FW de Klerk: The man who ended apartheid

Despite overseeing the country’s transition to democracy and the release of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s last white leader remains a controversial figure

Randolph Vigne
Thursday 11 November 2021 18:47 GMT
The former president in 1997
The former president in 1997 (AP)

The younger son of a schoolteaching father who later became a leading Afrikaner nationalist politician, Frederik Willem de Klerk, who has died aged 85, grew up in the rural Transvaal, South Africa, “almost as an only child”.

Though adopted into the heart of the Afrikaner political machine in his thirties, there was always a touch of the outsider about the De Klerks. The family had not been Voortrekker founders of the Boer republics, but though latecomers to the Transvaal, where the Anglo-Boer War had left bitter memories, De Klerk’s branch of the family had their beings within the cohesive Afrikaner volk.

De Klerk’s earliest memory was of being carried on his father’s shoulders to see the laying of the foundation stone of the giant shrine to their movement, the Voortrekker Monument near Pretoria in 1938. This was the zenith of Afrikaner nationalism at its most passionate and exclusivist phase. Ten years later they were to win power and to lose it again, at the hands of De Klerk, nearly 50 years after that. But, morally speaking, for the far greater gain.

His father, Jan de Klerk’s rise from schoolteaching through white trade-unionism to an unelected seat in the Senate (later becoming its president) was through his loyal and fervent nationalism, the role being the gift of his sister’s husband, and hence FW’s uncle JG “Hans” Strijdom, who was prime minister from 1954 to 1958. After serving in Strijdom’s cabinet, then Dr Verwoerd’s, and finally BJ Vorster’s, Jan de Klerk might have become state president but was defeated after what his son FW called “an insidious campaign in which his membership of the minority Reformed Church played a role” – as did an anonymous letter, the contents of which he did not disclose.

De Klerk did well with his law studies at Potchefstroom University, a stronghold of the Doppers, where he led the local branch of the strongly pro-apartheid students’ union, the Afrikaanse Studentebond. After almost 12 years as a successful attorney, and marriage to Marike Willemse, the star woman student of his year, he followed many of his family into politics, with his election to parliament for the city of Vereeniging in 1972.

Doubts about the morality, even the simple practicality, of apartheid, by then softened terminologically to “separate development”, seem not to have occurred to him or his fellows, but then they had grown up with “single issue” politics of a very different kind – Afrikaner unity as the means to self-determination, outside the sphere of British influence and power. It was as if the non-Afrikaner nationalist whites, whom they had supplanted in power in 1948, did not exist politically and the vast mass of black people could be legislated into permanent subservience. De Klerk, a young MP, and cabinet minister from 1978, lived and breathed Afrikaner nationalism and could close his eyes to the long-term failure of apartheid.

Alongside Nelson Mandela as they receive the Unesco Peace Prize in the early Nineties
Alongside Nelson Mandela as they receive the Unesco Peace Prize in the early Nineties (AP)

President Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of apartheid, had been stabbed to death on the floor of the House of Assembly by a parliamentary messenger in 1966. He had, wrote De Klerk, “utterly dominated his cabinet [and the National Party] with his intellect and powerful personality … The marginal comments that he had written on government submissions and reports were regarded almost as holy writ and continued to influence policy for years after his death”.

By the late 1970s FW had held a number of ministerial portfolios, including posts and telecommunications, social welfare and pensions and mineral and energy affairs, and continued to be well cocooned in the Afrikaner nationalist movement and unconcerned about the non-Afrikaner communities and increasingly hostile world outside. His visits to Britain seemed to make little impression, though he “got to know and love the great world city London”. As a child, he had stayed home with his father while his mother went into Krugersdorp to see “the British king” during the Royal Tour of South Africa in 1947. “Neither of us,” he wrote 50 years later, “dreamed … that someday I would be invited to have tea with the British king’s daughter in Buckingham Palace.”

Students from the University of the Witwatersrand protest against apartheid in 1987
Students from the University of the Witwatersrand protest against apartheid in 1987 (AFP/Getty)

His autobiography is, not unusually, lacking in self-awareness, the impression of quite a simple, even good, man, coming through. The bulk of the text tells his side of the story of the tumultuous years after1989 when he succeeded PW Botha as president and was labelled by the English-language press as an apartheid hardliner, opposed by the verligte (enlightened) finance minister Barend du Plessis.

These years ended with the death of the Government of National Unity in 1997 and his retirement from politics. The final decade saw both his fading from the consciousness of the mass of South Africans, after a period of recriminations from his fellow Afrikaners (the Gorbachev analogy is inescapable but De Klerk went further and was the first head of state remembered willingly to have given away power), and his continuing popularity and elder statesman status round the world. It also saw the end of his 30-year marriage to Marike and second marriage to the former wife of a Greek friend he had made on an official visit to London. Tragedy struck too when Marike was violently murdered by a young porter-caretaker in 2001.

In public life, his years in cabinet saw the beginning of the great changes he was to bring to their final implementation, through negotiation with the leader of the African people the Afrikaners could no longer hold down, Nelson Mandela. Nevertheless, until De Klerk succeeded Botha in 1989 there had been “nothing that suggested that he was able to provide transformational leadership”, as Hermann Giliomee observed in his study, The Afrikaners (2003).

He had lain low through the 1970s and 1980s on a major issue of state policy: the “total onslaught”, ie of all South Africa’s enemies – the Soviet bloc, the Cubans in Angola, and the South African and Namibian liberation movements in exile. He distrusted the security establishment, who excluded him as a dove opposed to the hawkish strategies of PW Botha, minister of defence and president for 25 years, who had put sharp teeth into the powerful State Security Council initiated by his predecessor.

