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.