FW: Sentiments about our past are strong, well founded and entrenched

  • 3

Paul Murray, FW de Klerk and Jan-Jan Joubert

FW de Klerk, former State President of South Africa, died at his home in Fresnaye, Cape Town, on Thursday morning, 11 November 2021. He had been fighting cancer for a long time. He was the last apartheid president and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him alongside Nelson Mandela, the first president of a fully democratic South Africa. Entering politics, sacrificing what might have been a glorious career as a university professor of law, with his princely political background as the son of a cabinet minister and nephew of a former South African prime minister, De Klerk will go down in history for the speech he made on 2 February 1990 on the occasion of the opening of that year’s session of parliament. In it he announced sweeping reforms that enabled the start of the negotiated transition from apartheid to constitutional democracy. What made this a significant period is that it could have seen a right-wing backlash which might have scuppered the process or considerably delayed it – he was seen in some quarters as selling out the country, turning his back on his people. It is in this sense that De Klerk’s actions are viewed by many as courageous. As minister of the interior he oversaw the repeal of the Mixed Marriages Act, what was commonly referred to as part of “petty apartheid”. However, as minister of education from 1984 up to the time he became state president following PW Botha’s resignation in 1989, he upheld the apartheid system in South African government schools.

An interview with political writer, journalist and commentator Jan-Jan Joubert, conducted by Paul Murray.

Did De Klerk’s Dopper background in any way contribute to the conservatism he was renowned for while he was a politician? Obviously, things changed after 1989.

I don’t really know enough about Dopper (Gereformeerde Kerk) dogma to comment. He was careful not to obfuscate between church and state, but certainly many of his supporters came to believe over time that the charitable dimensions of Christianity were irreconcilable with the suffering apartheid produced. The much larger Dutch Reformed Church (NG Kerk) formally distanced itself from apartheid in 1986.

FW de Klerk will be known for what was stated above, namely bringing an end to the apartheid system, and for negotiating the country’s transition to majority rule. Despite these sea-changing events in which he played a pivotal role, some do not see him in the same light. For instance, Eunice Stoltz, writing for Mail & Guardian (11 November 2021), quotes the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation as saying that “he ‘could have’ been a great South African statesman” but instead “eroded his stature and became a small man, lacking magnanimity and generosity of spirit”. The foundation sent condolences to the De Klerk family, saying it is never easy to lose a father, and continued: “It is, however, sad that Mr De Klerk missed the chances he had to fully reconcile with all South Africans by acknowledging the full extent of the damage caused by apartheid. That damage is with us today. We are in many ways a broken society.” The foundation said that De Klerk refused to acknowledge that apartheid had been a crime against humanity, despite its having been declared such by the United Nations. While they say that “The former president occupied an historic but difficult space in South Africa”, Tutu was specifically critical of De Klerk after he appeared at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission saying that the former president should have made a more wholesome apology on behalf of the National Party to the nation for the evils of apartheid. Why only at the end of his life and on the verge of going to the grave did he make this unreserved apology? Why did he not admit that his government had been guilty of crimes against humanity?

Please also consider the following, which is a run-up to the question:

Writing in Eye Witness News on 11 November 2021, Veronica Mokhoali and Deshnee Subramany said that in 2020, FW de Klerk refused to admit that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Neither did he backtrack on the matter, even though he apologised for the "pain" that apartheid, or what he called in the video "separate development", had caused. The article states that in February last year (2020) De Klerk told the SABC that he was "not fully agreeing" with the presenter who asked him to confirm that apartheid was a crime against humanity. De Klerk said that while he was sorry for the crime, he felt there weren't enough deaths to qualify it as a crime against humanity. He did not give a number of how many deaths would qualify it a genocide either.

