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FW: Why sorry is the hardest word

Amidst the blanket coverage of FW De Klerk’s remarks on CNN, few have stopped to consider that Mr de Klerk may actually have meant what he said, and said what he meant.

I believe De Klerk will be judged a towering figure of history, and that his closest historical proxy is Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev did not intend to sweep away the Soviet Union and communism, but rather reform it from within through Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring). I think gradualist reform, while preserving the grand design, was what De Klerk might have originally envisaged.

Ten years ago, I interviewed South Africa’s three living Nobel laureates, FW de Klerk, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, about the highly contested role of the Inkatha Freedom Party in the liberation struggle. De Klerk and Mandela seemed pragmatic and even-handed about the IFP’s decision to govern KwaZulu as an autonomous region – even if it did not quite work out as the ANC’s envisaged mission-in-exile.

When I put the question however to Desmond Tutu, his response was emphatic. Cast with the moral clarity of a pioneering theologian of reconciliation who chaired the TRC, he used the analogy of Frankenstein. Apartheid was so evil in its conception that it was indefensible to work within the system. Tutu believed that apartheid could have been banished sooner if KwaZulu’s formidable chief minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the TBVC homeland leaders had not worked within the system. I simply don’t know enough of the history to say with certitude either way, although I believe life is replete with ‘shades of grey’.

But I do know that De Klerk’s comparison between the homeland system and the Czech Republic and Slovakia was, in practical terms, preposterous. The two states, which parted company amicably in the “velvet divorce” in 1993 thanks to the visionary leadership of the late Václav Havel, enjoyed relatively high levels of prosperity and education for a former Soviet satellite.

You can, as I have done when I studied at the University of Economics in Prague, take a train directly from Prague to Bratislava – or to Vienna or Budapest for that matter – without feeling that you are traversing two entirely different worlds. There are no parallels with these two Mittle Europa nations and the policy of separate development (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

For a decade, I frequently travelled to Ulundi, the capital of the former KwaZulu Territorial Authority (KZTA). While the KZTA was not a homeland in the technical sense of the word, it had strong autonomy and was funded by Pretoria. Ulundi is an enigmatic place. Located in a bowl of rolling, sparse hills dotted with spindly cattle, the legislature of the former KwaZulu assembly sits, long discarded, like a UFO with a broken GPS.

The poverty and underdevelopment of this beautiful acre of South Africa and its gorgeous people was heartrending. In scenes that one will find across rural South Africa, you will see children and women trying to sell fruit and crafts at the roadside. Thankfully times are now changing, and today there is some evidence of development and commerce. The local airport even recommenced an air service recently.

It is impossible to understand, though, how De Klerk could draw any contrast with the proud nation of Jan Huss and Václav Havel, and the bleak existence of black South Africans marooned and marginalised in the homelands and autonomous regions. Their poverty was not an accidental by-product of apartheid, but a direct consequence of the policies of the nationalist regime.

While he regrets human rights violations, De Klerk has never said sorry for apartheid for one banal reason: he is not. His sincerity, at least, must be recorded.


  • Jon was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 - 2011, and holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He was awarded the Gundle South African Public Service Fellowship. Jon is the speechwriter to Democratic Alliance Leader, Helen Zille. He has also served as the speechwriter to the leader of the official opposition, private secretary to elder statesman, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and, briefly, as the Head of Ministry of Transport and Public Works in the Democratic Alliance-led Western Cape Provincial Government. He spent time at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London in 2011 working on the Faith and Globalisation, and Faiths Acts programmes. In 2000 he worked as a consultant policy writer for the then Democratic Party. [email protected] Twitter: jonthekaizer


  1. Benzol Benzol 17 May 2012

    “Their poverty was not an accidental by-product of apartheid, but a direct consequence of the policies of the nationalist regime.”…..??

    Many “liberated” countries in Africa keep being poor, even without ever having had apartheid. Many people in these countries are still fighting each other, killing each other and live in poverty.

    For de Klerk to say “sorry” would mean to say “sorry” for the life he lived and the believe that he did the right thing at the time. When can we expect the ANC heads to say “sorry” for the fact that this “poverty” seemingly continues without apartheid.

  2. Brent Brent 17 May 2012

    I do not agree with TuTu about Buthelezi and Inkatha. They halted Grand Apartheid that was the TBVC states, stating firmly that KwaZuleu would never take independence as it was irrevocably part of SA, this is conveniently forgotten by TuTu and all those who hated Buthelezi. If the latter had of opted out of Apatheid politics someone else, more pliable, would have been co opted by the Nats and taken KZN into ‘independence’, to the detriment of the whole country. Buthelezi’s mistake was to make enemies of the two most powerful organisations in SA: the Nats and the ANC, the former hounded him before independence and the latter since.