With Desmond Tutu in 1987
With Desmond Tutu in 1987 (AFP/Getty)

Since 1982, he had been leader of the National Party in the Transvaal where Afrikaner power and apartheid were sacrosanct and when the right-wing Andries Treurnicht led a major breakaway group out of the party, he let it happen rather than hand the Transvaal division over to arch-conservatives. By his political skill, self-confidence and leadership qualities he kept the Transvaal secure for the National Party through the general election of 1987. The birth of Treurnicht’s Conservative Party was nonetheless the death of Afrikaner nationalist unity, yet the National Party held its own in its remaining years in power.

It had done so through the 1970s and 1980s while drastic departures from the policies of the past took place. These were in response partly to the serious nationwide revolts of 1984-5, the border war to keep Namibia in its grip and, as the government saw it, to keep the Soviet bloc and the Cubans out of the region, and partly to ward off the serious threat of disinvestment and sanctions, made real by Chase Manhattan’s refusal to extend short-term loans to South Africa in 1985.

By 1979 it had become clear that the Verwoerdian vision of a constellation of quasi-independent black states within South Africa’s borders, and Africans in the white Republic as gastarbeiters, had been destroyed demographically by rapid African population growth rates and the realisation that black people would predominate, and increasingly so, in the so-called white areas.

Africans were allowed trade union registration in 1979, “influx control” of black people to the towns and cities had virtually collapsed, in 1983, a new constitution set up a tricameral parliament, with legislatures for “Coloured” and Indians (but not for the huge African majority) was set up. However, in 1986 the pass laws were scrapped. Afrikaner support for apartheid began to crumble, first among intellectuals, and a major prop was knocked away when the Dutch Reformed church synod of 1986 turned its back on apartheid, later declaring it a sin.

With a newspaper on the day South Africa voted to end apartheid
With a newspaper on the day South Africa voted to end apartheid (AP)

The political debate at the top was now between those who favoured a full sharing of power across the colour line after elections on a common roll, and the majority, who sought to safeguard white (mainly Afrikaner) interests by various mechanisms. De Klerk was in the latter group. Under the 1983 constitution he chaired the Ministers’ Council in the (white) House of Assembly, which looked after, and defended, the interests of the whites. His education portfolio kept him away from key areas of policymaking, as the need to “adapt or die” (allegedly Botha’s phrase) became paramount.

There had been far-reaching changes under Botha, and the 1987 general election was won with a promise to bring all South Africa’s communities into the next election. The modalities were not spelt out, however, and Botha, who had become increasingly authoritarian and irascible in cabinet, twice failed to make the commitment to future majority rule, or to release the “man on the island”, Nelson Mandela, the government’s prisoner for a quarter of a century and the African leader with whom Botha was already secret talks with. In August 1989 Botha suffered a severe stroke and was reluctantly prised out of office by his colleagues, with De Klerk among the leaders.

As acting president, until elected by the National Party caucus in November, De Klerk set about taking the actions Botha had been unable to face. “No transition to a democracy would have been possible without both the ANC and the NP forming the bridge over which South Africa could walk. It was above all Mandela and De Klerk who constructed the bridge,” wrote Giliomee, “both showed great skill as leader-conciliators, able to deliver their respective constituencies.”

De Klerk bids farewell to Margaret Thatcher following a series on talks in 1991
De Klerk bids farewell to Margaret Thatcher following a series on talks in 1991 (AP)

Releasing Mandela from prison and unbanning the ANC, other organisations and many individuals in February 1990, was the start (a mighty leap, of which the National Party caucus had not been informed). The repeal of remaining apartheid laws took place the following year. The same year it was member No 8507 of the secret society to foster Afrikanerdom, the Broederbond, who successfully brought about the acceptance of women and black people as members.

The Codesa talks, awful blood-letting between ANC and Inkatha followers in KwaZulu, a right-wing white backlash, withdrawal from negotiations and “rolling mass action” by ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party led to the white referendum in which 69 per cent of an 87 per cent poll voted for a new power-sharing constitution. The first national election on a universal franchise in April 1994 many saw as the birth of a new “rainbow nation”. De Klerk’s hand was as firmly in control of his negotiating team as was Mandela of his.

Despite the harmony that prevailed in the Government of National Unity brought in by the 1994 election, with Mandela as president and De Klerk as one of two vice-presidents, Mandela treated De Klerk with the most overt hostility and distrust, even when they shared the podium to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

De Klerk was thought (wrongly) to have been party to the massacres and murders committed by out-of-control security men, and to have broken trust over agreed procedures during the talks. By 1997 De Klerk found that the National Party (which, since 1992 had admitted black members) was being marginalised in the Government of National Unity, withdrew it, resigned his vice-presidency and retired from politics.

Though the FW de Klerk Foundation, set up in 2000, makes much of his qualifications “to play a constructive role in the new South Africa” none was found for him and he was probably of greater usefulness in the Global Leaders Foundation, which he founded in 2004, in collaboration with other former heads of state “to help and advise governments’”. At his 70th birthday celebration in Cape Town in March 2006 Mandela was at last moved to say: “There is an almost unspoken realisation that we quite possibly could have fallen into the destructive racial war which everyone foresaw had it not been for the daring farsightedness of FW de Klerk.”

Frederik Willem de Klerk, statesman, born 18 March 1936, died 11 November 2021

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