right to rule ourselves?

However, the world was changing. In the wake of the Suez crisis in 1956, the British and French lost their will to continue their colonial roles. Ghana became independent in 1957 and within the next 10 years was followed by most of the rest of Africa. As the tide of empire receded, South Africa found itself increasingly isolated, floundering in the last remaining pool of white rule.

The reaction of Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, was to launch his own process of internal decolonisation – which he called ‘separate development’. He reasoned that South Africa, like so many other African countries – was a creation of European imperialists. Very well, thought Verwoerd, we will unscramble the omelette: each of the constituent peoples would have their own state and would be led to full independence.

Like most ideologies, Separate Development was a delusion. Like most exercises in social engineering it could not be achieved without disrupting the lives of millions of people and causing massive injustice.

Like all ideologies, it simply ignored any realities that did not fit in with the plan – however obvious they should have been. The realities were that South Africa’s economy was becoming more integrated with each year that passed; that whites would be a diminishing minority in the 86% of the country that they had reserved for themselves; and that the policy was vehemently rejected by the vast majority of the people involved.

One of the worst aspects of Separate Development was that for 20 years it gave the white leadership the delusion that they had a morally defensible solution to the problems of the country. Only in 1978, when PW Botha became Prime Minister, did the leadership concede that Verwoerd’s grand plan was not working.

Botha proclaimed that “we would have to adapt or die” and embarked on the impossible task of trying to reform apartheid. By 1986 more than 100 apartheid laws had been repealed.

However, by then it was no longer a question of segregated park benches and beaches: the reforms of the early 80s had unleashed enormous expectations that had erupted in UDF-led protests and unrest throughout the country. The battle cry of the protesters was not reform, but “Amandla!”  that is, Power!

By the mid-80s the leadership of the National Party began to realise that it would not be possible to reform apartheid – that only the extension of full political rights to all South Africans could provide a lasting solution.

However, we had very real concerns:

The unrest of the mid-1980s brought PW Botha’s reform initiatives to a jarring halt while order was restored in the wake of the draconian state of emergency that was imposed in June, 1986.

Then, toward the end of the 1980s, the situation began to change for the better:

History had opened a window of opportunity for us. On 2 February 1990 we removed the last remaining obstacles to negotiations – including the unbanning of all political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela.

After almost four years of roller coaster negotiations we finally succeeded, in December 1993, in reaching agreement on an interim Constitution which secured the core interests of all of the main parties.

Ironically, the climax of my presidency came on 10 May 1994 on the day that I ceased to be President. I felt fulfilled because I had relinquished power – not to Nelson Mandela or the ANC – but to a new dispensation in which the Constitution and the Rule of Law – and not the government of the day – would be supreme.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What have I learned from all of this?

Firstly, the corrosive nature of power. Lord Acton was right: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The problem before 1994 was that Parliament was supreme. It could – and it did – make any law that it pleased.

It is also true that, in the absence of deeply ingrained values and strong and independent watchdogs, those who have power will tend to abuse it to promote their personal and political interests.

That is why it is so important to limit and monitor the power of governments and political leaders.

The lesson is that we should do everything we can to defend the watchdogs of our Constitution. They are under threat – particularly the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks. At the same time, our courts – and our Public Protector – continue to act independently and fearlessly.

Secondly, I have learned that the worst episodes of human history have been caused by ideologies: just think of the 120 million victims of Nazism, Fascism and Communism during the past century.

Ideologists develop theories about how to achieve an ideal society and then try to force reality into the narrow channels of their theories.

They all conjure up enemies: liberals, the bourgeoisie; or the Jews.

South Africa suffered under the ideologies of apartheid and separate development.

Now, once again, the ANC is trying to force the complex realities of South Africa into the narrow channels of the National Democratic Revolution. Its millenarian vision is the establishment of a National Democratic Society in which the economic and cultural space of each race would be pegged to the percentage of the population that it represents. It is leading to the racialisation of our society in which many aspects of people’s lives will once again be determined by the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character.

We even have some of the world’s last communists who believe that the NDR is the best route to the achievement of a communist state!

Thirdly, I have learned that it is much easier to reach agreement on the future than on the past.

I strongly supported the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but unfortunately it did not succeed with promoting reconciliation.

Its greatest flaw was that it was not representative. There were no commissioners who could speak for the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party – two of the main parties to the conflict.

Reconciliation cannot occur if there is no consensus – and consensus is not possible if all sides are not properly represented.

Our inability to reach agreement about the past has been one of the greatest failures of our post-conflict society. The past still intervenes like an unseen barrier in virtually all our national discourses and provides the fuel for continuing recrimination, guilt and polarisation.

As George Orwell observed: “who controls the past, controls the future – who controls present, controls the past”.

Fourthly, I have learned that the key to harmonious relations in multicultural societies is respect for diversity, beneath an over-arching umbrella of common values and loyalties.

A United Nations Development Programme report, published in 2004, affirmed that cultural liberty was a vital part of human development. If handled well, it could lead to greater cultural diversity and enrich people’s lives. However, if it was mismanaged it could “quickly become one of the greatest sources of instability within states and between them.” The answer was to “respect diversity and build unity through common bonds of humanity”.

The UNDP Report recommended that states should promote cultural liberty as a human right and as an important aspect of human development. It is only within such a framework that all of us who live in multicultural societies can achieve our full potential as human beings.

Fifthly, I have learned the enormous value of freedom under a system of caring and humane law.

Freedom is crucial to the happiness, success and prosperity of societies everywhere.

This should come as no surprise: freedom means empowerment. It empowers the individuals, companies and associations of which society is composed; it encourages the freedom of debate and research that is the foundation of all innovation. By so doing it gives free societies an enormous competitive advantage.

In essence, I believe that the central task of government is to create the constitutional, economic, and social framework within which ordinary people can lead their lives as they see fit and to pursue what Yeats called “the ceremonies of innocence”.

I have travelled a long journey from the smallholding and peach orchard of my childhood, to my present home in Fresnaye. I have lost many loved ones along the way. I have encountered many wonderful people, including:

Finally, I learned the importance of hope.

We South Africans have weathered many critical situations. Now, once again, we are experiencing difficult times. We are, however, in a much better position to deal with these challenges than we were in previous times:

So, the view from my balcony in Fresnaye remains positive. We can see the storms surging in from the North-West but we have learned that they will be followed by sunshine – and that South Africa will remain a land of hope.

Image courtesy of Matthew Willman