The first time I met FW de Klerk was on a panel of former enemies in Potchefstroom. Those were the heady days of reconciliation and some senior ANC folk and some of the old Nats shared the platform. It was hard. I struggled with recent memory when he played the role of strongman in his brief stint as the Minister of Education (1984-1989) in PW’s Cabinet. But the invitation was from an ANC stalwart and the subtext of the panel meeting was clear—we need to keep talking across the barriers of pain and enmity if the uneasy transition of the early 1990s was to hold.
It was clear from the start of the Potchefstroom meeting that Mr. de Klerk had not changed an iota of those headstrong beliefs that form the core of the Afrikaner nationalist narrative. Afrikaans had to be protected. Minorities deserve special treatment. Cultural identity had to be preserved. On the latter point, I challenged him in the question time: if cultural identity is so important why did you marry a Greek woman? He tried to answer but seemed to miss the point about apartheid’s conflation of racial and cultural identity.
Still, the purpose of this meeting was to be pleasant and I shared a joke with him over coffee about the Doppers, that austere brand of Afrikaner Calvinism to which de Klerk and the old Potchefstroom University for Christian National Education were intimately connected. He responded with a joke of his own: Did you know that we Doppers believe that Adam was a Venter and Eve a van der Walt? It sounded funnier in the language of exchange, Afrikaans.
Recalling this encounter, I was not at all surprised that the former President struggled to come to terms with the crime of apartheid and its devastating impacts on our humanity. When he did apologise for his reticence on the matter, it sounded unreal. Surrounded by conservative ideologues, he got bad advice. Now faced with unrelenting criticism before, during and after a stormy parliamentary sitting, de Klerk faced an unrelenting firestorm.
But I suspect that the reasons for his initial denial that apartheid was a crime against humanity is a little more complex than the angry columns and sarcastic speeches suggest. In the first place, de Klerk is a human being. In old age, he no doubts wrestles with the question of legacy. How will he go to his grave? How will he be remembered? Deep down he must know the truth—that apartheid was criminal—but he needs to sleep at night. So there is another narrative that he could draw on—that he released Mandela, ended apartheid and has a Nobel Laureate to show for it. He did so at the right time, when the Soviet Union, that agitprop of communist propaganda, finally collapsed. To accept that apartheid was a crime against humanity would make him the head of a criminal state. That is a burden too heavy to bear.
In the second place, de Klerk is a lawyer. To acknowledge that apartheid was a crime is to make the last white president criminally liable. Antjie Krog may be right in her musings on the matter, there is that small matter of The Hague and the possibility of justice through its courts. In political reality, that is highly unlikely to materialize for a simple reason—he gave up power and negotiated the end of apartheid with the world’s greatest statesman and played his role in the first democratic government. Still, as a lawyer you do not take any chances.
I recently interviewed Mr. de Klerk at his Foundation about the educational negotiations during CODESA. Genial throughout, he nevertheless looked small, frail and vulnerable, nothing like the political colossus who once strode across the stage of history.
When the storm broke about de Klerk’s denial of apartheid as crime against humanity, I posted on social media that he did give up power, enabled negotiations and stood down when required. He could have stayed on with his government firmly in control of Africa’s most powerful military. We could well have had a bloodbath of epic proportions that would have laid waste to this beautiful country. But with pressure from inside and outside, he eventually surrendered power.
My social media message made the point that if only he apologised for the denial, his legacy would be enhanced. And then it happened. He came forward and apologised for the hurt caused by his denialism. Whether this was out of sincere conviction or strategic maneuver, I cannot say. What I do know is that this was a very humbling act for a once powerful man.
Many have accepted his gesture recognizing that the real costs for an apartheid leader is that he lives out the remaining years of his life coming to terms with what he knows, deep down, was a horrific crime against humanity. That, too, is a terrible burden to bear.