You have just encapsulated much of the criticism from his left which Mr De Klerk’s death has released. These sentiments about our past are strong, well founded and entrenched. They inform views of our past, present and future, and are a clarion call to those South Africans such as me who voted for Mr De Klerk’s pro-democracy reforms in the 1992 referendum – a vote to relinquish political power. It is clear that for many, and possibly most South Africans, wounds have not healed and may never heal. That is a personal choice which must be respected. Other South Africans have healed, partially or completely – a personal choice which must be respected. I have read the comments of my friend and mentor Lukhanyo Calata in this regard. I support his view that prosecutions for criminality must be intensified to commence formally as soon as possible. I am made to understand that the authorities are at long last acting to prosecute those involved in the murder of his father, the late Fort Calata, as well as Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli (the so-called Cradock Four). It is firmly alleged that on 19 March 1984 a proposal was put to the State Security Council (SSC) that two former Cradock teachers be “removed”. On 27 June 1985, two former Cradock teachers (Goniwe and Calata) were killed, together with Mkhonto and Mhlauli. I do not know why prosecutions – including the prosecution of Mr De Klerk if charges were formulated, against which he could have mounted a defence – have not followed on, and in the context of, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the legislation covering it, and within the other laws of our country. Indeed, in the words of the late Dene Smuts, prosecution “had to follow the TRC as night follows day”. Many who attended that apparently fateful SSC meeting are still alive today, and must be made to explain themselves – to state their case in court. I do not know whether the delay in prosecution is because of incompetence, corruption or an elite pact between the ANC and former apartheid operatives. One reads that others assume the latter. I do not believe such has been proven yet, and assumption is the mother of many a failure in recording history. If true, however, it would be further proof that the justice system must never be politicised. That said, it is important to note that those such as myself holding him in high regard today do not do so for his role in supporting apartheid or his reticence before the TRC. We do so for his role in dismantling apartheid, which cannot be denied. It is undeniable that domestic ungovernability, international pressure, economic crisis and even the armed struggle may have forced his hand, but on 2 February 1990 he opted to change the direction of South African history, unban the liberation movements and announce the release of the father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela. He refused to cave in to right-wing pressure, and for this many racist whites regard him as a traitor. I agree with the criticism levelled at him regarding his role in apartheid, his decision to leave the Government of National Unity, his role in the TRC process, his support of the National Party’s (NP) leaving the Democratic Alliance (DA), and a raft of other matters. I met him a few times and we never connected personally. I therefore do not think I have skin in the game, so to speak. My appreciation of Mr De Klerk is premised almost solely on the fact that he avoided the Algerian option (1954–1962) in South Africa. For that I cannot praise him enough, because true as it is that the victory of the democratic liberation forces was always certain, this man – terribly flawed as he was and as many people are – took a decision in 1990 and, as head of state until 1994, saw it through, with the help of many and against much opposition, which saved all of us from the horrors of an Algerian-style colonialist war of post-colonial liberation.

South African poet and activist Antjie Krog wrote the following referring to FW de Klerk: “Raised on the brackish water of the Dopper Kerk, educated in the white sinews of Potchefstroom, tamely drifting his way upwards among the bullies and crooks of the National Party, De Klerk keeps on stepping into contemporary South African spaces like a man void of senses and communal radar. And as always, it is about strategy and never about the morally right thing to do” (News24, 21 February 2020). Perhaps Krog was thinking here of De Klerk’s legal background. Soon after graduating from Potchefstroom University with a law degree in 1958 he established a successful law firm in Vereeniging in the Vaal Triangle. He became active in civic and business affairs there. When Krog writes the above, is she perhaps suggesting that De Klerk took his legal mind with him into the arena of politics in the early seventies? Do you think her suggestion that he never had the moral compass is justified? He himself once noted that during this legal training he "became accustomed to thinking in terms of legal principles". Do you believe that had someone else succeeded PW Botha, such as finance minister Barend du Plessis, matters would have been different? The process less “legalistic”?

We are now drifting into the realm of what I believe some, including Niall Ferguson, have called “virtual history”. It is a realm in which I am not trained and which I would be well advised to steer clear of. I would therefore not dwell on what might have been under the leadership of Barend du Plessis. I could also never match the prose or the passion of Antjie Krog, so I shall refrain from attempting to do so. Many commentators have raised the matter of De Klerk’s legalistic approach to dismantling the apartheid state, thereby equating it to a dispassionate bit of administrative banality, as if De Klerk’s heart wasn’t in it. I beg to differ. I personally saw De Klerk take on the right-wing when they tear-gassed him in Bloemfontein. My aunt and uncle were among his supporters present when he stared down the thuggery of the neo-fascist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) in their lair at Ventersdorp one violent and ugly night. And I recall the passion with which he quoted the epic words of NP Van Wyk Louw – prince of Afrikaans poetry – from “O wye en droewe land” upon winning the 1992 referendum – a result announced on his 56th birthday, 18 March, the day after the plebiscite. Yes, he destroyed the apartheid legal edifice bit by bit, correctly and legally. But I would argue he did not lack passion – hell no!

When De Klerk says, “As a youthful community leader, I was enthusiastic about Hendrik Verwoerd’s grand design of a Commonwealth of Southern African states in which Black South Africans would theoretically enjoy the same right to self-determination that we claimed for ourselves”, how is it possible for this to take so long (the same right to self-determination), knowing full well that the division of land into the homelands was based on the iniquitous Land Act? In the video posted just before his death, in which he unreservedly apologises for separate development (a different form of apartheid), why did De Klerk’s so-called Damascus moment occur only in the 1980s (perhaps after his visit to the US)? For such a highly gifted legal mind, a seasoned politician, he should have known that this system was based on the iniquitous Land Act dividing land in a disproportionate way. Furthermore, Verwoerd forbade the influx of white capital to the homelands. Does it not seem a bit naive from someone in that position? Was he not just an apologist for the system of apartheid from when he was born till when he died?

