Part of a wider split

The end of the De Klerks' lengthy marriage mirrors a change affecting their whole nation.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS the Valentine's Day bombshell. The former South African president F W de Klerk, 61, has announced that he is divorcing his wife Marike 60, after 39 years of marriage.

Mr de Klerk's decision to separate came with the usual amendments; the decision had not been easy to take - not least because Marike was opposed to a split - and he had gone through a great deal of pain in making it.

There were other predictable features. When rumours of trouble in the marriage surfaced a few weeks ago, Mr de Klerk, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with President Nelson Mandela for ending white minority rule, said he was in the midst of a personal crisis that was hurting his family. He pleaded with the media for a little space.

At that stage of course there was no mention of another woman but Elita Georgiadis, 45, the wife of a Greek shipping magnate, was already waiting breathlessly in the wings. Within days that too became public and a home- grown scandal managed to knock Zippergate off South Africa's front pages.

Mrs Georgiadis and her husband, Tony, it emerged, had been close friends of the de Klerks and the two couples had holidayed together at the Georgiadis' English estate and on board their yacht. According to press reports Mr Georgiadis was a great supporter of Mr de Klerk and a contributor to National Party coffers.

It is of course not the first time that he has taken South Africa by surprise. In 1990 his decision to unban the ANC and release Mr Mandela stunned the country, and particularly his tribe, the Afrikaners, many of whom regard him as a traitor.

But if the right was poleaxed by the political revolution it is also at sea about the break-up of the de Klerk marriage. Like whites' God-given right to govern, their union - an outstanding example of a loyal and faithful marriage and traditional family values - had been one of those things Afrikaners could depend on. Suddenly another old certainty went up in smoke.

The Afrikaner establishment has done its best to save the marriage, which produced three children, now grown-up and married. Dr Jan Visser, chairman of the Gereformeerde Kerk, of which de Klerk is a member, said: "One can only hope and pray that Mr de Klerk comes to his senses for the glory of God, and for the sake of his wife and family, the Afrikaner and the church."

But the pastor's comments seemed a little dull and outdated against the utterances of Mr de Klerk and Mrs Georgiadis whose heart-on-sleeve comments were heart-warming and at the same time a little embarrassing. He talked of a love that would not be denied despite all his internal conversations with the Almighty and his self-imposed two year ban on seeing Mrs Georgiadis; she was interviewed sobbing on a plane bound for Athens about the unintended love that had shattered her life.

Their affair apparently stretches back at least four years; that revelation has prompted speculation that Mr de Klerk was less than frank when he gave up the leadership of the beleaguered National Party last year apparently to make way for a younger man. The new relationship, it is claimed, had a big influence on his decision.

Reaction of Afrikaner churchmen has been predictable: reaction of the wider public less so. In the dark old days of apartheid, newspapers gave little space to the private lives of public figures and politicians. This is partly because South Africa, torn apart by the liberation war, had bigger things to think about. But a lingering 1950s conservatism also played its part.

Conservative Afrikaners apart, people have tended not to see the divorce as a sign of post-apartheid moral decline (for most that would be a contradiction in terms anyway). While Mrs de Klerk did come out fighting - inextricably linking her marriage to the National Party - public sympathy was tempered by her widespread unpopularity. Regarded as more right-wing and racist than her husband, Mrs de Klerk is remembered for her vehement opposition to her son Willem's engagement to a coloured - mixed race - South African in the 1980s.

Her current misfortune has provided newspapers with a golden opportunity to run through some of her classic political statements such as her explanation of "coloured" during a lecture to pensioners in 1983.

"The definition of a `coloured' in the population register is someone that is not black, and that is not white, and is also not Indian, in other words a non-person," she told them. "They are the leftovers." One newspaper quipped last week "Not the only ones, Marike?"

In the absence of public outrage there was in fact a fair degree of prurient interest, an indication that south African attitudes are changing or that they changed long ago and the trend was distorted by the restrictions of the old regime.

That is not to say that it is just Afrikaners who cling to the old rules. The Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, black leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, last week attacked both Mr de Klerk and President Mandela for the example they were setting to the young.

Mr Meshoe said it was unacceptable for the President to be living with his companion Mrs Graca Machel without being married. He said neither Nobel Prize winner was helping to re-establish South Africa's moral fibre. Mr Mandela has admitted he is unhappy with his living arrangements but says he takes his cue from Mrs Machel whom he says has him "blossoming like a flower". Mrs Machel, a widow, does not want to marry again.

But most politicians seem keen to keep the personal and political strictly separate in South Africa; eager, perhaps, for a French rather than British model. When asked last week if Mr de Klerk's problems did not undermine his stance on family values, the National Party said the matter was entirely private and that that had been the NP's position during President Mandela's divorce from his wife, Winnie, and the questions raised over his relationship with Mrs Machel.

For every moral proscriber there are many more South Africans who see life as a deal more complicated than the old rules would suggest. Bald statistics are testimony to that. South Africa's divorce rate has been high for years. Long before the end of apartheid, whites bore most responsibility for that. But in the post-apartheid era, black couples are divorcing more.

Black divorce rates were not recorded until the 1994 democratic elections but their numbers are rocketing. "For some time, the rate [for whites, indians and coloured] has been about two in five marriages ending in divorce," says Liz Dooley, a counsellor with the Family Life Centre, a relationship support agency. "It is among urban blacks that is now rising. Emancipation of women is having a major impact. There are many more opportunities for black women now and they are becoming much more assertive."

If the De Klerk separation is a sign of any post-apartheid loosening up, Miss Dooley suggests, it is part of a relaxation taking place all over the world.Ending four decades of marriage is painful but perhaps the task is less daunting when you began the dismantling of apartheid after many more years of white minority rule.