Nelson Mandela Foundation

This week South Africa lost one of her leading figures from the transition period, former President FW de Klerk. I took the opportunity to call his wife, Mme Elita de Klerk, to convey our heartfelt condolences to her, the wider family, and friends. We cannot imagine how she must be feeling after losing a partner of 23 years, a friend and a companion. 

I got to know Mr De Klerk and his wife soon after beginning to work at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and interacted with both of them, formally and informally, for more than a decade. It was a good working relationship. We could pick up the phone and share pleasantries before having what could be difficult conversations. I remember, for instance, calling him after he had made public pronouncements questioning the use of the category ‘crime against humanity’ in relation to Apartheid. Mme Elita played a big role in always making us understand where we were both coming from. We talked, at least. And for this I'm grateful and will always cherish those calls and meetings. On another occasion, we were both at a conference in Mexico, and he used a quiet moment to question the Foundation’s legal action against AfriForum in relation to displays of the old Apartheid national flag. He worried, he said, that the Foundation was targeting Afrikaners. On this occasion we couldn't agree but decided we would revisit the matter later. Unfortunately, we never did!

As an historical figure, Mr De Klerk loomed large. His legacy is a big one, both in SA and the world. Not surprisingly, it is a complex one, uneven, and highly contested. Of course, all legacies are contested – something we have seen, and encouraged, in relation to Madiba’s legacy. But the De Klerk legacy has a particular internal tension, more precisely, contradiction which speaks to the woundedness which millions of  South Africans still carry almost three decades into the democratic era.

There was something both sad and moving about the  video released by the FW de Klerk Foundation following Mr De Klerk’s passing. This could have something to do with its reflective and confessional tone; a certain striving to be understood, even retrospectively, for a significant measure of genuineness in his leadership. But this attempt at a definitive confessional does not prevent the question:  was the message   . too little too late? Should it  have come through earlier in order to enable a deeper dialogue with him? Did he rob us of an opportunity to probe further with him for a greater understanding of the sources of his leadership decisions? Could this have opened up further avenues for a public discussion whose depth of complex engagement could have led to a much deeper national understanding of what it would take to reconcile for a future to be genuinely shared?

Let’s talk about that momentous time of transition, 1990-1994. On the one hand, finally, negotiations were under way: Mr De Klerk had unbanned the liberation movements, and soon he and Madiba were receiving a Nobel Peace Prize together. On the other, in this time an estimated 15 000 people died in political violence, and Madiba believed that De Klerk’s security establishment was not doing enough to stop it. In fact, there was strong evidence that a blind eye was being turned to security units deliberately provoking violence.

Let’s talk archives and records. As an archivist by profession, this is something I feel strongly about. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed, very early in the transition De Klerk’s State Security Council ordered the systematic destruction of all  ‘state sensitive documentation’, as a way of avoiding accountability and covering up human rights violations as well as corruption. Huge swathes of public memory were lost in the process. What is less well known is that as the first democratic election loomed, De Klerk asked for a legal opinion on the viability of removing cabinet and related records from the custody of the state. He wanted to keep them out of the hands of a future ANC government! The state legal advisers told him such action would be illegal, and the idea was dropped. 

Let’s talk nuclear weapons. By 1990 the apartheid state had an arsenal of nuclear weapons and had tested its capability for long-range delivery of warheads. In other words, the possibility of dropping nuclear bombs on neighbouring countries was in the mix. This reality was inherited by De Klerk when he became head of state. Very quickly he gave instructions for the nuclear weapons programme to be decommissioned - closed down. South Africa became the first country with nuclear weapons capability to voluntarily give it up. Around the world, both De Klerk and the National Party government were lauded for this intervention. And yet. And yet there is strong evidence that the primary motivation was simply to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of incoming Black leaders.

South Africa hasn’t reckoned yet with its oppressive pasts. July 2021 was a clear indication of this. What does one say about racialised public violence in Phoenix-Inanda 36 years after exactly the same thing happened in the area, in 1985. And 36 years before that, in 1949, the same? When will we learn? When are we going to confront the ghosts of our pasts with the view to building a future for coming generations of South Africans? When will we find the courage and the determination to do the really difficult memory work demanded by our history of oppression and wounds its inflicted? When are we going to prosecute those who never got amnesty from the TRC, in order to heal our woundedness? When are we going to teach our children about our oppressive pasts? Is there political will to confront this past? Do we always have to wait for the passing of a figure such as Mr De Klerk for us to express our outrage at the horrors of the past and the prospects for a future we can all be proud of? 

South Africa does need to reckon with the De Klerk legacy. The same man who released Madiba from prison refused to apologise for the crime against humanity that was apartheid until this last moment of his life. The same man who persuaded his political constituencies to support the finding of a negotiated settlement only to walk out of Madiba’s government of national unity after only two years. Conviction and consistency in the pursuit of a new reality  could have been the first strike ensuring that a divided nation never got to see itself as one. Instead, national unity effectively became national disunity. Why did the same man who in his later years contributed to mediation and peacemaking work in other parts of the world only to tryby all means in the early 1990s to secure a blanket amnesty for apartheid operatives. Complex it is!

But De Klerk and Madiba are both gone now. It is indisputable that both of them lead South Africans into a new and different world. That future would have to be grounded on what current generations of South Africans actually do together with shared knowledge and mutual respect,  to create  for ourselves, and together, and on a day-to-day basis, the best possible future.   It is the reckoning work still required to bring about that future which I and the Nelson Mandela Foundation hope to continue and contribute to in the years ahead. This is  because the history of a people   is far from being about one person, one historical figure. It’s about all of us.

At a personal level, I will also have to continue to reckon with the Mr De Klerk I got to know – an old man, an elder, frank but always soft-spoken and courteous. The values of mutual respect, courtesy, and recognition of shared humanity have a long African history. They have never really perished despite colonial and apartheid subversion of them. They need a new and shared reality to be grounded on them and be recognisably African, even where they may have absorbed new influences. Afterall, we are also part of a greater world.

This piece first appeared in City Press.