What could have been a great legacy of a statesman who changed the course of history, was soiled by stoic denialism in the face of the truth of the evilness of a horrendous crime against humanity, writes Cyril Madlala.
WHAT could have been a great legacy of a statesman who changed the course of history, was soiled by stoic denialism in the face of the truth of the evilness of a horrendous crime against humanity.
For a man honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for ending apartheid, former president Frederik Willem de Klerk’s death this week should have evoked a collective sense of a profound loss of a South African statesman.
Yet, across the racial divide and for totally different reasons, his legacy is shrouded in sentiments of betrayal, complicity in apartheid atrocities and his refusal to acknowledge, until very late in his life that, indeed, the United Nations was unambiguous in declaring apartheid a crime against humanity.
Having taken the bold step in 1990 to abolish apartheid, unban liberation movements and free political prisoners including Nelson Mandela, De Klerk spurned an opportunity to secure his place in history as a bold leader who sacrificed the narrow, racist interests of his own tribe to pave the way for a relatively smooth transition from apartheid to democracy to give birth to a “Rainbow Nation”.
To be fair, it was never going to be easy. It was not through his own magnanimity that De Klerk had to act, and swiftly. International political and economic pressure on his government had reached unprecedented levels and the apartheid state had become a pariah globally. Across the land, the repressive state machinery that he presided over had long lost control as rolling mass mobilisation made the country ungovernable and apartheid laws unenforceable.
The ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto weSizwe, was making its presence felt on the doorsteps of white South Africans while the Bantustan puppet administrations were collapsing. On the other hand, De Klerk had to contend with a massive backlash from conservatives within his own party who gravitated towards far-right groupings such as the Conservative Party and the white supremacist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging. Battle-scarred soldiers who had engaged in wars in Angola and the former Rhodesia saw in De Klerk a traitor, as did security policemen who had run hit squads to eliminate opponents of the apartheid government.
Prominent apartheid assassin, Col Eugene de Kock who was convicted on 89 charges including six murders, called De Klerk the “biggest coward” who had abdicated and lost control when he unbanned anti-apartheid organisations.
Although De Klerk’s National Party had been central to the constitutional negotiations that gave birth to the Government of National Unity in 1994, two years later he and his party walked out of that arrangement, citing the need for the development of a strong and vigilant opposition in order to maintain and promote genuine multi-party democracy.
As the NP imploded, prominent leaders went different ways, with some joining the ANC and others the DA. The ambiguity of De Klerk’s leadership approach and service to his people and country was laid bare when he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to account for the human rights violations committed by the apartheid government. While professing an apology, he seemed to believe genuinely that the notion of apartheid, nation states or separate development as he preferred to call it, was in itself not a bad system if implemented correctly.
It was not intentionally evil, he maintained. He told the Commission: “Yes, we have made mistakes. Yes, we have often sinned and we don’t deny this. But that we were evil, malignant and mean – to that we say ‘no.’ ”
While acknowledging that some atrocities were committed by people such as De Kock, he insisted that the leadership of the NP had not sanctioned those gross violations of human rights, a proposition many found hard to believe considering the destructive trail left by apartheid assassins not only within the borders of South Africa, but across neighbouring countries and overseas.
De Klerk himself was directly implicated in the murder of five youngsters, including the Mpendulo twin boys, who were mowed down in their sleep during a South African Defence Force raid he had authorised in Mthatha. He later said that the house had been mistaken for a safe house for the Azanian People’s Liberation Army.
In the eyes of many victims of apartheid atrocities, De Klerk chose not to be aware of what was being done in defence of his government’s policies. That was why as late as last year, he was still explaining himself regarding his stance on apartheid before finally accepting that the United Nations had long declared it a crime against humanity.
In his last message, conveyed in a video released after his death this week, De Klerk had to revisit the subject: “I, without qualification, apologise for the pain, hurt, indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa.”
Even if he was sincere in his death bed, many black South Africans would probably have preferred to have seen him in the dock together with the likes of De Kock and their masters, for he spent his life defending the indefensible.
In the end, what could have been a great legacy of a statesman who changed the course of history, was soiled by stoic denialism in the face of the truth of the evilness of a horrendous crime against humanity.
* Madlala is a political commentator and former editor of Independent on Saturday.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA and Independent Media.