Books: The most surprising rebel

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The Independent Culture
The Autoboigraphy: The Last Trek, A New Beginning

by FW De Klerk Macmillan pounds 20

For half a century, a tribe of semi-European zealots ran South Africa according to the fervent blood-rites of their sect. Then, one day, their leader stood up and said none of it was true any more. Why did he do it? Frederik Willem De Klerk sets out to tell his story in The Last Trek, a mixture of autobiography, apology and alibis. At the end I am still unsure why he did it - but what he did was so extraordinary that South Africans are still rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

What is clear is the distance De Klerk had to travel. The rightness of racial separation was mother's milk to the man. His father was a government minister. His brother edited the Nationalist newspaper, Die Transvaler, an organ so slavishly devoted to the party line it made Pravda look positively impudent. His Uncle Hans Strijdom, had been prime minister. A white supremacist known as the "Lion of the North," a man of flashing eyes and such alarming rhetoric that my mother, who took me to hear him speak when I was a child, always swore he could silence a fractious baby at twenty paces.

De Klerk, then, was a cradle Afrikaner nationalist. Black people in South Africa were a problem for which a solution must be found. A multitude so alien Government ministers never really knew what to call them. Though a ministerial colleague of De Klerk's once made a stab at it. He called them "superfluous appendages." In De Klerk's world prejudice was piety. Seeing the world in black and white was the opposite of narrowness - it was the will of God. Afrikaner Nationalists were racial warriors charged with purifying God's holy acre.

This formidable sect came to power in 1948. With each victory came fresh taboos about racial hygiene. The mania reached mystical proportions by the time De Klerk entered politics. There was nothing a good Nat would not separate except the white man from his comforts, his servants and his sport. Let no man join together what God had put asunder. The axe fell on schools, churches, cities, taxis, ambulances, blood transfusions, heart-transplants and love affairs across the colour bar. When De Klerk served as the minister responsible for morality "policemen customarily checked the warmth of the sheets in lovers" bedrooms for signs of recent occupation, and constables leaped from trees when couples embraced in the park. Looking back, De Klerk does not hide his early convictions. He felt occasional "regrets" or "doubts" but no more. These were sincere attempts by the Afrikaner to protect himself from extinction. For half a century, in the great temple to ethnic purity that was Afrikanerdom, the religious police patrolled. Disbelievers were banned exiled, imprisoned. Heretics might be shot, hung, or have their heads banged against their cell walls until they were dead. But they died, as De Klerk's Party assured South Africans - such was the colossal effrontery of the creed - in order to strengthen democracy.

So it went. And so it might have gone on - for another decade, perhaps longer. Then, on 2 February 1990, telling only close cabinet colleagues what he proposed, without even a word to his wife, F W De Klerk stood up in Parliament and threw a bomb into the basilica.

Everything his party stood for, his own history, his political beliefs as well as those taught by his church, had been wrong, finished, done for - and with eerie calmness, one after another, he pitched them overboard. After 27 years in jail Nelson Mandela was to be released, apartheid scrapped, exiles welcomed back, political parties banned for years were legitimised, liberation armies brought in from the bush, the death penalty suspended, and free elections offered to an incredulous people.

There are some who say his hand was forced by the ANC, the guerrilla war, and internal strife. That is wishful thinking. The old regime was good for a lot more destruction and it had not dreamt of giving in. It took De Klerk to make the leap. Nothing in his background hinted at the great radical he became. De Klerk broke with the past more decisively than any white leader in the history of South Africa and his place in that history is assured.

How strange then that he has managed to write such a steadily dull book about it. Fortunately the astonishing story survives the story-teller. A boy who grew up believing that white Afrikaners were divinely ordained to run South Africa, turned that world on its head and accepted that the country would be run by black people who until then had not been allowed to run a city council.

Beneath his rather bland exterior F W De Klerk conceals a cool mind and a ruthlessness which served him well when he faced down the old-guard of his party - men who elevated street fighting into the cardinal political virtues. In South Africa politics was - it still is - war.

The shunting aside by De Klerk of his fiercesome predecessor, P W Botha when the other had no intention of relinquishing power was a political putsch carried out with meticulous brutality. And this against a backdrop of low-level civil war and bloody uprisings across the country. De Klerk's coolness under fire, his ability to concentrate, his lack of bombast are great political gifts.

The strength of The Last Trek is that it never disguises De Klerk's early devotion to Afrikaner nationalism. It will infuriate some people. But it makes his later recantation all the more remarkable. So too, strangely enough, does his angry battle with black nationalists and others who deride his claim that he did not know tortures and killings went on while he was president. It never occurs to him that these denials seem false or fatuous. Death had become a way of life. Human sacrifices to the gods of racial purity were an old custom. Everyone knew that.

But the very hard thing to do was to reverse the process. This De Klerk assuredly did. One feels he looks for some appreciation from his own people; and it may be slow in coming. But he can have no doubt that his country is in his debt.