De Klerk Declassified
By Nkosinathi Biko
Millions of South Africans who are still nursing the raw wounds of apartheid found the recent utterances by the last President of Apartheid South Africa, Frederik Willem De Klerk, vile, provocative and reactionary. The remarks were made in an interview with the SABC journalist, Manelisi Dubase. Ironically, the interview was meant to commemorate the 30th anniversary of De Klerk’s historic State of the Nation address of 2 February 1990 that heralded the unbanning of the liberation movements as well as the release of political prisoners in South Africa.
In the interview with Dubase, De Klerk opined that apartheid was “wrong”, “had hurt people” and “was morally unjustifiable”. He then lamented the fact that he has not been fully credited for an apology that he has made on previous occasions. Then De Klerk’s indignation boiled over: “but there is a difference between calling something a crime. Like genocide is a crime. Apartheid cannot be, for instance, compared with genocide. There was never genocide”.
A day later the F W De Klerk Foundation weighed in with a convoluted statement akin to those of the Broederbond, arguing that “the idea that apartheid was ‘a crime against humanity’ was and remains an ‘agitprop’ project initiated by the Soviets and ANC/SACP allies, to stigmatise White South Africans by associating them with genuine crimes against humanity – which have generally included totalitarian repression and the slaughter of millions of people”.
Grating as these utterances are on one’s every sense, they should not come as a surprise. The abuse of our hard won democracy in the name of freedom of speech is common among bigots. In this instance we have been gifted with an opportune window to the soul of a man whose proper place in history may be substantially lower that the sum total of his actions. It is not the first time that either F.W. De Klerk, or his Foundation, has dropped the ball at a critical historical moment. A few years ago the Steve Biko Foundation refused to participate in the National Foundations Dialogue Initiative, which we otherwise lauded, principally because it courteously extended an invitation to the FW De Klerk Foundation. We were opposed in principle because we had witnessed recurrent incidents of contempt for the lived reality of victims of apartheid, such as in the CNN interview of May 2012 with Christian Amanpour, and other matters.
The recent anniversary of De Klerk’s speech coincided with the reopening of the inquest into the death of Dr Neil Aggett. I, like a number of other South Africans, attended the hearings on a few occasions, out of interest in the process of justice, but mostly because our humanity is conjoined. As with other similar incidents, which include the Timol murder, the pain of Aggett’s sister Jill and nephew Stephen should be our collective pain, given that Aggett fought for our freedom. I found the testimony of Reverend Frank Chikane a chilling reminder of what happened to people like Mohapi, Haron, Mabelane, the Mxenges, Calata, Goniwe, the Pebco Three and many others in the hands of apartheid agents.
There are many more cases on which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had given specific recommendations on restorative justice to the democratic government. De Klerk, the last president of apartheid, should be familiar with these cases. If they have retreated to the rear of his memory then he should have been reminded of them with the prominent coverage of the Timol and Aggett killings, thanks to a number of dedicated journalists. Yet a cursory scan of recent media reports show that De Klerk and his Foundation have seen it best to pepper the balance of his political legacy with unashamed nuggets of apartheid denialism.
To truly appreciate what brought us here we have to turn a few pages backward. From 1990, Madiba took flack from the political left for daring to share a table with De Klerk and his ilk, and for leading South Africa to a negotiated political settlement on the terms and conditions he agreed to.
These include section 25 – the Property Clause – which is now under review. It is common knowledge that on 20 December 1991 after requesting Madiba to allow him to be the last speaker, De Klerk addressed the nation at a Convention for a Democratic South Africa conference. Madiba had magnanimously agreed to this much to the annoyance of his ANC colleagues who feared that De Klerk harboured an ulterior motive. These premonitions were accurate, for De Klerk used this privilege to launch an attack on the African National Congress, accusing it of failing to meet its commitment to abandon the armed struggle and to disband uMkhonto weSizwe.
This telling moment in history is captured on video, which is widely circulated. The video is worth watching. It says a lot about the behaviour of De Klerk that needs to be brought back to our attention at this time.
At the end of what De Klerk must have thought would be a one-way tirade, Madiba rises from his seat to take the podium again, this time for an unscheduled response. The disgust in his face and his voice is palpable. In his reply, he admonishes De Klerk as follows:
“I am gravely concerned about the behaviour of Mr. De Klerk. He has launched an attack on the African National Congress and, in doing so, has been less than frank. Even the head of an illegal, discredited, minority government, as his, has certain moral standards to uphold. He has no excuse, because he is a representative of a discredited regime, not to uphold moral standards…
If a man can come to a conference of this nature and play the type of politics, which are contained in his paper, very few people would like to deal with such a man….I have tried very hard in discussions with him, (to show him) that firstly his weakness is to look at matters from the point of view of the National Party, and the White minority in this country, not from the point of view of the population of South Africa.
…I am prepared to work with him in spite of all his mistakes. And I am prepared to make allowances because he is a product of apartheid. Although he wants these democratic changes he has sometimes very little idea what democracy means…..He can’t talk to us in that manner.
…..This type of thing, of trying to take advantage of the cooperation which we are giving him willingly, is something extremely dangerous and I hope this is the last time he will do so.”
I was reminded of this admonition after hearing President Mbeki comment on a brief exchange he had with De Klerk at the SONA 2020, wherein the former apartheid president had argued that he was not aware of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. President Mbeki was statesmanly about it.
If true, a defence based on ignorance about a critical UN Convention that was previously imposed on a system he later led would, on its own, be a worrisome lapse particularly for a Nobel Peace Laureate who attempted to cure the very ills of the system to which the Convention relates. It would be tantamount to De Klerk confessing that he does not know why he was awarded a peace prize. But it is when taken together with the statement by his Foundation that there appears to be much more that undergirds this matter than just a mere a lapse in memory.