De Klerk’s support for apartheid was appalling. Every point you make is correct, and as an MP from 1972 De Klerk was exposed to such truths voiced by great parliamentarians like Helen Suzman, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and many more. He chose not to heed their calls for 18 years, until 1990, but when at long last he did, he acted on it with great speed and effectiveness. His support for Verwoerd is inexcusable, because the ruse which “democracy” in the homelands was, was there for all to see after the 1963 Transkei Legislative Assembly elections. For De Klerk to have defended such political crookery was indefensible.

Former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Tony Leon said that De Klerk's premature resignation from the transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) may have contributed to the polarisation of South Africa's politics (Carien du Plessis in Eye Witness News, 12 November 2021). Leon states: "Could he have played his role in the government of national unity better or was it just as he compared graphically, that it was like being the political form of death row to be number two or number three person but actually unable to influence policy. Did he help polarise politics by leaving the government of national unity three years before its term expired?" What are your thoughts on this?

That’s a tricky one. Tony Leon would be the first to point out that he, too, had the option of joining the Government of National Unity (Mr Mandela offered it), but declined on the basis that the country needed a strong opposition. The wisdom of his decision becomes clearer by the day. Personal feelings aside, Mr De Klerk came to the same conclusion in 1996. Neither he nor the National Party could cope with the rough and tumble of being in opposition, and many have made a great case that they made a mistake by leaving government. I disagree. I also disagree with the view that their decision increased polarisation. Rather, I believe it was the correct decision and that it contributed to the maturing of our democracy.

In the video released by the FW De Klerk Foundation in which De Klerk unreservedly apologised for apartheid / separate development, he did not mention anything about the thousands of apartheid-era murders and trauma the country might never hear about, nor say anything about his own possible/potential knowledge of the killings and all the violence of the early 1990s that took place in South Africa and the possibility of an alleged third force operating, as brought to light by the government. What about the likes of the statements by Lukhanyo Calata who accused De Klerk of knowing what happened to the four anti-apartheid activists mentioned above (Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli) who were assassinated by the apartheid government on 27 June 1985? How realistic do you believe greater knowledge of the Cradock Four’s deaths would have helped the nation to heal more? Was this not a lost opportunity to show real compassion, a deep moral sense, rather than here again hearing De Klerk’s legalist justification? Similar calls came from the president of the Pan Africanist Congress, Mzwanele Nyontsho, who has gone even further and said that De Klerk’s role as the architect of the Constitution keeps Africans landless? How do you respond to these allegations levelled at De Klerk; are they justified?

I believe they are justified, yes.

It was very short on the heels of the death of De Klerk’s first wife, Marike (born Willemse), that De Klerk married Elita Georgiades (1998). Is this closeness of the event coincidental? How did the role of Elita play out in FW’s life? In what way if any did it contribute to his political life?

The two events were related. The relationship with the second Mrs De Klerk started while FW was married to the former. At the time, many people were shocked. I was just happy for him. Over time, Elita de Klerk proved the perfect partner for him and I believe most well-meaning people shared the joy that they had found love. I met her only twice, and briefly interviewed her once. My impression of her – and this tallies with the experiences of many who know her better – was and remains that she is a strong, elegant and thoughtful person who provided a safe mooring for the former head of state.

Do you believe that De Klerk’s legal training and ability as a person practising law was significant, especially for instance in the very delicate issue of the release of political prisoners, indemnity from prosecution and the definition of political offences and time frame for release? Was the government’s side, with De Klerk at the helm, a strong and effective working group? There are accusations that he foot-dragged his way forward as brutalities continued until the GNU was finally proclaimed (Daily Maverick, 11 November 2021). There is mention of his government’s having been involved in the incendiary third-force violence. When the talks broke down at Codesa II, who between him and Mandela do you think showed more statesmanship? What was De Klerk’s role, really, in the negotiations?

Mr De Klerk won the battle for the National Party leadership by a whisker, and for six months had to deal with arch-militarist PW Botha’s lurking around angrily as the head of state. De Klerk was never trusted by the securocrats – they preferred the old boys’ club of PW Botha, Magnus Malan, Kobie Coetsee, Louis le Grange and Adriaan Vlok. They saw him as a softie, a weakling, a goody two shoes, a bluestocking. So he had to tread carefully – much as President Ramaphosa has to these days. That said, Mr De Klerk should have done even more to oppose the militarists. He did act against them – for instance, he removed several generals and demoted defence minister Magnus Malan to minister of forestry – which was braver than any similar action by any South African president since then. A context clearly forgotten by many in the current day was that there was much doubt about where, if it came to a civil uprising, which in those days was a clear and present danger, the loyalties of the police and the defence force would lie. De Klerk was no militarist, but (and so) he had to tread carefully. He had to beware of a right-wing coup – the noisy racists in the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the Conservative Party and such organisations were forever claiming that they had the loyalty of the police and defence force – and there really was no way of knowing, back then.

