The complicated legacy of FW de Klerk

After enforcing apartheid for years, the departed South African leader was remarkably brave and astute to end it

Former South African president FW de Klerk shakes hand with his successor, Nelson Mandela, as then US president Bill Clinton looks on in Washington in 1993. AFP
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We typically expect good, and perhaps even great, things to be done by good and great leaders. Yet, sometimes good and great things are done by people who cannot honestly be considered great or even good.

The world has just bid farewell to a key example. FW de Klerk, the last leader of apartheid-era South Africa, died on Thursday at the age of 85. He leaves a complex, troubled and often ugly legacy, but the historical greatness and boldness of his most significant act – dismantling apartheid – is habitually underestimated.

There are many reasons for this, but failing to recognise the importance, and indeed the bravery, of what De Klerk did by giving up power, not only for himself but his entire community, is a huge mistake.

It's difficult to get past De Klerk’s extensive role for decades as an enthusiastic proponent and enforcer of apartheid, an exceptionally evil system. And, indeed, he should not be exonerated for the unfairness and brutality he helped to perpetuate, particularly as the primary ally of his predecessor as president, PW Botha.

It's not much of a mitigation to say he was born into that system and role, even though it’s essentially true. He was the scion of one of the leading Afrikaner families that constructed the apartheid regime, son of a leading pro-apartheid politician and cabinet member, and nephew of a prime minister. Obviously, he had far better moral choices than to follow in their footsteps for so many decades.

He need not have gone as far as Joe Slovo, the white South African communist leader who became one of the founders of the African National Congress (ANC) paramilitary group, Umkhonto we Sizwe. More moderate means were available, as demonstrated by numerous white anti-apartheid activists such as Helen Suzman, Helen Zille, Uys Krige, Sailor Malan, Harry Schwarz, and many writers, artists and journalists.

Instead, and to his eternal discredit, De Klerk embraced the agenda of white supremacy. It is exceptionally hard to get past that. But it's necessary.

De Klerk obviously also suffers mightily from his inevitable comparison with Nelson Mandela, who was his nemesis and, eventually, unlikely and uncomfortable partner in national reconciliation.

Former South African president FW de Klerk issues posthumous apology for apartheid

Former South African president FW de Klerk issues posthumous apology for apartheid

Mandela, after all, is one of the towering moral and political figures in modern, and probably all, human history. He was that rarest of combinations: a moral leader, a political visionary and an effective politician. The closest comparison to Mandela is probably Mohandas Gandhi, even though they differed categorically on the question of violence, which Gandhi deplored but Mandela came to embrace but used relatively prudently.

Virtually no one is going to come off well in comparison to such a titanic figure, and, indeed, De Klerk does not. Yet, realistic and mature consideration of political realities, available options and typical human behaviours requires the recognition that, despite everything and at the end of his practical career, De Klerk had the vision, guts and determination to do what was necessary but also exceptionally difficult.

Towards the end of his life, several times he expressed contrition for apartheid and said he had completely changed his racial attitudes. But it's clear that when he decided the system had to go in favour of black majority rule, he had not yet recognised it as evil so much as unworkable.

That, too, doesn't detract from the fact that what he did required great strength and pragmatism. He did not dismantle apartheid out of altruism, he did so because it was in the best interests of his community – which got to keep all its accumulated wealth and privileges up to the moment of the end of the system – and even, he hoped, for his own career.

Yet, honesty requires us to acknowledge that very few politicians would have had the gumption to face grim facts as De Klerk did, and swallow the bitter pill. By legalising the ANC and releasing Mandela from prison, he made the end of apartheid inevitable, and he knew it.

To dismiss FW de Klerk’s breakthrough as simply doing what he had to is facile and unrealistic

One way of breaking through the undoubted ugliness of the rest of his career is to pose a simple thought experiment: how many lives, black and white, did De Klerk save by making a reasonable deal with Mandela and the ANC? What might a full-blown racial war in South Africa have looked like?

To dismiss De Klerk’s breakthrough as simply doing what he had to is facile and unrealistic. Most politicians and leaders focus only on tomorrow, next week or next year, at most. De Klerk had other viable options, including doing nothing. But he was clearly seeing 25 or even 50 years into the future, and what he could accurately glimpse was terrifying. So, he took an immensely bold and, within his own constituency, not terribly popular move. And before anyone could stop him, it was too late. He did not do it alone, of course, but he shouldered almost all the responsibility.

It's imperative, therefore, to look back at De Klerk and not see another story of a supposedly, probably genuinely, remorseful racist. What must be recognised is the historical significance of someone, while not driven by noble motives, but who is honest with themselves and others and chooses what, for his own community at least, is perceived as bad over worse, and that hugely benefited their whole country and the world.

There are other examples in recent history of leaders either consciously or effectively dismantling the odious systems they came to lead. Mikhail Gorbachev's probably inadvertent oversight of the collapse of the Soviet Union is an obvious example, for which he is reasonably lauded.

However, Mr Gorbachev's liberalisations that spelled the doom of the USSR seem like child's play compared to De Klerk’s remarkable decision to dismantle apartheid and transfer power to the South African black majority in exchange for no retribution. De Klerk knew exactly what he was doing and there are ample grounds to believe Mr Gorbachev didn't. And he and his community were probably taking a far bigger risk than Mr Gorbachev and his comrades.

The former South African president's legacy conclusively demonstrates that great and good things can indeed be done by people who are not necessarily great or good, but whose achievements demand to be recognised for the triumphs that they are.

Published: November 13, 2021, 1:20 PM