Outgrowing apartheid: FW de Klerk



The passing of South Africa’s last apartheid president, FW de Klerk, raises pressing questions about a complex historical character who, according to his brother, Willem de Klerk, slowly outgrew apartheid.  In a critical sense, he was bound, understandably, by both time and context: race, the need to defend a racial hierarchy, the historical role of a segregationist system that saw his all-white National Party retain power for decades. Driven by an existential need, De Klerk found himself making uncomfortable decisions to accommodate sworn enemies. When he was sworn in as President in September 1989, he declared that white domination would have to, at some point, end, but it could hardly be replaced by black domination.

His announcement to South Africa’s parliament on 2 February, 1990 was vital to shaping a country that had known apartheid since 1948. Under this social and political system of organisation, races would follow separate paths of development. Ostensibly, such development was intended as equal; in practice, disparities and inequalities were viciously enforced. By the late 1980s, this model began to prove unsustainable.

Between 1984 and 1989, De Klerk served as education minister, overseeing the notorious Bantu education program.  On replacing the brutally defiant PW Botha, De Klerk initiated security reforms while also casting feelers for potential negotiations with his racial opponents. He took some encouragement from the weaking of the global Communist bloc, which had provided much support for the revolutionary African National Congress and other opponents of the apartheid regime. De Klerk had also heeded the Harare Declaration, adopted by the ANC as a promise to pursue a democratic transition to transform South Africa ‘into a non-racial democracy’.

This phase saw a set of discussions that eventually led to the February 1990 speech. There were talks between Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee, ANC figures and South Africa’s National Intelligence Service. Nelson Mandela was approached in prison. Dialogue was also opened between Afrikaner intellectuals and the ANC conducted on British soil. Such organisations as the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the South African Communist Party were unbanned. A moratorium on the death penalty was implemented. Within nine days, Mandela walked free. 

What followed in the transition phase proved messy. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa, presided over by both De Klerk and Mandela, imploded.  Neither man trusted each other. Mandela called De Klerk at the time the ‘head of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime … incapable of upholding moral standards’.   

The various racial groups were also fractious. The Inkatha Freedom Party preferred an early exit, claiming that their leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, had been hamstrung. Some ANC revolutionaries continued to burn with revolutionary ardour and were less than impressed with suggestions that they turn swords into ploughshares.


'He remained a creature of his racial and political background. His memoirs are filled with efforts to explain how he, and his NP colleagues, were ‘products of our time and circumstances’.' 


In April 1993 at Kempton Park, the ANC and National Party commenced the eventually successful Multi-Party Negotiation Process (MPNP) involving representatives from 24 other parties. The 1994 electoral victory for the ANC shored up its support, leading to the eventual December 1996 constitution. For two years, De Klerk served as Mandela’s deputy.

De Klerk was left to digest the changed circumstances, and the legacy of apartheid, which he preferred to call ‘separate development’ rather than a heinous crime condemned by the international community. Never a full-blooded reformer, he was an establishment pragmatist prone to apologias, never one who took up the banner of the anti-apartheid movement typified by such figures as Helen Suzman and Harry Schwarz. ‘I am not a gambler,’ he claimed in a radio interview in March 1992. ‘I am a democrat.’ The late Colin Eglin summed up this facet well in contrasting De Klerk and his sparring political partner, Mandela. A relatively conservative Afrikaner leader decided to negotiate before he had lost, and an imprisoned leader of a liberation movement decided to negotiate before he had won. 

He remained a creature of his racial and political background. His memoirs are filled with efforts to explain how he, and his NP colleagues, were ‘products of our time and circumstances’. But he did not leave it at that.

In his account is a nagging sense that the apartheid regime had not been ill-intentioned. The view is not unremarkable for a figure whose political life was spent, for the most part, as an establishment National Party figure. He came from an apartheid pedigree. JG Strijdom, the country’s second apartheid prime minister, had been an uncle. De Klerk’s father, Jan de Klerk, was in the cabinet of three apartheid administrations.

De Klerk’s statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was filled with resentment at the commission’s alleged partiality. He also went at great lengths to discredit opponents of apartheid. Calling it a crime against humanity in international law was ‘little more than a mobilisation exercise by the ANC and its totalitarian and Third World supporters in the UN General Assembly.’ When he cast his mind to ‘crimes against humanity’, he thought of those mounds of carcasses caused by totalitarian states, not programs designed to ‘achieve sustained population growth rates of more than 3 per cent’.