    Am fully aware that the above will raise a storm of anger as TuTu is above critism but even a saint makes mistakes.

    I travelled a lot in the 80’s and the Nats subtle propaganda to the West used TuTu as an example of how tolerent/decent Apartheid SA was, not jailing a critic who called for santions. On balance i believe TuTu, via the Nats propaganda, was more benificial (and used) to the evil Nat Govt than Buthelezi.


  3. The Creator The Creator 17 May 2012

    Not a bad article, but I’d say “towering figure” is way too much praise for De Klerk. The best thing he did was to get off the tracks of the locomotive of history. If he hadn’t, he would have ended up crushed and forgotten.

    KwaZulu couldn’t take independence, for it was a completely nonviable state, so it was easy for Buthelezi to refuse something he couldn’t have. However, remember that the KwaZulu Police and the Inkatha movement fought like trapped jackals against the coming of democracy, and cooperated closely with the dinosaurs of the homelands — Mangope and Gqozo — almost until the day those dinosaurs fell before the ANC asteroid.

    So some of Brent’s conclusions are clearly a bit questionable. Tutu was not a bad egg in the 1980s; he went off a bit in the 1990s and is now wholly addled in my view.

  4. Jon Cayzer Jon Cayzer 17 May 2012

    Interesting feed back. I admire both De Klerk and Buthelezi, and believe they both demonstrated courage in very difficult circumstances – and a different context which I find hard to truly comprehend.

    As for Tutu’s viewpoint, I don’t know. He was spot on that apartheid (and its policy of seperate development) was evil in its conception, but it was less clear how to defeat it. The counterfactual is always fascinating. I felt Tutu’s difficulties arose because he was both a theologian of reconciliation, and a political activist who identified himself with one side in particular?

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 17 May 2012

    In my opinion the last South African politician to deserve the Nobel Prize was Chief Luthuli.

    The last 3 have all been racist or lied for political ends at one time or another.

  6. Solitoliquido Solitoliquido 18 May 2012

    @ Brent; you seem to present Buthelezi as some unappreciated hero who saved the territorial integrity of South Africa!

    Yerr! I grew up in Soweto and was there when, in the late 80s / early 90s his hostel based supporters went into the neighboring townships in the East Rand, Soweto and on commuter trains, brutally attacking innocent people. They went into homes at night and murdered scores of commuters, anyone who did not look like an IFP supporter stood no chance.I have lost two dear school friends who were hacked to pieces by panga wielding Inkatha morons while traveling to town by train, from Orlando.

    I also had friends who grew up in Natal (as it was known then) townships such as Umlazi and Mpumalanga; people whose families were brutally displaced by IFP amabuthu.Buthelezi was, arguably, the most feared warlord – funded and protected by the Nats – during much of the 80s and early 90s, right up to a few days, if not hours, before the 1994 historic elections.

    If anything, Buthelezi is the greatest survivor of our bloody political history. I’m not an apologist for the ANC but if I were to respect the ruling party for one thing, it would be its magnanimity vis-a-vis the cantancarous Chief Gatsha Buthelezi. This man, his hands full of blood, has been allowed to remake himself as a peace loving old man that he is not. He would have much to answer for were he to be sent to the International Criminal Court!

    De Klerk als got away with a lot of blood in his hands!

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 18 May 2012

    If poverty was caused by apartheid in SA – what caused the same poverty, and the same corruption, in the rest of Africa, which did not have apartheid?

  8. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 19 May 2012

    Lyndall writes:
    “If poverty was caused by apartheid in SA – what caused the same poverty, and the same corruption, in the rest of Africa, which did not have apartheid?”

    Harris, can you provide us with an answer?

  9. Jack Sparrow Jack Sparrow 20 May 2012

    @Solitoliquido; and of course the ANC were pacifists who didn’t do a thing wrong. Yeah right!

  10. Elvis Elvis 29 November 2012

    @Lyndall Beddy, what caused poverty in Africa is number one civil wars and secondly lack of investement. This is true for DRC, Rwanda, burundi etc. Thirdly causes of poverty according to my view is political instability and weak institutions. Fourth is Sanctions e.g. North Korea and Cuba. In the case of India please remember india poverty makes most countries in Africa to be a joke, my opinion about India is education, it took them time to invest in education and for it to be excessible but now they are on track. Poverty is everywhere Eastern europe, North America etc.. it is not about “Black” people as you will like to potray it.

    For your answer you will probably not like to hear the truth about poverty because mostly this question comes from Apartheid saying that Africans here in south Africa were well feed than their counterparts in Africa as if Apartheid was doing them a favour to be south Africans.

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