On March 18 erstwhile President F W de Klerk will celebrate his 8oth birthday. Nelson Mandela, in his monumental autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, paid tribute to his fellow Nobel Prize Laureate F W de Klerk in the following words:
He had the courage to admit that the terrible wrong had been done to our country and its people through the imposition of the system of apartheid. He had the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants in the process, together determine what they want to make of their future.
History is likely to assess de Klerk as a profound reformer, who acted with both exceptional moral and political courage in contributing, with Mandela, to taking South Africa from state of notorious injustice and oppression that constituted apartheid to a new liberal democratic dispensation, which holds great promise. As a politician he had impeccable National Party credentials, being the son of a nationalist cabinet minister and nephew of Prime Minister JG Strydom, known as the lion of the North, both of whom were proponents of unqualified and rudimentary apartheid, known as ‘blanke baaskap’.
Taking the above into account, his heroic and morally courageous speech of February 2, 1990, in which he announced the unbanning of the liberation movements and the release of Mandela, will probably be regarded as one of the most significant political speeches of the 20th century, ranking with Harold Mc Millan’s ‘Winds of Change speech’ of 1960. This speech has been described as a ‘quantum leap’, because it involved not merely incremental reform measures, but a fundamental reform. It involved metaphorically a leap of faith, the consequences of which resulted in an essentially, peaceful and negotiated new and just dispensation for South Africa. This was most certainly a foregone conclusion, since as De Tocqueville perceptively explained in his scholarship, a drastic reform is inherently dangerous and can easily degenerate into a bloody revolution as occurred with the French Revolution with its reign of terror in 1793. De Klerk was acutely aware of this, but had the moral and political courage to embark on a path of fundamental reform, from which there was no turning back.
Although the relationship between Mandela and de Klerk was indeed at times a tempestuous one, the former expressed a belief in the integrity of the latter. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize. This speaks volumes. This was a judgment made by the international community which had for decades censured the atrocities and oppression of apartheid in South Africa.
Besides being a person of singular integrity, he proved to be a statesman of consummate ability in the way he managed the politically fraught period of transition from February 2 to April 27, 1994. The demands placed on him in relation to the turbulent state of the country and the party political problems he faced were extremely demanding, almost insurmountable. Both Mandela and De Klerk were able to put aside their personal differences and act in a mature and statesman like manner that was beneficial for the country and its people. In everything he did during this period he endeavoured to act in a selfless way, not seeking any political glory for himself.
After the ANC victory in the election of April 27, 1994 he graciously conceded defeat and handed over the reins of government to President Mandela and subsequently served as Deputy President under him. De Klerk has never claimed to be a saint or pretend that he did not make mistakes. He is modest about his achievements and in retirement continues to make a significant contribution to peace making through negotiation and dialogue, through the De Klerk Foundation on the international stage.
History will, it is submitted, assess him as one of greatest sons of South Africa, who together with Mandela brought into being the liberal democratic dispensation in which we live. In so doing he has acquired an international reputation that is well deserved. In some respects in this regard he resembles in this regard another famous South African, J C Smuts, a philosopher statesman and prime minister, who had acquired an international reputation. This is interesting and strangely ironical, since Smuts was decidedly not considered a favourite son of South Africa, by generations of National Party leaders and followers.
On this auspicious occasion of his 80th birthday, F W de Klerk deserves our very good wishes. As a nation, we remain desperately in need of great healing and he is able to continue to contribute to this.