In reflecting upon what he euphemistically termed ‘unconventional strategies’ used by the South African security forces against their opponents, De Klerk wished to have it both ways. Within his knowledge and experience, he claimed, such strategies ‘never included the authorisation of assassination, murder, torture, rape, assault or the like.’ He was also relentless in insisting that he had never been ‘part of any decision taken by Cabinet, the State Security Council or any Committee authorising or instructing the commission of such gross human rights.’

Given the cabinet positions he occupied, this position is a far from tenable one. Former TRC commissioner Yasmin Sooka was left shaking her head, subsequently claiming that De Klerk had ‘consistently refused to accept any responsibility for the gross human rights violations committed under his watch, or the crime of apartheid.’

In 2020, he found himself facing a storm of protest after reiterating claims in an interview with the national broadcaster, SABC, that apartheid was not a crime against humanity. When attending parliament to hear the State of the Nation address from President Cyril Ramaphosa, De Klerk faced calls for his removal from the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, Julius Malema. ‘We have a murder in the House,’ stated an indignant Malema.

The Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation, in less ill-tempered fashion, reminded De Klerk that the law had caught up, with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court declaring the racial policy to be very much a crime against humanity. De Klerk had to concede that it was ‘unacceptable’ to ‘quibble about the degrees of unacceptability of apartheid’. 

In a posthumous video, intended for release upon his death, De Klerk apologised for apartheid. ‘I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa,’ he states. But in his twilight, he could express worry that the work he had done was being scuttled. ‘I’m deeply concerned about the undermining of many aspects of the constitution, which we perceive almost day-to-day.’

By 1996, De Klerk got off at the terminus of history — in a fashion. He had been part of the very legacy he had tried to, not all too convincingly, exorcise. On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, there seemed to be a distinct disparity of position between the men. He may well have pulled a few levers along the way, but the end of apartheid remained a Mandela show, with De Klerk’s voice an echo of a much maligned, cruel experiment.




Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

Main image: Former South African President F.W. de Klerk arrives for the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, de Klerk, South Africa, Apartheid



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Perhaps there's a different way to look at a man, equally a product of their times. Apartheid commenced around 1949 lawfully but was an adaptation of existing socio-economic segregation of 4 groups, black, white, coloured and Indian. A reason was the African tradition of paying a "bride price" to marry; nobody was buying mixed race brides, nor welcoming diluted grooms; similarly, Zulu-Hutu-Tutsi blends were caused by employment migration to South Africa because of its strong mining economy. Try fitting 50 million people of more than 12 tribes into roughly the same land mass as the Northern Territory. Fiscally, post de Klerk has been a bad period for anyone with fixed or liquid assets; the Rand exchange rate is well below 10% of what it was; the bright side is you can buy a magnificent house today for next to nothing. Mandela brought in a minimum wage which meant that property owners could no longer afford live-in gardeners or maids to tend their palaces; a big empty house and employees out of work. I prefer to believe de Klerk exercised the lifting of apartheid responsibly as a progressive and am inclined to accept his interpretation it was not an intended crime against humanity any more than border control or religious segregation.

ray | 23 November 2021  
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A novel attempt by the usual contrarian at a 'white-wash' in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre which galvanised global opinion on the pernicious effects of a politico-economic system run by an unelected minority on the basis of its belief in a superiority constructed entirely upon the premise that the colour of one's skin should be the sole factor in determining its use (and abuse!) of power. Anti-democratic, illiberal, uneducated, horrendously violent and plainly unjust, it was the offence this caused in the eyes of a post-colonial, post-war world that galvanised so many of our generation into speaking up and making a stand on South Africa's participation in the Commonwealth Games, the Olympics, Rugby and Cricket. I well remember the ill-treatment of my compatriot, Basil D'Oliveira, incidentally of mixed Indian and Portuguese parentage and whose merit as a cricketer was disregarded in the MCC's attempt to placate the South African Cricket Board by dropping him from selection. The public outcry in Britain, Australia and NZ was deafening. In those societies where sportsmanship hallmarks the political culture and the odium of racism would not be tolerated, 'Dolly' was feted as a hero and the Springboks firmly shown they were not welcome.

