De Klerk brought to book

Authors are used to book tours. But for F W de Klerk, the ex-president of South Africa, the promotional swiftly became political. Catherine Whitaker went with him
Click to follow
Editors usually make themselves scarce when their books come out. But F W de Klerk's autobiography was no ordinary book. It was a significant political event. So, as its editor, I accompanied the author on tours of Britain and South Africa.

WEDNESDAY 20 JANUARY: The first signing was at Hatchards in Piccadilly. As one would expect of the oldest bookshop in London, the queue was orderly and dignified. South African expats were out in force; I don't think I have ever heard so much Afrikaans spoken in London. Most people approached de Klerk with a nervous reverence and were baffled by his friendliness, just as I was when I first met him. He was asked to sign a pot in his own image and a set of Mandela and de Klerk salt and pepper mills.

Afterwards, we went back to Macmillan's office for a Sky News Book Programme. The soft tones of the interviewer disguised some sharp questions about the iniquities of apartheid. I shifted in my seat as FW justified apartheid as a policy of its time. Journalists are struggling with the absence of a Damascene conversion in his book; F W's realisation that apartheid was morally unjustifiable was a gradual one. Later, I went to the evening launch at Hatchards, arriving early, just as Baroness Thatcher's security guards completed their sweep of the store.

She and Dennis arrived at exactly 7pm. She shook my hand and chatted about the traffic with the sort of detachment one would expect of the Queen. With so many tough interviews ahead, it was good to get the chance to celebrate. In his speech, F W likened promoting the book to being back on the political trail, but worse because now he gets asked about his private life. A man who leaves his wife of 40 years for another woman is bound to get some flak.

THURSDAY 21 JANUARY: We pre-recorded an interview for the following day's Newsnight. F W had just faced the ordeal of John Pilger for the New Statesman. He complained that Pilger has read the book, but hasn't read it.

MONDAY 25 JANUARY: Went to Start the Week with Paxman, Pilger (again), Thomas Keneally, who is promoting his own book, and Lisa Jardine. Everyone was charming in the green room. But once the mike was live the gloves came off and Paxman launched in. Pilger accused FW of genocide. In the green room the Keneally party smiled nervously, but I was getting used to this. F W had faced much worse around the negotiating table, in parliament itself and from the harder nuts in his own party. He calmly asked Paxman to cool it, and came off rather well. We left swiftly. F W, a chain-smoker of Stuyvesants, hadn't had a cigarette for over an hour, so there was no loitering. We had a post-mortem at the St George's Hotel. F W was more concerned about sales than the savaging he had just endured.

TUESDAY 26 JANUARY: We arrived at Borders in Oxford Street for an evening signing. The crowd was huge. F W gave a rousing speech in which he painted a positive future for a South Africa currently racked by crime, corruption and economic collapse. But in the question-and-answer session there was trouble. The first questioner, a very intense young man who was shaking like a leaf and seemed to have a set of notes, started denouncing F W. Given the crush and the lack of security, I was suddenly worried for his safety. The questions were mostly negative and there was lots of heckling. It was ironic. It was a rosy speech, but it might have been delivered to an audience of angry refugees - South Africans who had fled their own country. I wondered if the nervous activist was one such.

THURSDAY 28 JANUARY: I fly to South Africa for the first time since working there for two and a half years. The book is well displayed at all the airport bookshops. The in-flight video on SAA began with much trumpet-blowing: the airline had just won a prize for best duty-free boutique, and seemed proud. "Stewards of colour" then testified about how great it was to work for the new SAA. South Africa's love of the word "new" is second only to Tony Blair's. I detected a self-confidence that was lacking previously, and I wondered how F W would go down in this climate.

FRIDAY 29 JANUARY: Driving into Johannesburg from the airport, the newspaper boards provided their usual litany of negativity. Nor had the cultural life changed noticeably. MNet, the pay channel, boasted FA Cup football and the Teletubbies as its highlights for the season. With my South African colleagues I went through F W's South African tour schedule in a shopping mall. There will be functions where people have paid to hear him talk, which will be easier. I spent the weekend with old friends. It was clear that the 1994 euphoria had evaporated, to be replaced with detachment and worry.

MONDAY 1 FEBRUARY: We attended the gala dinner of the New Chapter literary club at the Hilton Hotel. English-speaking, white, high society was out in force. I had to borrow a frock and stole. F W and his new wife, Elita, looked tired. The interviews were proving less savage than they had been in the UK. But the repetition was getting to him.

At dinner I sat next to one of the younger members of the literary club who made it clear that he had never agreed with F W's politics but admired him as a doer. F W demonstrated his ability to read an audience by delivering a speech exhorting them to "do something!" rather than sit on the sidelines. Do not compare what is bad about the New South Africa with what was good in the past, he said. Think rather what life would be like now if democracy had not come about. Contribute, register and vote to keep that democracy alive. My neighbour enjoyed it.

TUESDAY 2 FEBRUARY: I could not get a ticket to the Institute of Race Relations breakfast with de Klerk, so I listened in bed to an hour-long interview with him on Radio 702, the main talk radio station in the Johannesburg area. The female interviewer was frivolous. Her introduction was a trawl through freedom fighters she had known. "Kader Asmal, a lovely man, such a nice wife." She ran the interview like a coffee morning, chatting about what she was offering F W to drink. F W talked about his health and his tendency to cry, which should have appealled to an audience I assumed to be rich in housewives.

In the evening we drove to the Pretoria launch. Wimpie de Klerk, F W's liberal brother, gave a speech mostly in Afrikaans. F W mentioned me, claiming I was strict with him but charming enough for him not to mind. The press had their interest pricked and I was interviewed for a television arts programme. The deputy editor of Rooi Rose was keen to fix up a longer talk for her slant: the women behind the book.

THURSDAY 4 FEBRUARY: Went to the Cape Town launch at the Rust en Vreugd Museum. This was the Afrikaans publisher's party, but F W spoke in English. This, more than any other audience, was the one that needed convincing that the changes were necessary and good. Talking in English annoyed some of them.

SATURDAY 6 FEBRUARY: My interview with Rooi Rose took place in the colonial surroundings of the Mount Nelson Hotel. Was F W ever sexist? No. Did he seem troubled by your age (26)? No. I faced a raft of questions about the marriage - was it really my place to speculate to an Afrikaans magazine - a cross between Red and Woman's Weekly - about what made my author fall in love? As the interview ended my friend's mobile rang - another interview request, this time for a live radio show. I was supposed to be following the media bandwagon, not jumping on it. But of course I did what I tell authors to do. I said "yes".