After apartheid: De Klerk, an odd breed of conservative

South Africa's last white president stakes claim to place in history as architect of new order
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F W DE KLERK, South Africa's last white president, supporter then dismantler of apartheid, sucks hard on his cigarette, then agrees. It has been a radical decade - politically and privately - for a man born into the heart of the conservative, white Afrikaner establishment.

Mr de Klerk began it by negotiating himself and the Afrikaner Volk out of power, ending decades of injustice and brutal violence by finally giving black people the vote. And he has finished it with another shock for his people by ending a marriage that lasted 39 years, almost as long as apartheid, to marry another woman 16 years his junior. He is a rather odd breed of conservative, Mr de Klerk.

"I was always at the centre of my party," he says emphatically. "I was unfairly characterised conservative." He says the media image owed much to his attempt to hold on to the mainstream of white opinion when splits opened in the party over political reform. But he was, he claims, all the time beavering quietly away for change. So there it is. He was not, as his many critics complain, just a calculating Johnny-come-lately to the just cause.

But which de Klerk will history remember? Is his autobiography, The Last Trek, A New Beginning - which he is in Britain to promote - simply a retirement rearguard action against those who would rob him of his rightful place in history, right up alongside the saintly President Nelson Mandela? Or is it, as the cynics say, an attempt by an embittered man to rewrite and sanitise a chequered political past, cleaning up the dirt that would besmirch the achievements he wants to be remembered for?

"I am not putting up a fight for recognition of any contribution," he insists. "The ANC is not prepared to give us that full recognition but I find the international community is."

But one wonders. It must hurt that no one questions President Nelson Mandela's contribution to the miraculous negotiated transfer of power in a country that seemed set for a bloodbath. But many question Mr de Klerk's, and still believe he should never have received the joint Nobel peace prize with Mr Mandela. He insists his role is recognised in the US and England and was only contentious in the Nobel prize's home country, Norway. He writes about that in the book. After confirming an open secret - that despite their public shows of unity, the relations between the two men were badly strained - he describes the evening after the Nobel award ceremony when he stood with Mr Mandela on the balcony of an hotel to watch a quaint torchlight procession in their joint honour.

Then Mr De Klerk became aware that the crowd below had started to shout ANC slogans and the old anti-Afrikaner war cry: "Kill the farmer, Kill the Boer". For an encore the Norwegians joined in a rousing chorus of the ANC anthem "Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika".

There is something naively Afrikaner about his observation that he "was made to feel quite unwelcome". But then he champions a people who have never really understood why the world could not see their predicament, as a small beleaguered white tribe on the dark continent.

Mr de Klerk says he wrote the book to state the Afrikaner case and challenge the stereotype of his people as racist extremists. "I tried to project myself and the de Klerk family as a prototype for the normal moderate average Afrikaner family," he says, "and through my experiences to put into perspective why we did what we did."

He insists he is not settling scores with anyone in particular. But most press attention has focused on his revelations about the acrimonious relationship with President Mandela, and his criticism of a man beyond reproach in many people's judgement.

Mr de Klerk says the gathering of criticism of Mr Mandela from the book has created an "unbalanced picture", and that he also gives credit where it is due. "Yes, I think he is a great man," he says. "But like all great men he has his faults and has made mistakes."

He reveals that during the long precarious negotiations Mr Mandela would routinely insult him, in public and private, and phone him in the middle of the night to berate him for the violence racking the country.

Mr de Klerk was, and is, offended that the ANC refused to take his word that he was not sanctioning the violence, carried out by a shadowy Third Force, led by diehard white security police. But many will snort at his assertion that he did not know about government-sanctioned assassination squads - both before and after he became president, and his explanation that while he served on the infamous State Security Council he was never part of its secretive inner circle.

Mr de Klerk has never claimed any damascene conversion in the jettisoning of apartheid. He claims the National Party decided that "separate development" - the white euphemism for apartheid - had to go in the mid-1980s. The townships were ablaze, international isolation was increasing, and South Africa was on the brink of economic disaster.

He insists, however, that the National Party's conclusion also had a moral dimension. "It [apartheid] had failed to bring justice to all South Africans," he says. But even here he cannot win. His detractors say he was just a pragmatic politician, astute and flexible enough to see the writing on the wall.

There is one innocuous statement in the book that seems to shed some light on this revolutionary conservative. It comes in an early chapter, when he meets Marike, his first wife, when both are students at Potchefstroom University. She already had a boyfriend - Mr de Klerk's friend - and he a girlfriend. "But I decided to change all that," he writes simply. And he did.

It was the same three decades later when he and Marike met Elita Georgiadis and her husband. He and Elita fell in love. It took longer this time to "change all that" because there was so much "pain and hurt involved". But after much soul-searching he did.

He claims that once made, he has always stuck to his decisions - personal and political - and that he cannot live a lie.

Despite the doom and gloom about crime and the economy, Mr de Klerk claims to be optimistic about the future. He admires the "intellectual and managerial abilities" of the deputy president Thabo Mbeki, Mr Mandela's anointed heir.

But he worries that the ANC will blame all its failures on the old oppressors, and he makes a plea, without a trace of irony, for Mr Mbeki to resist any drift back to racial polarisation. As if it ever went away.