Michael Furtado | 24 November 2021  

An excerpt from the Harare Declaration of 1990:
"16.1 South Africa shall become a united, democratic and non-racial state.
16.2 All its people shall enjoy common and equal citizenship and nationality regardless of race , colour sex, or creed.
16.3 All its people have the right to participate in the government and administration of the country on the basis of a universal suffrage, exercised through one person one vote, under a common voters' roll."

Just imagine our one eyed blind Bishops having a Damascene moment like that through the Plenary and our church finally coming of age.

Francis Armstrong | 24 November 2021  

Interesting, Ray, with his friend Wikipedia, seems, so far, to be the only commenter on your article. I found it fairly shallow and 'progressive' in a rather cliched 'Parkville lefty' sort of way. Academics seem to have this thing about Crimes Against Humanity. I call them atrocities pure and simple. The British Army has committed several of these in Northern Ireland and the higher command seems to have colluded in many. The majority of these perpetrators will never be tried anywhere. South Africa did have its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which did achieve the result of bringing some horrific things to light. People like Desmond Tutu thought it didn't go far enough. The situation in RSA was very similar to Germany after WW 2, which is interesting, because many of the leaders of the Nationalist Party were in gaol then as Nazi sympathisers and possible saboteurs of the war effort. Afrikaners are deeply religious and once The World Association of Reformed Churches declared Apartheid a Heresy that had a wide effect amongst them. The Defence Forces, particularly the Army, were multiracial and that had a profound effect. F W de Klerk was a pragmatist who saw the writing on the wall. He and Nelson Mandela together prevented a bloodbath. Thank God! RSA has real problems currently and these are the ones needing to be fixed.

Edward Fido | 25 November 2021  
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Edward, I have been to Johannesburg and surrounds 4 times between 2000 to 2005 for a few weeks each visit and can assure you that the Rand value, apartheid and employment were frequent topics over the dinner table, so Wiki isn't my only friend here for understanding. The workplaces I visited were fairly egalitarian and the commentary I received was from various ethnicities usually deploring how the Mandela period reshaped the country but had some adverse effects for both "rich" and "poor". Crime was rampant; everybody there knows someone close who died from a car jack or kidnapped children; again, all ethnicities suffer this. Getting rid of apartheid changed the target of criminals from mainly white to anyone with money; while the criminals could be lauded for their apparent changed values adaptation to accommodate the wider community it could be conceivable that the time under Botha, de Klerk and others may have contributed to inequalities but that 30 years post Mandela Soweto remains testimony to failure of ideals and the empty Johannesburg city represents similar.

ray | 25 November 2021  

Ray, I accept your fairness and hands-on experience, but isn't your focus on the aftermath of apartheid's toppling not a corroboration of some of the dingy views on show here. Wasn't Australia in the days of White Settlement treated as a dumping ground for convicts, themselves sold a pup on the myth of Terra Nullius? Isn't it widely accepted these days that the authentic historical record shows that Indigenous Australians were disenfranchised of their land, herded into unwanted spaces and either poisoned, shot or bullied into missionary submission, even if with good intention? Does that not show that the rest of us, including myself, who came to this country to avail of the living we were unjustly denied elsewhere, are, in sum usurpers of a sort? If so, what license do we have, to pronounce opinions and judgments about a people who, on the basis of the colour of their skin, were also forcibly herded into homelands, introduced to only the most servile aspects of White culture, and that too under the yoke of apartheid? What entitlement do we have, whether we have the privilege of visiting Johannesburg or not, to pass judgment on a people colonised for 500 years?

Michael Furtado | 26 November 2021  

‘the myth of Terra Nullius?‘ Even 2000 years ago, there was unlikely to have been any place on Earth where somebody was not already living. What are we to say about Zion the Land of Milk and Honey? It doesn’t take 40 years to get from Egypt to Israel, even on foot. Obviously, there were other peoples to bargain or fight with to slow progress.

Obviously, God, in principle, allowed transmigrations into populated areas back in the day when social infrastructure was not as extensive as it is today and all that was entailed was for a new group to find a bit of room somewhere, fend for themselves, and not suck at the teat of systems devised for the safety and comfort of those already there.

Today, such is not the case. A migrant is a claimant on the hospitality of those already there. Migrants, asylum seekers, what-have-you don’t migrate to ‘Australia’: they migrate to Medicare, to the job-making potential of the Australian Economy, to free education for their children in the state schools, to various community services, to a general civilian atmosphere of live and let live.

