Frederik Willem de Klerk was not a popular man. An early general election had been called for. Indications of further political reforms within the National Party’s governance had the conservative opposition party reeling. Right-wing orators prophesised imminent doom. Militant left-wingers guaranteed it. Anti-apartheid organisations raised their hands. After all the talk, another race-based parliamentary election? Are they out of their minds? People flooded the streets in mass protest. African style. Police responded with water cannons blasting purple dye. On 6 September 1989, the day FW de Klerk was elected, people died. Imagine this was your first day in office.
A war was being waged. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the then-banned African National Congress, were an organised force engaged in covert operations. The South African defence and police forces had them in the crosshairs. Watered-down images of township violence flickered on the evening news. Politicians pummeled lecterns with their fists. For the umpteenth time in South African history racial tension was at fever pitch.
What were regular South Africans to do? What if you held no political office or carried no rifle? You put your head down. You carried on. If you had a job to go to, you went to work. You caught a taxi out of the township before dawn to clock in before eight. You went underground to mine for gold. You dressed in a suit, got behind the wheel of a sedan, and left the suburbs for the office. You lived in fear of recrimination.
You caught the bus to school. You crammed inside a train. You bunked lectures. Braaied meat. Drank beer. You wondered if there would be a time when the world would let you buy a pack of Marlboros, a pair of Levis, or let the lads play international cricket again. You kicked a soccer ball in the dust. You prayed that Nelson Mandela, your quiet hope out of poverty, inequality and despair, would not die inside of prison. One thing was for sure. South Africa was wound up tight. Radical change was inevitable. But first there would be blood. Too much to contemplate.
And then this man appeared on TV. He had a kind smile and a calm, calculated voice. He spoke about reform. People had heard this kind of rhetoric before. His predecessor, PW Botha, had already waved his finger at some of its broader points. There was no reason to believe that FW was any different. Was he capable of, or truly committed to, instituting the country’s only saving grace?
De Klerk’s ancestors trekked their ox wagons over mountain passes to escape British rule. Three De Klerk men were murdered alongside Piet Retief after being duped into Zulu King Dingaan’s kraal – a moment that became ingrained in Afrikaner culture. De Klerk’s father served in HF Verwoerd’s government. At the age of 42, FW himself was appointed to BJ Vorster’s cabinet. These men, Verwoerd and Vorster, had used every opportunity to legislate apartheid, one of the worst human rights abuses in history. De Klerk was of their tribe, a conservative MP who, not so long ago, upheld apartheid legislation. But who cared to note the detail? It was easier to stereotype.
The man on TV was white. Most South Africans prepared themselves for yet another opening of parliament by a proponent of apartheid. Cameras panned. The public gallery groaned under the weight of attendance. And out came that confident voice. De Klerk’s message delivered the impact he had so carefully planned. His speech planed against the grain of perception.
He announced the unbanning of the African National Congress and other affected parties. He lifted the state of emergency, promised the release of political prisoners, suspended the death penalty and offered trade unions the freedom to represent their members. No more middle-of-the-night arrests. No more water cannons or teargas. The people were given the right to govern, with equal rights promised for all. The people watched the man on TV strike centuries of apartheid in a single delivery. FW de Klerk turned the key on Nelson Mandela’s prison cell the right way. And the world heard it go click.
“Sometimes I’m asked about ‘the day I ended apartheid,’” he says of that time. “Apartheid wasn’t ended on a particular date. The ending of apartheid was a process. It already started in the late 70s, it picked up momentum during the 80s and it reached a climax when I, on the second of February 1990, made the announcement which I made in parliament. As I walked into parliament I said to my wife: South Africa will never be the same again.”
And after that speech it wasn’t the same again. But it took more than just paying lip service to change. De Klerk could have gone with the flow. Many of the white South African men of his generation did. They drove that sedan. Had the maid do the ironing, gave her a room out back – no visitors – and paid the minimum wage. Why shake the norm?
In the early days of De Klerk’s political career the principle of apartheid was under threat, but the system survived under strong-armed governance, and jolly good fortune among those who harvested its benefits. Tweaks to policy here and there were doable. The niggling expenses incurred in the civil struggle were affordable. The white minority may have kept the party going for a good while to come. Imagine the sentiment. Please Mr President, just a little more of these good times.
As a young member of parliament, De Klerk pondered the future of his country. In 1970 hard-line conservatives broke from the National Party. He could have followed them, but he chose not to. De Klerk, by no means a liberal at the time, began a journey that led to the formulation of a plan that would create reform. He realised that somebody had to take responsibility for the mess that had been made. Who would want that job?
“My upbringing has taught me, my parents have taught me, one doesn’t live just for yourself. You have a responsibility in life and I grew up with this belief that, yes, I want a good career, yes, I hopefully will make some money, but yes, I’m part of a community, I’m part of a nation, I’m a citizen of a country, and I have to give something back to that community and to that nation and to that country. This motivated me throughout my life.”
It also motivated De Klerk to meet with the one man who could unite South Africa. Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, “FW de Klerk is a man I can do business with,” a description De Klerk echoed almost exactly in his view of Mandela.
“The first time I met Nelson Mandela, he was brought from the prison in which he was then staying, under cover of darkness, to meet me in my presidential office, which later became his office. That first meeting was not a meeting of substance in the sense that we discussed anything serious; we were both feeling each other out. We were trying to get the feel of the person across the table. And both of us afterwards wrote in our respective autobiographies: we went back to our constituencies and said to them ‘I think I can do business with this man’. My immediate impression was he was a man of integrity, he was a man of substance, he was a good listener, he was logical in his approach and I liked what I saw.”
Simply stepping up to the plate has defined his legacy, and changed the course of South Africa’s history for the better. He understood the moment that South Africa faced, and acted in the best interests of its entire people. FW de Klerk steered an economy towards recovery and released the only man who could save a country from an imminent bloodbath. When the world saw FW de Klerk rise from his seat and offer Nelson Mandela the head of the table he became an icon of humility and peace. He didn’t need a Nobel Prize to prove it.
“I am Frederik Willem de Klerk. I’m proud to be a South African and I’m proud of what South Africa has achieved, and I believe in our capacity to play a crucial role, a fundamental role, on the continent of Africa.”