Out of the shadow, into the night

John Carlin records the achievements of FW de Klerk, who quit politics last week

It is F W de Klerk's misfortune that he should have won his place in history at the same time, in the same place, as Nelson Mandela. Instead of being condemned eternally to languish in the shadow of the colossus, as Marlowe to Shakespeare or Foreman to Ali, he might otherwise have been remembered as one of the century's great leaders.

The first time I saw Mr Mandela close up, at a press conference on the morning after his release from prison, I knew that Mr de Klerk would never be in the same league. I wrote in The Independent of 13 February 1990 that "where Mr de Klerk is amiable, clever and urbane, Mr Mandela is charming, wise and has the grandeur of a king"; that while Mr de Klerk had star quality, he belonged to a minor constellation.

Mr de Klerk's finest hour came, not by chance, nine days before Mr Mandela's release. 2 February 1990 is likely to remain etched in South Africans' collective memory for a long time to come as the most significant date in their country's history. That was the day Mr de Klerk gave the speech at the opening of the white parliament that set in train the irreversible course of events that culminated in South Africa's first democratic election on 27 April 1994.

Closing the book on 40 years of apartheid, and 350 years of racist rule, Mr de Klerk unbanned the African National Congress, announced the impending release of Mr Mandela and other political prisoners, and declared that the time for negotiations had begun. None of us knew at the time where the country was headed, or even what the next step would be, but the one thing certain was that the president of white South Africa had crossed his own personal Rubicon and nothing would ever be the same again.

Mr de Klerk himself had his own ideas of what lay ahead. He imagined that he would be able to persuade, or at any rate browbeat, Mr Mandela into accepting something less than one-person one-vote majority rule. He spoke of securing "group rights" for whites - code for a political system in which power would be slanted disproportionately in favour of whites. He seemed to believe, for example, that Mr Mandela might accept a revolving presidency, or equal power-sharing for a period of time. In the end he got a lot less than he bargained for.

The ANC allowed for a one-off deal following the first election whereby each party could have cabinet seats in proportion to the percentage of votes they secured. The National Party picked up 20 per cent of the vote in the 1994 election and four cabinet ministries, plus a junior deputy presidency for Mr de Klerk. But that arrangement did not enhance the National Party's power, it reduced it, and a year later Mr de Klerk announced he was pulling the Nats out of government.

Since then, as it has become increasingly apparent that the ANC will be the party of government for many years to come, both he and his party have been on the wane. Mr de Klerk was wise to leave politics while the memory of his achievement remained fresh.

That achievement, in essence, was to drag along white South Africa - kicking and screaming at times - towards the new democratic dispensation. His co-pilot, Mr Mandela, did much himself to soothe white fears but it was Mr de Klerk who took the bold decision to hold a whites-only referendum in March 1992 to seek approval for the "drastic change" he had promised upon coming to office three years earlier. He ran a vigorous, wholehearted campaign and whites responded with an overwhelming 68.7 per cent "yes" vote.

His words when the result came in matched the immensity of the occasion. "It doesn't happen often that in one generation a nation gets the opportunity to rise above itself. The white electorate has risen above itself... has reached out to all other South Africans."

At moments like these, when Mr de Klerk felt the full weight of his historical responsibility on his shoulders, he would betray a tendency endearingly out of sorts with the dull, lawyerly image he projected to the world. He would shed tears. He wept when he was inaugurated as President in 1989 and he wept again a few months later - I vividly recall the event - at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport upon returning from his first European trip. It was the first time in living memory that an Afrikaner leader had been welcomed in the continent from which the Afrikaners had originally arrived. Mr de Klerk, in conveying to a group of waiting supporters his sense of relief and pride and God knows how many other mixed emotions, just broke up, dabbing tears away from his cheeks before he could resume speaking in a normal voice.

Mr Mandela, however, has never felt any personal warmth for Mr de Klerk, despite his numerous politically astute public expressions of camaraderie. This is because he has always felt that Mr de Klerk did not do enough to stop the tidal wave of violence unleashed on the black townships between 1990 and the 1994 election by forces from the old regime hell-bent on somehow stopping the unstoppable. Mr Mandela repeatedly told Mr de Klerk that these forces consisted of an ungodly alliance between Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha, a child of the old apartheid "homelands" order, and sinister elements within the security forces. But Mr de Klerk would not listen.

One of the prime movers behind the carnage, a security policeman called Eugene de Kock who has since been convicted on multiple murder charges, was awarded a large pay-off by Mr de Klerk's cabinet in 1993. Whether that ill-judged action offers a clue that Mr de Klerk was involved in a cover-up of acts to which he had been content to turn a blind eye is a suspicion that many, including Mr Mandela, have been unable to shake off. Just as likely, though, is the theory that Mr de Klerk was too weak to act against his own security forces and feared that by antagonising them he would be putting at risk the entire negotiating process.

The truth may come out in the memoirs Mr de Klerk says he is planning to write. What we do know, however, is that he did shepherd the transition to democracy with courage and vision, and that when the end came he responded to the decision of the majority with mature responsibility and extraordinary grace.

On 2 May 1994 Mr de Klerk conceded election victory to the ANC in a speech to his supporters at National Party headquarters in Pretoria. Generously acknowledging that he had been defeated by "a man of destiny" who had "walked a long road", Mr de Klerk said that the change in South Africa had been the will of God. "A power greater than man has given South Africa the chance, the spirit to go forward in peace," he said, ending his speech with "God bless South Africa" and then the words "Nkosi Sikelele i'Afrika", the title of the anthem of black liberation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee