De Klerk passes mantle to younger generation

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The Independent Online
Marthinus van Schalkwyk, a baby-faced Afrikaner, yesterday replaced FW de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, as leader of a divided and weakened National Party.

His election, by a convincing majority, ensured that the NP leadership will remain in white Afrikaner hands, in spite of calls on the party to make good its promises to broaden its racial base by appointing a black or Coloured (mixed race) leader.

The election was another lost opportunity for the party which institutionalised racism to reinvent itself and have even the slightest chance of becoming a viable opposition to the ruling African National Congress. That radical action is needed is undeniable. Support for the NP has plummeted from 20 to 12 per cent since the country's first democratic elections in 1994.

Mr de Klerk yesterday bade farewell to the Cape Town parliament to cheers from his own benches and a few ANC boos, before leading Mr van Schalkwyk, his chosen successor, by the hand to the front opposition benches. He said it was with confidence that he left his party, riddled with divisions in the long-running war between reformers and diehard conservatives, in the hands of a "dynamic young man". But according to many political commentators, Mr de Klerk was merely pausing to rearrange the deck chairs before jumping the once mighty but now sinking Nats ship.

Mr de Klerk, 61, claimed at the end of last month that he was retiring to rid the party of the stench of apartheid. At 37, Mr van Schalkwyk, the youngest leader of the NP, was said to have the innocence of youth on his side. The former political scientist only entered parliament after Mr de Klerk's historic decision in 1990 to release Nelson Mandela and dismantle the apartheid system. But in the NP innocence can be lost rather early. A South African newspaper has revealed that while Mr van Schalkwyk was studying at Rand Afrikaans University he spied for the apartheid regime by running a front organisation for military intelligence called Jeugkrag (Youth Power).

In the end, this revelation did not spoil his leadership chances. Mr van Schalkwyk said: "I am proud of what we did. Those were not normal circumstances." But the smell of apartheid lingers. His sins, of course, pale into insignificance compared to the allegations being levelled at Mr de Klerk through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body charged with exposing the truth about the apartheid years.

Despite winning the Nobel Peace prize after his political volte-face in 1990, Mr de Klerk's reputation has been badly damaged by revelations to the commission. Allegations already made about his knowledge of apartheid era violence, and others forecast to come, are also thought to have helped propel Mr de Klerk from politics.

Although Mr van Schalkwyk has been elected leader, Hernus Kriel, the initial favourite to replace Mr de Klerk who in the end did not stand, will probably pull the strings. Mr Kriel, a staunch conservative, is premier of the Western Cape, the only province run by the NP owing to the support of Coloured voters. One prediction is that an unreconstructed NP will dwindle into no more than a regional power, holed up in the Western Cape.

Many on the NP's liberal wing have already defected to Roelf Meyer's new political party. The former NP general secretary left the party earlier this year after suggesting that it disband and re-form as a black-led, broad-based, multiracial movement.