It is apparent from Mandela’s observations of De Klerk that he is scant on goodwill and hesitant on democracy. It is curious that De Klerk and his Foundation have now positioned themselves as custodians of democracy and constitutionalism. Madiba observed then what is clear now, that De Klerk is wont to embracing a very narrow view of the world at the centre of which is the preservation of whiteness.
But despite his reservations Madiba elevated De Klerk’s hand to jointly accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, on 10 December 1993, and again to rehabilitate him by choosing him as one of his two Deputy Presidents under a democratic South Africa in 1994. By so doing Madiba may unwittingly have unleashed unto us the best and the worst of a true “product of apartheid”.
Some have argued that at this point the liberation movement renounced the righteousness of its cause. It had effectively created a path around inconvenient but necessary truths, equating the sins of apartheid with the response to the sins of apartheid. It gave a pass even to the unrepentant. The current generation of student activists who describe themselves as Fallists have been scathing in this regard.
What then is a more appropriate response to the De Klerk saga and the emboldened voice of conservatism? We must revert to fact. For every year between 1952 and 1990 the United Nations condemned apartheid as a violation of its protocols, using Articles 55 and 56.
It is reported that the General Assembly dubbed apartheid a crime against humanity through Resolution 2202 as of 1966, which was later endorsed by the Security Council in 1984. But in between it is the Apartheid Convention of 1973 that consolidated the furthest reaching denunciation of apartheid. Here is what the world said of apartheid in 1973, some 47 years ago.
Among other citations, the 1973 Apartheid Convention, in Article 1, states that:
- The States Parties to the present Convention declare that apartheid is a crime against humanity and that inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid and similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination, as defined in article II of the Convention, are crimes violating the principles of international law, in particular the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and constituting a serious threat to international peace and security.
- The States Parties to the present Convention declare criminal those organizations, institutions and individuals committing the crime of apartheid.
The Apartheid Convention also provided for criminal action against offenders including for acts committed on or against foreign territories such as Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland, if such actions were in furtherance of apartheid.
De Klerk knows of activities of the apartheid regime that qualify for prosecution under this provision such as the murder of innocent children in the Transkei township of Northcrest outside Mthatha, on 8 October 1993, during a raid authorised by De Klerk. Two months later he was a Nobel Laureate and in five more a Deputy President under Madiba.
De Klerk expects us to believe that he, a lawyer, entered into political negotiations, including on the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission without grasping his worst-case scenario under the Apartheid Convention. It must therefore be by sheer happenstance that the former undercut the latter.
So despite what De Klerk refuses to remember, or how the Foundation chooses to remember, apartheid was a crime against humanity. Given that De Klerk has used up the last of his many free passes, we must not equivocate. The apartheid state established organisations, institutions and a network of supporters through a predominantly white electoral system, which apparatuses combined promoted the commitment of a crime against humanity. For a significant part of his political career, De Klerk was no ordinary appendage to the apartheid system. He was at the helm of the commission of a crime against humanity.
Madiba was more than kind in describing him merely as “a product of apartheid”. Even ubuntu has a deadline. The UN Convention requires us to be more candid. Whereas some of his senior roles render De Klerk somewhere on the scale between culpable and liable, what is recorded in blood is that, for the period he was the State President of Apartheid South Africa from 1989 to the first democratic elections in 1994, FW De Klerk, by virtue of being the commander-inchief of the armed forces of apartheid, was the criminal-in-chief of apartheid. He was personally responsible for some serious atrocities.
This should be the start of the debate on the legacy of De Klerk, and not whether or not apartheid was a crime against humanity. That debate, and its facts, was settled 47 years ago. Thanks to President Thabo Mbeki, De Klerk has come to discover this ancient fact; sadly, long after Madiba warned him to “never again.”
The timing of De Klerk’s statement, which came just before the 2020 State of the Nation address, brought it into sharp focus especially that he was in attendance. In light of his brazen revisionism it was brilliant political dexterity on the part of the Economic Freedom Fighters to have forced the national conversation to start right there. The move pushed the ANC onto a possible collision course with the majority of South Africans who are rightfully appalled by De Klerk.
It would have inflicted political damage had the EFF staged a walk out at that very moment and on the basis of the De Klerk motion. It would have been worse if they had been thrown out on that basis. But much as they were spoiling for a fight, to her credit the Speaker was too alert to take the bait. She understood the optics of it all.
Instead the EFF moved to a secondary issue. I do not envy the position in which she found herself, but the ANC should be grateful that she was in the chair.
Madiba invested enormous political capital on the question of national reconciliation by betting on, if not batting for De Klerk. This week De Klerk betrayed that yet again. But how I wish that after the drama the Speaker could have pronounced on the despicable nature of De Klerk’s utterances before refocusing the House on the agenda of the day and the rules of attendance. This test was about more than just the rules.
As I watched SONA 2020 I wondered which of the parliamentary cultures is more agreeable for us, given the balance of our challenges. The world recently witnessed extreme clumsiness on the Brexit issue as it was before the British parliament. Then there was the moral impoverishment of the Presidential Impeachment process as it went through the US Senate. Is it the archaic stiff upper lip and grey suit culture of De Klerk’s parliament or is it the colourful jovial and somewhat tumultuous theatrics of our present that should define us?
Decorum has never looked out of place in parliament. It is perhaps not so much the aesthetics, however, but the tenets that matter. Our parliament must bemoan the deferral of our people’s dream. Our parliament must never convene for the purpose of making and of enforcing a crime against humanity, against our people or any other peoples of the world. And if any representative thereof should ever be so inclined, one continues to trust that someone in our parliament will make it their duty to out them, even if it takes a song and a dance.
Nkosinathi Biko is the Executive Trustee of the Steve Biko Foundation.
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