The ANC fell for racist FW de Klerk's trick
A British journalist asked me a pithy question earlier today: “Will FW de Klerk be remembered as a villain or as a hero?”
I didn't want to critique the question before answering it. Dichotomies are seductive. They demand — or invite — certainty, clarity, concision, conviction. I tried (somehow) to meet him halfway by first explaining that “It depends”, before giving him some of the clarity of thought he was hoping for, hoping to report to his senior colleague in turn.
Whether De Klerk is a hero or a villain will no doubt depend on who you ask the question of, because we bring our most deeply held political convictions to debates about legacy.
For some of the worst white racists in South Africa, the guy was probably not quite a hero because he “gave away” “their” country to black people. For these most virulent of racists, De Klerk's reform agenda, in the face of apartheid's inevitable end phase, makes him a sell-out.
These folks found a home in remnants of the far-right like the erstwhile AWB and, later, as their most violent manifestations of racism transposed into less explicit forms of racism but racism nevertheless, they found a home in parties like the FF+ and outfits like AfriForum.
It's quite chilling that, despite his many moral and political sins, De Klerk was too moderate for some whites. That alone tells you just how far we are from a genuinely anti-racist SA.
For many whites, especially liberals, De Klerk was a hero. Former DA leader Tony Leon tweeted that, but for De Klerk, South Africa would have ended up like Syria. That is an incredible claim to make without adducing further analysis. I wonder where Leon bought his crystal ball from that is the basis of this sine qua non.
The most one can and should say is that De Klerk possibly shortened the pathway to the formal end of legislative apartheid. Nothing more. Nothing less. Despite the repetition of the speculative view that a civil war was imminent and apartheid could and even would have dragged on for decades, we simply do not know that to be so.
What we do know is that the economic and cultural chokehold of isolationism, plus renewed violent internal resistance to the apartheid state, was so effective that a pragmatist would have seen the writing to be on the wall, and so would choose a crafty end game that doesn't leave him and his ilk facing jail time, and with their assets dispossessed. That makes De Klerk an effective bargainer for Afrikaners rather than a moral beacon for South Africans of all hues.
Leon ends his tweet with the affectionate Afrikaans greeting “totsiens”. It is a word filled with loving affect. It signals a kind of connection to the person, one that is warm, affirming, gentle, and then some.
There is no regard here for the thousands of black South Africans killed under his leadership and the government of which he was a senior leader, including within the security strictures specifically. These black South Africans did not die quietly in their sleep at the age of 85. There is no “totsiens” for the victims of apartheid. Many of their families still suffer the trauma of not being able to bury a loved one who was never found or who was blown to pieces.
Liberals simply want to meditate on De Klerk — “totsiens” — as if he is as sweet and harmless as Joshua Doore, your uncle in the furniture business. They will, in the days ahead, either loudly ignore conversation about his crimes or refuse to describe them fully, doing so only tangentially to be able to claim, waspishly, that they are not in fact ignoring the “controversial” aspects of his legacy. They will not name his victims. They will not retweet images of Boipatong. They will not retweet the rage of the children of those who were killed as a result of allowing or directly ordering their death. Truth will be sacrificed for the convenience of fake peace, and fragile reconciliation motifs.
And so, speaking for myself as Eusebius McKaiser, I was ultimately able to give a clear personal answer to the British journalist. To my mind, De Klerk is a villain. He never took full and proper moral and political accountability for apartheid and for his role in it. Long after his retirement, he even had the audacity on an international platform to try to defend the policy of “separate development”. This policy is intrinsically racist. It is premised on the logic that people of different skin colours are not capable of seeing each other as fully human and therefore not capable of living in integrated communities.
Liberals simply want to meditate on De Klerk as if he is as sweet and harmless as Joshua Doore, your uncle in the furniture business. They will, in the days ahead, either loudly ignore conversation about his crimes or refuse to describe them fully.
The policy, furthermore, is a logical extension of the racist philosophical foundation of colonialism and apartheid, that white people are superior in their make-up and would be tainted by social contact with black people.
That is the logic of apartheid geography. De Klerk's refusal to concede that apartheid geography was generally racist and specifically based on white supremacist ideology shows that he did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
De Klerk goes to his grave with a deep conviction that separate development was misunderstood. He goes to his grave with countless secrets that could have brought healing to black families but he did not care to tell it all. He goes to his grave without having taken moral responsibility for his role in the construction and perpetuation of a crime against humanity.
For these reasons, I regard him an irredeemable villain, who gamed the end of apartheid to ensure he lived quietly till the age of 85 without being put on trial.
The sleepy lot in the ANC, excited about political power, fell for the trick.
McKaiser is a TimesLIVE contributor and analyst
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