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Outgrowing apartheid: FW de Klerk

  • 23 November 2021
  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