On 11 November 2021, the last president of Apartheid South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk (popularly known as F.W. de Klerk), passed on. Some have claimed that de Klerk is a divisive figure in death as in life. Well, the only divisive aspect about him in death is the lengths to which the predominantly white structures of power, more specifically the western mainstream media, have gone in their attempts to rehabilitate a member of the National Party, which was the architect of apartheid. Despite these whitewashing efforts, De Klerk should always be remembered as the defender of a racist ideology that has refused to die down. Here is why.
First, Fredrick de Klerk was a scion of an influential Afrikaner family that espoused white supremacy in South Africa. Obviously, he rose through the ranks of the National Party by demonstrating his commitment to its racist ideology. His dramatic announcement of Mandela’s release was not born out of any moral conviction, or a Damascene realisation that all races were equal. A more credible explanation was that, unlike many of his predecessors, de Klerk was more realistic and pragmatic, if not cynical, in his quest for personal redemption. For one thing, South Africans determined to overthrow the apartheid regime put up sustained resistance that made South Africa virtually ungovernable. For another, elsewhere on the African continent, white rule had ended, leaving South Africa a moral stain on the global stage and an untenable polity on a liberated continent. In addition, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the implosion of the Soviet Union, put paid to the rationale that apartheid South Africa was a bulwark against communism in Southern Africa – Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom were happy to humour apartheid South Africa, for as long it cloaked its pernicious racism in the veneer of a fictional fight against communism. Not to mention that relentless sanctions, though numerously defied by clandestine players, were a headache that apartheid leaders could not stave off in perpetuity. A confluence of these factors forced de Klerk’s hand.
Secondly, the bloody road to South Africa’s first inclusive elections demonstrated that De Klerk still hankered for the reins of power. His administration played a part in stoking ethnic and black-on-black violence which threatened to further delay and derail the road to the end of apartheid. The National Party was accused of arming the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in its turf wars against the ANC-leaning United Democratic Front (UDF). During interminable negotiations for a watershed election to usher in a new era in South Africa, it was the murder of SACP leader Chris Hani in April 1993 that brought the urgency of ending apartheid in sharp relief. Due to Hani’s wide popularity, many feared that his murder by a Polish migrant would engulf South Africa in civil war. It is Mandela’s message of restraint, a statesmanlike performance, that put out the fire and thwarted the schemes orchestrated by De Klerk’s dying regime.
In all this, we see a de Klerk that was responding to inexorable changes, but also a cynical and opportunistic politician who would have done anything to retain power. In 1993, he and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Arguably, this was an incentive for de Klerk to call for peaceful elections so as to appear worthy of the Peace Prize, despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary. De Klerk would thus be happy if his legacy highlights his role in bringing apartheid to its long-overdue end. Outside South Africa’s borders, he would be happy if people remembered that it was under his leadership that South West Africa gained independence from apartheid South Africa and was born as Namibia. But this would be a perverted story devoid of context, similar to the stories that teach Africans about the “benefits” of colonisation.
Unsurprisingly, his posthumously released message of unqualified apology and regret for apartheid has not been appreciated by many South Africans who would have preferred him to say it whilst he was alive. Many families who lost loved ones at the hand of apartheid hitmen still reel from the trauma of some of them not knowing where their family members are buried. Truth be told, his message is also discredited by the fact that right up to the last moments of his public engagements, he still denied that apartheid was a crime against humanity. This went against a United Nations resolution which condemned apartheid as a crime against humanity.
De Klerk’s shameful legacy is only disputed by global structures of power, particularly the western mainstream media, that sustain a racist ideology and refuse to reckon with the extent of destruction proponents of white supremacy unleashed on successive generations of South Africans in particular, and black and brown people in general. Indeed, their refusal to distance themselves from this ideology and their urge to paint a positive image of unrepentant criminals are divisive.