What is the value of citizenship? To buy an equivalent standard of physical comfort and mental health would run into millions of dollars over the course of whatever’s left of your life when you get here. If you are allowed to arrive here legally to stay, you have just been awarded a lottery winnings of several millions of dollars. If you arrive unannounced, you’re asking to be given a lottery winnings of several millions of dollars. Even if you wish to look at it as a mortgage, it’s a principal for which repayment is only a moral obligation.

roy chen yee | 30 November 2021  

I don’t know if there is a lesson here except to say that while a pragmatist may change a point in his nation’s history, his nation will eventually regress to its mean.

Gorbachev overthrew the dictatorship of the Communist Party but in time, Russia reverted to the traditional Eastern European mean of a czarist-like autocracy. The African mean isn’t promising either.

Essentially, de Klerk changed when and how black South Africans would become accountable for the South African vision. He moved the inflection from a point in the future where black South Africans would take their country by force back to a point where a transition could be controlled with no bloodshed. But, regardless of when the inflection takes place, the mean still beckons like a siren on a rock which is why it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Western European mean, with its translocations in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and its charmed copies in Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the Republic of China (for the moment constrained to Taiwan), is sui generis.

roy chen yee | 25 November 2021  

Apartheid, along with Communism/Marxism and Nazism/Fascism, were 20th century disasters.
Martin Luther King Jr. longed for a world where his children, “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Much progress was made with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent actions.
But malevolent ideas continue to flourish, and it seems that the colour of one’s skin, one’s sex, one’s religion, or the choice of one’s sexual partners are the only things that matter in today’s popular left-wing culture.
The late Wyatt Tee Walker, a legend of the civil rights movement, and King’s one-time confidant, condemned “remedies” that are now deemed fashionable: “such as Critical Race Theory, the increasingly fashionable post-Marxist/postmodernist approach that analyses society as institutional group power structures rather than on a spiritual or one-to-one human level—are taking us in the wrong direction: separating even elementary school children into explicit racial groups, and emphasizing differences instead of similarities.”

Ross Howard | 25 November 2021  
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Ross, objectivity is hardly the prerogative of the White Man. Critical Race Theory is no more than a response to decades of White Rage, built up and boiling over as in these columns, since decolonisation after the last World War. Australia became the favourite refuge of many suffering from this syndrome who, from experience, are out of place in modern Europe, the UK and Canada (itself too traumatised by the Trumpestani nightmare next door to shelter the remnant of has-been white settlers, like Edward, who tirelessly parade their jejune views in these columns). Jaundice is one thing - they say it lies dormant in one, forever threatening to return - but when it rears its comic head in expectation of being lauded, that calls for more than the mellow Jesuit radicalism that ES promotes and which, palpably on evidence in these columns, offers its dose of daily provocation to those whose life-support systems are put to healthy personal and spiritual renewal by the challenge that writers like Andy Hamilton and Binoy pose.

Michael Furtado | 26 November 2021  

‘decades of White Rage, built up and boiling over as in these columns’

Where is this ‘white rage’? The usual way that systemic racism is explained is that a society which has been majority white for generations tends to see everything through the same lenses to the extent that they are unaware there are others using different lenses to see the same thing. This phenomenon is named ‘white privilege’ and some time ago, on these pages, there was an ex-Singaporean Tamil woman writing articles about ‘Chinese’ privilege in Singapore where Chinese form much of the population.

I suppose an example of being oblivious would be being a generic Catholic and having your pork sandwich at lunch at work while a Muslim co-worker is fasting during Ramadan, or having the same pork sandwich on a Friday while a Latin Mass-frequenting colleague is abstaining or fasting. Or being an Anglo Canadian and assuming English is the norm in a Quebec office.

Oblivious is not the same as enraged. It’s not even the same as the caste system where the Brahmins were, like Sadducees, neither oblivious nor enraged but systemically and systematically indifferent.

