Books: Bitter fruit of freedom

Fergal Keane disputes a self-serving apologia from the last Afrikaner president; The Last Trek: a new beginning by F W De Klerk Macmillan, pounds 20, 432pp
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Some months ago, I interviewed F W De Klerk as part of a radio series on people who had resigned from their jobs. He was visiting London with the new love of his life, Elita Georgiadis, the former wife of a Greek shipping magnate. I had not seen him since that remarkable day in Pretoria nearly five years before, when he was sworn in as South Africa's deputy president. Then he had been the smiling figure standing by Nelson Mandela's side as the world applauded the miracle of South Africa's democratic transition. The country had a government of national unity and De Klerk was assured a prominent place at the top table. He might have been forgiven for thinking that South Africa had really put the bitterness and discord of the apartheid era to one side.

But ahead lay disillusionment and personal crisis and, as this autobiography reveals, a great deal of humiliation at the hands of Mandela. The De Klerk I met was, as ever, affable and courteous. He is one of the least arrogant of politicians, a far cry from the men of granite who preceded him as Afrikaner leaders.

In the interview, however, he appeared bitter and defensive. He spoke about the deterioration of his relationship with Mandela and the ignominy which he and the National Party had suffered at the hands of the ANC. By now he had resigned from politics and the Nationalists were in sharp decline. I reminded him that he had once told me at a drinks party in Cape Town of his amazement at Mandela's "fundamental lack of bitterness". Did he still believe that, I wondered? His response was somewhat equivocal. The book, he promised, would tell the full story.

Does it? Yes and no. As an account of a tormented relationship, The Last Trek spares us none of the author's hurt and anger. The mythology, so necessary during the transition, of black and white leaders moving forward together is exploded here. Those of us who lived through the dramatic changes were of course aware of tension between the two men. The issue of violence had provoked several angry public exchanges. But what the book reveals is a relationship that had degenerated into a personal feud soon after Mandela's release from prison.

There are any number of anecdotes about the arguments between the two, which continued up to the National Party's withdrawal from the Government of National Unity in 1997. According to De Klerk's version, Mandela was capable of extraordinary pettiness. Consider what happened when De Klerk wanted to refurbish the official residence he had been given after the 1994 elections. The President of the Republic insisted on accompanying De Klerk and the architect to satisfy himself that the refurbishment was necessary. The incident suggests a great deal more bitterness than we previously suspected.

The root of Mandela's bitterness was not his long imprisonment by the Nationalists. Nor was it the multiple outrages which apartheid heaped on his people. The anger was rooted firmly in the violence of the present. Mandela believed that De Klerk was standing back while his security forces were deliberately fomenting violence in the black townships.

He never seemed to be entirely clear about why De Klerk would want to do this. On occasion, he would suggest that black lives did not matter to De Klerk. At other times he would claim that the Nationalists and security forces were determined to prevent, by any means, the ANC coming to power. They were bitter words but, in the context of the violence and the Nationalists' past record, hardly surprising. Given what we now know of the activities of the police and army, Mandela's claims of a Third Force bent on destabilising the transition seem entirely reasonable.

That is not to say that the ANC was entirely without blame. The organisation could be arrogant, intolerant and woefully irresponsible. It encouraged township youth to form self-defence units which rapidly ran out of control; some of its leaders believed it really would be possible to overwhelm the white state with revolutionary power. The result of that thinking was invariably dead black bodies.

But it was De Klerk's security forces and their allies in Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha who did most to turn the townships into terror zones in the early Nineties. On the issue of violence, De Klerk's book is singularly self- serving and disingenuous. He admits attending a cabinet meeting in the Eighties at which a Third Force was discussed: a body which "must have a well-trained ability to wipe out terrorists. It must be prepared to be unpopular and even feared."

De Klerk claims to have completely forgotten about this discussion until it was brought to his attention 11 years later by investigators from South Africa's Truth Commission. The overall impression is of a man gripped by twin fears: on one hand, he feared the security establishment might try to overthrow him and prevent the transition; on the other, he feared that the process would collapse and that he would be faced with millions of angry blacks demanding their freedom.

De Klerk needed the security forces. They were his insurance policy against the ANC. And this, it could be argued, gave him a powerful reason not to clamp down on their murderous activities. Mandela understood this, too, and he never forgave De Klerk.

Braided through this book's pages is De Klerk's passionate conviction that he is a man who has never been given the credit that is his due. Repeatedly we are told that it was the National Party which created apartheid but which also dismantled it. This latter claim is presented as if the death of apartheid had been the consequence of a moral conversion. It was not. There were some who suffered qualms of conscience, but what changed De Klerk's mind was not the immorality of the system but its unworkability. He deserves credit for his pragmatism and courage - he was one of the bravest politicians of our time. But to claim credit for killing off apartheid is ludicrous. That distinction belongs to the untold millions who suffered under that odious sytem. It belongs to Biko and Sisulu and Kathrada and First and Slovo - and Mandela.