Editorial: We come to bury De Klerk, not to praise him

What does one write about the death of the last president of the apartheid state of South Africa, FW de Klerk? A man vilified by some for letting go of the “fatherland” in exchange for a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, and by others for the transition years where thousands were slaughtered in the killing fields in Kwazulu-Natal and in the townships surrounding Gauteng in the late eighties until the dawn of our democracy.

For anyone born after these transition years, burning townships with South African Defence Force Casspirs is something they’ve heard tales about from a generation left traumatised by the bloodshed. 

It’s a story from another century. The conversations in the Mail & Guardian newsroom have ranged from dismissing his death and his meaning to a 2021 South Africa, to a begrudging acknowledgement that he was a significant figure. 

Today’s South Africa was shaped by negotiations he chaired alongside Mandela. The interests of an “elite” few derived from centuries of exploitation of this land’s wealth were protected and further enriched in the years since, only widening inequality. The spoils of a “rainbow nation.” 

From being a supporter of apartheid, a crime against humanity, he became the man who would lead National Party and the state in 1989, release Mandela, unban the ANC and other anti-apartheid movements. Should we disregard the lives lost as a result of his state machinery stoking tensions between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC? 

The writing was on the wall many years before he would take the lead. As both a political and economic experiment, apartheid had long passed its best days (just after World War II). The Cold War would provide supporters for the corrupt state as UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan were allies, fearful of the spread of communism. 

By 1985, the stage had been set for PW Botha to end the inhuman experiment — only for him to withdraw into his laager with the Rubicon Speech and thereby writing his own political eulogy. Taking the place of “Die Groot Krokodil,” would take some nerve — or simply a political opportunist. De Klerk fits the latter description, taking the opportunity of a moment just calling out for someone to make the move. He wasn’t a man who had suddenly found a moral compass.

A pragmatist, certainly.

Just last year, in an interview with the SABC, he said he was “not fully agreeing” with the presenter who asked him to confirm apartheid as a crime against humanity. That doesn’t sound like a reformed man. Perhaps we can in all honesty thank De Klerk for being a political opportunist, moving the country forward, the only option — outside of trying to recreate a two-state solution. For the killings during his five-year run as state president to 1994, he will now never face any accountability.

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