FW de Klerk: villain or hero?

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The political legacy of Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era leader, is an ambivalent one, to say the least. 

His death last Thursday, aged 85, has renewed attention with regard to his role in finally bringing the National Party’s (NP) oppressive Apartheid regime to an end, and has encouraged a worldwide reflection on his attitude to South Africa’s cut-throat policies of racial segregation. These policies, implemented officially by the NP in 1948, hearkened terrifyingly back to the fascist regimes that had pervaded Europe in the lead up to, and during, the Second World War. 

Banning interracial marriages and relationships, withholding full property rights and restricting the movement of black South Africans within the country, as well as mandating that physical segregation be upkept in almost every realm of society, echoed the intense racism the Western world had just witnessed under Nazi control. 

His legacy is an ambivalent one to say the least

Gross human rights abuses and crimes against humanity were woven into the very fabric of the Apartheid regime, and for the vast majority of his political career, de Klerk supported and defended its perpetuation. His alliances to and work under the former president PW Botha, who in his Guardian obituary was described outright as “one of the most evil men of the 20th century”, convinced de Klerk’s peers that reform was rock-bottom on his political agenda.  

As a consequence, his decision to dismantle pro-Apartheid legislation and strive for universal suffrage upon his succession of Botha as State President in 1989 appeared to come as something of a U-turn. Many, including within the political realm, expected that they would not outlive the regime that had thus far dominated South African society for over 40 years. 

However, mounting interracial insurrection and violence, exacerbated by state security forces encouraging hostilities between certain ethnic groups were hot on de Klerk’s radar. Without intervention, a racial civil war was an inevitability. The vast majority of de Klerk’s presidency, as a result, consisted of negotiations with exiled ANC members and anti-apartheid activists. Through this, hope of establishing a path to a democratic, multi-party government more closely related to those that existed in the Western sphere could turn into a reality. 

After one such lengthy conversation in prison with Nelson Mandela, de Klerk’s order to release him in 1990 paved the way for a formation of a close, although not entirely harmonious, political relationship. Despite sharing the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their joint roles in ending Apartheid, de Klerk’s new position as Mandela’s deputy proved a source of tension. There were public arguments and, ultimately, de Klerk withdrew the NP from the coalition and actively led the opposition against the ANC, which he claimed was necessary to prevent South Africa from slipping dangerously into a single-party government for the second time. 

Following this turbulent descent from his political height, de Klerk’s reputation was – as he himself admitted – irrevocably damaged by his refusal to accept any responsibility for the gross human rights abuses committed by the state security forces during Apartheid when called to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 

His death has brought debate and reflection on the impact of Apartheid back into public relevance and consciousness

This is one area where de Klerk’s post-Apartheid legacy seriously falters. His refusal to admit to his government’s complicity in the humanitarian atrocities that occurred under the Apartheid regime stood at odds with his determination to free his country from its grasp. Surely, in order to move forward – as he had so laboured for – past wrongs must be acknowledged and accounted for. His failure to consider how a violated society may be expected to move on without full closure or justice resulted in deep frustration for many. 

Further contradictions to his earlier efforts to quash Apartheid, such as his opposition to a campaign to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes in Balliol College, Oxford, reanimated such frustrations and even resulted in calls to revoke his Nobel Prize. 

Among South Africans today, opinion is divided. Some view FW de Klerk as a national hero, a figure to be respected and admired, others as a racist hypocrite and human rights criminal. Some are willing to forgive the part he played in the continuation of Apartheid in acknowledgement of the courage he showed in endeavouring to dismantle it. 

Still, his death has brought such debate and reflection on the impact of Apartheid back into public relevance and consciousness, which can only be productive, regardless of whether or not it is within our capabilities to agree on any one conclusion.

Image: Walter Rutishauser via Wikimedia Commons

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