Things can seem clear from a distance. Apartheid was a grossly unfair and immoral chapter in the history of South Africa. The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and his subsequent rise to presidential office symbolised the successful transition into what is the new democratic state of South Africa – a country no longer divided on the grounds of race.
The first racially inclusive elections in 1994, which saw Mandela elected, came about through the initiatives set out by President F.W. de Klerk, following on from the previous year when both men were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in the peaceful dismantling of the apartheid segregation. It all seems fairly straightforward: a clear-cut struggle between good and bad, right and wrong, past and future. But in reality it is not that simple. Indeed, the old saying ‘if you’re not confused, then you don’t really understand the question’ seems particularly apt.
Frederick Willem De Klerk is a puzzling character. Only a year into his presidency, in February 1990, he lifted the ban on the ANC and released its supporters from prison. Yet his political career up to that point reflects quite a different attitude. First elected to Parliament in 1969, and entering the cabinet in 1978, Frederick had a reputation as a stalwart conservative – an avid proponent of the apartheid policy that the National Party, of which he was a member, euphemistically dubbed ‘separate development’. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has criticised him for his central role within the notorious State Security Council in the 1970s and 1980s – accusing him of being ‘partially responsible’ for racial violence.
It is poignant that the question Frederick chose to tackle in his speech at the Oxford Union was how we are to know whether what we are doing is right or wrong. In his case, it seems that hindsight has become a useful gauge. ‘Justice through partition had failed; it resulted in manifest injustice. It was morally unjustifiable, irreconcilable with religion or any pragmatic principles. What we were doing was not only wrong, it was doomed to failure.’
Yet F.W. should not be treated with blind cynicism. He is not putting himself forward as a sinner looking to do penance for crimes; accepting the problems of apartheid is not a process of self-atonement for him. Eight years after leaving party politics, he knows the questions that are likely to be put to him, and he has answers for all of them. He maintains that the decision to go about ending apartheid was a process and not an opinion that changed overnight. He rejects the criticism that segregation was brought to an end on purely economic grounds, as opposed to any humanitarian sentiment. Yes, ending the regime did have economic motives, but it was not economic motives alone that ended apartheid. It came about as a result of a pragmatic political response to the circumstances of the times.
In a letter sent in 1992, Nelson Mandela appealed for President de Klerk to ‘look inside [him]self for a change of heart’. Yet Frederick maintains that he was not pushed into his decision to end apartheid by such appeals alone: ‘Long before Mandela said it, in the ‘80s we in the National Party spent more time and energy looking into ourselves than in anything else. The quantum leaps that I was able to make were facilitated by this self-analysis and this struggle with our conscience of what is right and what is wrong. What facilitated the change in South Africa was our own reassessment of what is right and what is wrong. I think the same process quietly took place in the ANC.’