Would the South Africa government under the National Party have continued much like the former Rhodesia under Ian Smith before relinquishing power had Gorbachev not come on to the political scene in 1985 and the Berlin Wall not fallen four years later? What are your ideas on De Klerk’s position here?

The communist bogeyman was deeply entrenched in the subconscious of many Afrikaners (thank goodness our family, though opposed to communism as an economic system, never drank that specific Kool-Aid, mainly thanks to my father). But most white South Africans, in their heart of hearts and stripped of veneer, thought communists to be a scheming bunch of blood-thirsty barbarians who, if let loose on the country, would burn the churches, cut up the Bibles, rape the women and enslave (or eat, heck I don’t know) the children. It was much on the same rather unthinking level as many whites’ current reaction to the EFF. So the failure and fall of communism provided De Klerk with an opportunity to slay the old bogeyman. As for Rhodesia, that option was essentially abandoned by the South African government with the advent of John Vorster’s détente policy in the early 1970s. Rhodesia itself soon felt the pinch – Smith surely would not have entered the power sharing agreement or the Lancaster House talks without South Africa’s say-so. A last footnote on the Rhodesian matter: To the great surprise of everybody, Ian Smith, then in retirement in Simon’s Town, voiced his support for the South African democratic transition by urging a yes vote for non-racial constitutional democracy in the 1992 South African whites only referendum – meaning Smith was one of the 84,9% of Cape Town / Boland / West Coast whites who voted yes.

Glenn Frankel, writing in The Washington Post of 11 November 2021, the day that De Klerk passed on, said of De Klerk, “For years, Mr De Klerk insisted that apartheid was in its origins ‘an honorable vision of justice’ that over time had proven unworkable and unjust. He characterized the system as a mere mistake rather than a machine of brutal repression that had denied the vast majority of South Africans the most basic human rights. But in August 1996, he apologized to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the ‘pain and suffering’ the regime caused. 

“Still, the legacy of the apartheid years trailed him. In 2007, Eugene de Kock, an apartheid-era police commander who headed a death squad that targeted anti-government activists, said Mr De Klerk’s hands were ‘soaked in blood.’ He accused Mr De Klerk of approving gross human rights violations, a charge the former president vehemently denied. ‘I have not only a clear conscience; I am not guilty of any crime whatsoever,’ Mr De Klerk said during a news conference in Cape Town.”

If we accept the above from De Klerk, what else should he have done so that today, shortly after his death, such mixed reactions should not have been made possible? Or is this just too idealistic to expect?

What do we learn from FW for our nation today? Do you have any other thoughts?

I would side with the great historian Hermann Giliomee on this matter. He has said in recent days (I’m paraphrasing) that De Klerk’s great legacy to mankind was the ability to realise what you believed and did was wrong, and then to do everything you know how to correct it. Furthermore, I honour Mr De Klerk as a flawed and fallible man, a sinner who tried (if I can quote IFP leader emeritus Mangosuthu Buthelezi). I believe De Klerk’s apology to have been sincere and I share his concerns regarding the state of our country. I endorse his call on constitutionality. And I wish his family solace amidst the current din. They showed class in not requesting a state funeral. And President Ramaphosa showed class in announcing a period of mourning for our former head of state. I trust our country will take its cue from these inputs. South Africa and the late Mr De Klerk deserve it.

Thank you for your time for this interview.



  • Photograph of FW de Klerk: Library Am Guisanplatz (de), Collection Rutishauser, CC BY-SA 4.0.
  • Photographs of Murray and Joubert: Supplied

See also:

Reguit met Robinson: ’n Zoom-gesprek met Leon Wessels

FW se sjef: De Klerk het nou en dan van ’n ietsie soet gehou

FW de Klerk en die twee video’s

FW de Klerk, die mens

FW de Klerk vra vir oulaas verskoning vir die pyn van apartheid

FW hét ’n keuse gehad

’n Daad het geskied: FW de Klerk se nalatenskap

 FW – die einde van ’n era

  • 3


  • Joan Hambidge

    Wat my betref die beste analise van FW deur twee belese en ingeligte kommentators. Een 'n historikus, die ander 'n joernalis en rubriekskrywer.

  • Alastair van Huyssteen

    Netjies en eerlik. Of die Nobelprys geregvedig was, wonder ek soms. En so ook oor die laaste toespraak. Ek het eers gedink die laaste woorde was onvanpas. Later het ek besef dit het tog iets beteken vir mense wat seergemaak was, so dit was goed. Ek dink nie hy was 'n aartsskurk nie. Ook nie 'n hemelse engel nie. Net maar nog 'n mens.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.