Calculating to the end, FW botched his last chance to free himself
He could have atoned for apartheid by admitting it was a crime and pleading for forgiveness. He didn’t
There have been some outstanding reflections penned on the recently deceased FW de Klerk. The best among them came from the desks of Barney Pityana, Redi Tlhabi and Antjie Krog. However, none of them tried to grapple in any depth with the man himself, focusing mainly on what he did or did not do — and the motives for his actions. Nobody asked the more difficult question as it applied to De Klerk and white South Africans in general: having done evil, how do you live with yourself?
On the first of three occasions that I met de Klerk, one thing quickly became clear. The man was no fool. He was quick and clever, intellectually as well as politically. PW Botha was basically a skollie, a Kovsie dropout and political bully who notched up stars on his belt for violently upending meetings of his rivals. FW, on the other hand, was a thoughtful, calculating politician.
He was also a lawyer. And as with many of my lawyer friends, every discussion or debate was treated like a courtroom event. You must argue, defend your position, protect your interests. And do not concede, regardless of whether you’re right or wrong.
FW was also deeply shaped by white Afrikaner nationalism, loyal to the ideals of the apartheid project embodied by intimate family like Jan de Klerk, his father, and his uncle, JG “Hans” Strijdom. Who can forget that it was FW who fought for segregated education as minister of national education (1984-1989), even as the curtain was closing on the drama of apartheid? He was also an Afrikaner Calvinist, a man of religious conviction who knew the difference between right and wrong, morally and juridically.
I observed FW closely in the years after the formal end of apartheid. As head of state he was the clever politician. The game was up. Negotiate with the ANC before you lose everything. It was a head, not heart, decision, shared one of his childhood friends and political broeders.
In front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), FW was the wary lawyer. Concede nothing, for you (and your people) might be held culpable. In the privacy of his foundation, shored up by racial ideologues, he was the stubborn white nationalist. Apartheid was not a crime against humanity, he said as recently as February 2020. He would only retract this self-damning statement under pressure. In the face of death, FW recorded on video an acknowledgment of the harm of apartheid, with instructions that this was to be released after his death; that is, when he would be beyond the reach of public reproach.
This could have been his Willy Brandt moment, that unforgettable image from December 1970 when the German chancellor fell on his knees at a memorial to remember the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. That single act became the symbol of German atonement for the crimes of the Nazis.
What explains this bizarre behaviour of a smart politician? Simple. Here was a man wrestling with his conscience in plain sight of those who cared to see.
He knew apartheid did incalculable harm to “black, brown and Indians” (let’s leave the awkward, anachronistic language for the moment). But to say apartheid was a “crime” would be to not only betray his people, but gnaw at his troubled conscience, for it would mean he committed a criminal act. His legal instincts kicked in: deny, deny, deny. More importantly, his moral bandwidth could not cope with the implications of such a horrendous admission. After all, our intentions were good, FW tried to reassure himself as he tangled with the truth.
Yet how could he, as a man of faith, face the Almighty without having made his final confession? Thus, the ham-handed mea culpa made public after he slipped into eternity. Millions of South Africans found the apology insincere at best, inflammatory at worst.
In this Jacobean wrestling with his conscience, FW missed an opportunity for reprieve, if not redemption. In our hyper-religious culture, he could have saved himself. Imagine if he’d televised this before he died: “Apartheid was so obviously a crime against humanity. I acknowledge my own culpability in this evil. I plead for your forgiveness.” This could have been his Willy Brandt moment, that unforgettable image from December 1970 when the German chancellor fell on his knees at a memorial to remember the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. That single act became the symbol of German atonement for the crimes of the Nazis. “He was begging us for forgiveness,” said a Polish observer of that moment. And this from a man who resisted the Nazis and fled into exile.
FW would not take personal responsibility for the crime of apartheid, only that it was “unacceptable” and had some regrettable consequences: “pain, hurt, indignity.” It was a measured, calculating statement. Nothing about mass dispossession or organised death squads. For if he acknowledged that, how would he live with himself?
Nor would FW ask forgiveness, his acknowledgment premeditated. The transcript of the videoed message infuriates: I apologise and, by the way, I already apologised “on many occasions”, but let me do this one more time. He then went on to talk about economic growth, job creation and the constitution. Callous and tone-deaf to the very end.
I felt sorry for De Klerk, the lawyer, the politician, the believer all rolled into a single ball of inconscience. If only he had asked for our forgiveness. At least then we would have had the option to set him free.