And nonsensical but aggressive stuff like this isn’t helpful: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/29/migrants-earn-place-britain-people-channel

roy chen yee | 30 November 2021  

Michael, try to stay within the bounds of the topic which is de Klerck and apartheid; it wasn't de Klerck's "experiment" to concieve apartheid but it was his leadership to dissolve it in some manner. His values and morality were shaped living in a country where apartheid was law; those of us looking back from outside cannot condemn him for refusing to observe it to be a crime against humanity; the law had served the nation to prosperity whereas the rest of Africa was not successful. I'm not inclined to accept his memoirs or a dying mans recording are anything less than his honest beliefs, whether correct or not. Around 1700 the Boers (Dutch, French, German) were not a colonial force but a trading group later forced away from the Cape by the English in a few wars; this notion of dispossession of land you keep pedaling and pleading is no less lost on a person born in a disputed place than one with cultural links. De Klerck would have failed ALL his people if he relented to some popularist view that Sth Africans were inherently racist because they didn't breed with the various blacks; is that what you need to see? Capitulation of a nation?

ray | 30 November 2021  
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Ray, I'd love to! However none of us comes to the discussion unconscious of the privilege or otherwise the colour of our skin confers. I accept the Afrikaners as Africans, primarily because their most essential characteristic is the premodernity of their initial historical culture and settlement conditions. (See Richard Rosecrance, 'The Founding of New Nations', HBJ, NY, 1964). Its exhilarating to engage with you precisely because it permits possibilities that others don't. They look at the world with eyes that are blind to the developments from that period towards modernism and indeed postmodernity. One doesn't have to be a 'Parkville Leftie', as you were accused of being, to recognise this but it does, in a sense, strip Jack naked when his only means of defining some from others is where they're placed on the Left-Right spectrum. To return to my point: light years ago the Dutch regarded the Boers as feudal, exiting Holland because their extreme Calvinism alienated everybody, being reinforced by equally extreme French Calvinists who found the Dutch too liberal and who, while unable to write their biblically-derived race theories into legislation, did so at first opportunity. deKlerk's concessions were plainly extracted, as a dentist might, under duress.

Michael Furtado | 01 December 2021  

I must say Ray's take on South African History is not bad, although incomplete. South Africa has always been a contested space. The original inhabitants were not Bantu but peoples related to what are called the Kalahari Bushmen. The Bantu tribes were driving south about the same time the Dutch were establishing their presence in the Cape. The Bantu either massacred or drove the original inhabitants of what was to become the territory of RSA into remote and less desirable regions, such as what is now Namibia. As the Great Trek away from British ruled territory started, what were to become the Afrikaners came into conflict with the Bantu. It should be borne in mind there were also armed, mixed race trekkers such as the Griqua. The British were uninterested in the Boer republics until gold was found at Kimbereley which led to the Anglo-Boer War. Religion of the Dutch Reformed Church variety was the cement of Afrikanerdom. Afrikaners saw themselves like the Children of Israel who had a right to the land. This was not shared by the British. South Africa is a bit of a racial and religious cocktail. I agree with Ray that F W de Klerk was a pragmatist who meant what he said. He prevented a bloodbath. Today's relatively peaceful multiracial South Africa (now dominated by the majority Bantu rather than whites) is his legacy. It is a pragmatic 'best outcome'.

Edward Fido | 01 December 2021  
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I enjoy viewing your verbal calisthenics, Roy; but they would make more sense if more widely understood beyond expressing and overdoing a common denominating factor that seems to say: 'All majority oppression of minorities is wrong', and with which I, like J S Mill, happen to agree. What makes your post doubly confusing is that Afrikaners never were a majority, which for all the upheavals that bedevil post-apartheid South Africa, is what South African majoritarian government currently is and as it never used to be prior to Mandela. It is a democracy and we should be glad of that!

Michael Furtado | 01 December 2021  

While, like you, I rejoice that South Africa has avoided a blood-bath, its not just a pragmatic 'best outcome', Edward, its a democracy! And, as far as global opinion is concerned, the persons who brokered this were heroes like Mandela and Tutu. The writing was as plain to see 'on the wall', so to speak, as Macmillan remarked half a century earlier in his 'Winds of Change' speech. The real heroes always were and forever will be those who fought and intensely suffered for their freedom. The late Roman Catholic moral theologian and religious historian of the decolonisation process, Adrian Hastings, who spent many years documenting and analysing the slow and sorry history of Twentieth Century Southern Africa, had a lot to say about this in 'The Tablet' and CAFOD. de Klerk's memoirs are an 'extrinsic re-think', like so much else in conservative discourse that more properly deserves the pejorative soubriquet of a 'white-wash'. Without such acknowledgment, we make no progress at a human and developmental level, but end up simply licking our wounds.

Michael Furtado | 01 December 2021  

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