Nelson Mandela at his presidential inauguration with his deputies, FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki

Checkered Legacy of Africa’s Last White Ruler: Case of South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk

James N. Kariuki*

Nelson Mandela at his presidential inauguration with his deputies, FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki
Nelson Mandela at his presidential inauguration with his deputies, FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki

Since the beginning of this year, South Africa has been gripped by the issue of whether or not to name one of Cape Town’s major streets after Frederick de Klerk. To ordinary South Africans, street name changes are no big issue; many do not even notice them until they come to a newly changed street name and have to figure out their own whereabouts. In short, street name changes are usually a mere inconvenience and a nuisance.

Why is it then that, suddenly, plans to change the name of the Table Mountain Boulevard to F.W. de Klerk Boulevard in Cape Town (Mother City) have become such a major and controversial issue of national proportions? Indeed, the matter is now so huge that is has captured and divided the nation racially and politically.
F.W. de Klerk was the last of seven presidents of apartheid South Africa. He was an integral part of that socio-political order, prominent enough to have held several of its cabinet positions.

When apartheid finally started to show signs of cracking, however, de Klerk was astute enough to entertain the possibility that change was inevitable and he entertained the idea of harnessing that change, while there still was time. His method of choice was peaceful negotiations rather than wait until violence engulfed the country.

South Africa did achieve that negotiated transition to democracy peacefully. Many observers around the world, including the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee, were convinced that that was an achievement enough to earn de Klerk the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the struggle icon, Nelson Mandela. In a recent interview de Klerk himself reiterated that he would like to be remembered as “… a politician who helped to lead South Africa from the dead end apartheid to a non-racial, constitutional democracy.”

If the story had ended there, there would not be much dispute today over re-naming a Cape Town street after de Klerk. But, as fate would have it, that is where the theme really thickens, triggering the question: to cross the line from the status quo to negotiating away apartheid, did de Klerk jump or was he pushed? In other words, was this a case of recognizing the impracticality of apartheid or was it a matter of moral bankruptcy of apartheid by a truly reformed de Klerk? This is the essence of today’s public debate.

Antagonists insist that the former president was a bona fide offspring of apartheid, one of its prominent and loyal foot soldiers, to the very end. He resorted to negotiations only when he saw the writing on the wall, that the end of apartheid was inevitable, with or without him. So, de Klerk embraced the old jungle logic of ‘if you cannot beat them, join them?’ Was he an opportunist or a reformer? Some would say a reformed realist.

The narrative continues that in the late 1980s when de Klerk came to power, he realized that his old order of apartheid was doomed. After all, it was condemned worldwide. International sanctions were largely in place and were biting so deeply that South Africa’s economy was already sluggish. A cordon of an arms embargo was tight and squeezing tighter.

And in 1987-88 the apartheid war machine had suffered humiliating military defeats at the hands of Cuban-Angolan military forces in Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola. Those unwelcome defeats made the military option questionable at best for the South African white regime. Finally, social unrest and violence had intensified inside the country, giving substance to the much dreaded rhetoric of ‘making South Africa ungovernable.’ The Republic was indeed on the verge of imploding.

From the above logic, opponents of the bid to re-name Table Mountain Boulevard after de Klerk insist that, on balance, he was ultimately their oppressor. Why should they honor him by endorsing plans to change the name of a major street in Cape Town after him? He was not their liberator! This is the same position articulated publicly by the ANC, the ruling political party in South Africa, and COSATU, the huge black trade union.

Conversely, de Klerk’s supporters dismiss the above logic on the grounds that, when he succeeded P.W. Botha in 1989, he became a legitimate President of the Republic of South Africa. He could have chosen to remain defiant, like his predecessor, in defense of apartheid, despite evidence against its life expectancy. That attitude on de Klerk’s part would have plunged South Africa into the abyss of a civil war that nobody wanted. To the extent that he embraced the view that there was no alternative to a negotiated settlement, de Klerk did play a major role in peaceful dismantling of apartheid.

We are reminded that the negotiated settlement approach was not necessarily the easy route for De Klerk to take. Some members of his white constituency, specifically the ultra-conservative right-wing, were dead set against negotiated democracy with Nelson Mandela, the ANC, PAC or any other black organizations. To that end, they were prepared to go to war.

Viewed from this angle, de Klerk did take ominous political risks by resorting to negotiations. He even did what was then ‘unthinkable’ by releasing Nelson Mandela from prison. To be redundant, that is precisely the background against which de Klerk was awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. Is that contribution worth naming a Cape Town street after him? Why are the victims of apartheid being so unforgiving? What is in a Cape Town street name any way?

Prof James N. KariukiThe tragedy of de Klerk’s attachment to this scenario is that it embraces deeply-felt sentiments, much larger than itself and it is a smelly package. De Klerk’s contribution to the liberation of South Africa is and will always remain contentious. Indeed there are allegations that his regime connived at human right abuses against Blacks to the very end of apartheid.

Additionally the city of Cape Town itself has had an uncomfortable relationship with the rest of country during the post-apartheid era, especially with the ruling ANC. This is so mainly because Cape Town is mainly white with the customary class/race delineations of wealth. And last, but not least, it is governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the home base of former apartheid diehards.

Indeed, Cape Town is the capital of Western Cape, the only DA-run province. In terms of race relations, the province and the Mother City have had an appalling record in attending to the needs of its black citizens. The prevailing perception is that when it comes to Blacks, the views of the powers-that-be are simply ‘we do not care if we offend.’ Renaming Table Mountain Boulevard after F.W. de Klerk, in spite of the opposition of the voiceless, is likely to dovetail neatly into that image.

Yet, in terms of political sloganeering, the DA claims that Western Cape is the best governed province in the country. The ANC responds that Western Cape and the Cape Town are still victims of apartheid and require to be liberated from that bondage. The name of de Klerk, for no fault of his own, seems to conjure up all those less than pleasant images.

As the biggest opposition party in the country, the DA has had an adversarial relationship with the ruling ANC. The two at times behave like enemies rather than opposition political parties. Yet, despite today’s political posturing, long-term mistakes may be made. Currently, the DA focuses on its constitutional rights to change its street names as it sees fit. But this should hardly be done at the expense of sensitivity to the deeply-felt passions of the marginalized segments of the society. Such would enhance a sense of alienation and anger already there. And that is exactly what changing the name of Table Mountain Boulevard to F.W. de Klerk would do.

More immediately, the DA faces the problem of being a minority party. For this reason, it longs for opportunities to penetrate the poor non-white society that the ANC claims to be its domain. It is one of its ideals to do this prior the forthcoming 2016 local government election. Being insensitive to the deep passions of the marginalized constituency misses the point regarding the renaming of Table Mountain Boulevard. It is politically naïve for the DA to engage in an issue that dividesSouth Africa racially and politically. It puts itself in a race it cannot win.

Finally, ignoring the voices of the voiceless now is not the way forward because it threatens South Africa’s democracy. Democracy requires good governance which in turn means more than just numbers. It implies listening extra hard and respecting the minority’s views; what the voiceless and marginalized, have to say. This minority may represent the silent majority of tomorrow.

**James N. Kariuki is a Kenyan Professor of International Relations (Emeritus), now an independent writer based in South Africa.  He runs the blog Global Africa

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