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F.W. de Klerk: a hero of our time

Few rulers give their empires away, says Rian Malan, but 20 years ago, for the good of his country, de Klerk did just that. South Africa owes him a great debt

3 February 2010

12:00 AM

3 February 2010

12:00 AM

I almost punched an Englishman the other day. We were sitting in a bar, talking about the 20th anniversary of F.W. de Klerk’s Great Leap Forward of 2 February 1990 — the day he rocked the world by announcing that he was about to unban the revolutionary movements, free Nelson Mandela and turn South Africa into a land of peace and justice. I was explaining why I thought de Klerk’s move was an act of heroism almost unparalleled in the history of humankind, but the Englishman didn’t want to know. ‘De Klerk was a loser,’ he said, ‘a racist battered into submission by sanctions, township violence and global isolation, and then forced to do a decent thing that should have been done decades earlier.’ The corollary was of course that Mandela was a sweet old man who shouldn’t have been locked up at all, and the ANC an army of hymn-singing moderates who just wanted to establish a democracy like Great Britain’s. Like I say, I wanted to moer him, and I’d better explain why.

De Klerk’s February speech changed everything in South Africa forever. In weeks to come, there’s going to be a lot of debate about this — the consequences that were good, those that weren’t, his alleged failures at the negotiating table and so on. There will also be a revival of the old debate about what exactly pushed de Klerk over the edge. Pop psychologists will say he must have had a Damascus Road experience, something that caused him to abandon apartheid and embrace the brotherhood of man, but there is no hint of any such event in de Klerk’s autobiography. Rightwingers will accuse him of selling out to international capitalism, but that’s even more absurd than the leftist notion that he was brought to his knees by a ‘catastrophic’ military defeat at Quito Carnavale. (Quito Carnavale was the town to which Russia’s Cuban and Angolan surrogates retreated after suffering a ghastly thrashing at the nearby Lomba River in 1987. The Boers attempted to take Quito, too, but their ancient jets were outclassed by Soviet MIGs, so they gave up the pursuit and came home. Fidel Castro airbrushed the embarrassing bits out of existence and recast the rearguard action as a victory.)

Personally, I attach more weight to an event that took place on the far side of the planet. There’s a certain class of left-liberals who dispute the connection between De Klerk’s February speech and the fall of the Berlin Wall three months earlier, usually the same people who laughed when Pretoria portrayed itself as the defender of democratic values against the red menace. It’s true that Pretoria used anti-communism as a justification for continued white rule, but it doesn’t follow that the ‘total onslaught’ was a figment of the National Party’s imagination. Marc Gevisser, a writer granted access to internal ANC documents while researching a biography of Thabo Mbeki, came forth with evidence showing that Mandela’s comrades in exile were red beyond the most paranoid imaginings of Pretoria’s secret policemen: in the 1970s, all but one of the leaders on the ANC’s National Executive were secretly in the South African Communist Party, and hence wedded to bizarre ‘scientific’ notions of a global dictatorship of the proletariat.

Alone, these men were just dreamers, but with the Soviet Union’s backing, they constituted a serious threat, especially when Moscow started sending Cuban troops and Russian military advisers to the Angolan front. But the threat declined along with the Soviet Union and vanished entirely when the Berlin Wall came down. Those who mock the sincerity of Afrikaner resistance to Soviet totalitarianism would do well to note that within weeks of its final collapse, de Klerk was moving decisively toward a peaceful settlement.


But this still doesn’t tell us why he did what he did. In fact, military theory holds that he should have moved in the opposite direction, taking advantage of the enemy’s weakness and disorientation to consolidate his power. De Klerk’s army was invincible. His police had largely subdued ANC plans to turn unrest into insurrection. To be sure, his regime was globally unpopular and sanctions were beginning to bite, but the resulting discomfort was bearable. There was no immediate threat to NP hegemony. De Klerk himself said as much, in an address to his police chiefs: ‘We have the capacity to hold onto power for another 20 years.’ ANC military leader Chris Hani concurred, telling his Soviet backers to steel themselves for at least another ten years of war. This was shortly before the collapse of communism. God knows how Hani assessed his chances in the aftermath.

Which brings us, at last, back to the Englishman who so aggravated me. Humans are an aggressive species, driven by selfish genes to smash rivals and build empires on their corpses. Afrikaners don’t like to be reminded, but that’s exactly what we did here at the tip of Africa. Ours was an empire much like any other, a bit smaller than Rome’s, considerably less murderous than Stalin’s, similar in many respects to African empires of the pre-colonial period. It is in the nature of empires to benefit the imperial elite, and lo, we benefited. It is also in the nature of empires eventually to fall, usually amid horrible bloodshed and revenge-taking, and then to be replaced by empires as self-serving as those that preceded. But it is not in the nature of emperors to abdicate in the almost insanely brave hope of breaking the cycle. Which is exactly what de Klerk did that day.

There are those who’d reduce his great gesture to a shallow calculation based on rational evaluation of the demographic and economic variables, but I can’t accept that. It was the culmination of a journey that began in Afrikaner hearts a long time ago. Jan Smuts knew that if we loved Africa and intended to stay here, to become Africans in the sense prefigured by our name, we would eventually have to come to terms with our African brothers. Prime Minister John Vorster knew this too, warning that if we failed to reach an accommodation, the consequences would be ‘too ghastly to contemplate’. His successor, P.W. Botha, presented his followers with an even starker choice: ‘Adapt or die.’ Haunting words, those: the words of a man who knew in his bones that we’d one day have to cross the Rubicon, but could never quite find the courage to cast himself into the raging waters.

And so it fell to de Klerk to take the dive. His pluck was greeted by a global roar of approval, but those who cheered loudest were usually those who had the least understanding of the gamble he was taking, lowering his weapons on a continent where it’s dangerous to be weak and defenceless. There are, of course, some Afrikaners who will never forgive him, but I think most would concede, even if through gritted teeth, that de Klerk’s offer of friendship has been accepted with a measure of grace. We’re still here, still grilling our wors under the blue heavens celebrated in our old national anthem and whingeing about the many signs of creeping decay. It’s sometimes hard to see a future, but if we’d stayed inside the laager, we would have had no future at all.

Anyone who has doubts on this score should consider what’s happened to Israel over the past 20 years. On the day de Klerk stepped up to the microphone to make his historic speech, God’s other chosen people were also contemplating the opportunities created by the end of the Cold War. They too were presented with a fleeting chance to make peace from a position of power, but the risks were too great, so they dug in their heels, refusing to make the painful concessions necessary to break their ancient s
talemate with Palestine. Now they’re totally isolated, totally reliant on the protection of a declining America, and facing a deadly fundamentalist enemy interested only in their eradication.

These are the fruits of intransigence, and they look rather unappetising. If not for F.W. de Klerk, white South Africans would have been in a similar, but probably worse position. That’s why I’ll be raising a glass to him on anniversary day, and threatening to moer anyone who fails to say ‘cheers!’.


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