FW de Klerk had the courage of his convictions – Cyril Ramaphosa

President says late former president was a man whose life was bound up in fortunes of our country, its crises and triumphs

Eulogy by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the official memorial service of former Deputy President FW De Klerk

12 December 2021

Programme Director and Minister in the Presidency, Mr Mondli Gungubele,
Dr Ivan Meyer, MEC for Agriculture representing the Western Cape Government,
Chairperson of the FW de Klerk Foundation, Mr Dave Steward,
Mrs Elita de Klerk and members of the De Klerk family,
Leadership of the FW de Klerk Foundation,
Leaders of political parties and formations,
I wish to recognise Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi in absentia, who is unable to attend having received a positive COVID-19 test. We wish him good health during his period of self-isolation.
Members of the Clergy,
Fellow Mourners,
Fellow South Africans, 

Two days ago, we marked 25 years since the passage of the first Constitution of a democratic South Africa. 

With its guarantee of fundamental freedoms for all, our democratic Constitution was signed into law by President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in Sharpeville on the 10th of December 1996.

The Constitutional Assembly, which I led together with Leon Wessels, had decided that this pivotal moment in our history should be memorialised by the signing of the supreme law of our democracy at the place where the human rights of our people had been violated. 

The signing of the new constitution in Sharpeville represented the restoration of the basic human rights of our people.

Seated not far from President Mandela on that historic day in Sharpeville was Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last President of apartheid South Africa and the man whom we are assembled here to remember. 

His presence on that day, to bear witness to the signing of the Constitution that would be the foundation of a free South Africa, was deeply significant.

His presence was a measure of the changes that had taken place in our country in the passage of only a few years.

Some of the relatives of the 69 people who were massacred at Sharpeville were also seated in the audience together with FW de Klerk. 

It must have been a sombre moment for him. 

It must also have been a moment of deep reflection.

It spoke of a journey that South Africans had traversed over many decades – a journey from the darkness of subjugation and exploitation and humiliation into the light of freedom, democracy and equal rights.

In many ways, the journey of our nation was not unlike the path that the life of FW de Klerk followed.

Born into white privilege and power, raised in the ideology of racial superiority, committed to the defence of an abhorrent and inhumane system, FW de Klerk would come to play an important role in our democratic transition.

On the day our new Constitution was adopted by the Constitutional Assembly, I said that this document was the birth certificate of our nation. A nation of free and equal people.

Speaking on the same occasion, then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki said:

“The constitution whose adoption we celebrate constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins…

“It seeks to create the situation in which all our people shall be free from fear, including the fear of the oppression of one national group by another, the fear of the disempowerment of one social echelon by another, the fear of the use of state power to deny anybody their fundamental human rights and the fear of tyranny.”

And from across the aisle, representing the National Party – the party that had for nearly half a century held the country in an iron grip of racial tyranny – then Deputy President FW de Klerk said:

“Ons grondwet skep die kanale waarlangs alle Suid-Afrikaners hulself op 'n demokratiese manier kan laat geld.

“Dit skep instellings en meganismes om die demokrasie in stand te hou, om korrupsie te beveg, om die onreg van die verlede te herstel, om diskriminasie teë te werk, om die regspraak te laat geld, en om ons kultuurverskeidenheid te akkommodeer.”

[Our constitution creates the channels through which all South Africans can assert themselves in a democratic way. It creates institutions and mechanisms to maintain democracy, to fight corruption, to redress the injustices of the past, to combat discrimination, to uphold the rule of law, and to accommodate our cultural diversity.]

In making this statement – a statement that stood in stark contrast to the political ideology on which he had been raised and for which he had stood – De Klerk was acknowledging both his fears about change and the extent to which the new democratic Constitution answered those fears.

Even as he entered into negotations, he was fearful of majority rule. 

Even as he spoke about equal rights for all, he and his party wanted minority rights, cultural rights and the language of Afrikaans to be protected. 

Even as he expressed his doubts about some parts of the Constitution, he was prepared to acknowledge that it provided a foundation for a South Africa in which the rights and freedoms of all its people would be guaranteed. 

The constitution-making process, our first democratic elections, the sitting of the first truly representative Parliament, and the systematic dismantling of decades of racist and discriminatory laws, were milestones on a difficult journey that was many years in the making. 

The freedom we know today would not have been possible had it not been for the contribution of black, white, Indian and coloured men and women; democrats, socialists, communists; Africanists and Afrikaner nationalists; comrades and adversaries.

It would not have been possible without those who paid the ultimate price in the fight for freedom, those who were tortured and murdered, those who were imprisoned and exiled.

The prophetic words of Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu as he was led to the gallows – when he said “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom” – will forever remain as an epitaph to the crime of apartheid.

Our freedom was also made possible by many people around the world and African countries that rallied to the cause of freedom in South Africa as they became convinced that apartheid was a crime against humanity. 

Many countries on our continent gave shelter and support to Oliver Reginald Tambo and many others who were driven into exile. 

The leaders of these countries also supported and encouraged a negotiated and peaceful transition to democracy.

I have just returned from Dakar in Senegal, where, in 1987, a historic meeting took place between the ANC and a delegation consisting of, among other others, Afrikaner academics, teachers, journalists, artists, business leaders, writers and professionals.

This meeting was among several pivotal events that laid the ground for the negotiations that were to follow between the ANC and FW de Klerk’s National Party.

Significantly, these talks were the inspiration for the planned establishment of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Forgiveness on Gorée Island in Senegal – which was one of many sites where millions of Africans were sold into slavery – demonstrating the embrace by many on the African continent of reconciliation and forgiveness over hatred.

The fact that it was the struggles of the South African masses that forced the perpetrators of apartheid to the negotiating table does not render their contribution any less significant, nor their pragmatism any less genuine. 

They were prepared to put aside their differences and were ready to talk with their sworn enemies.
The path we followed – of negotiation over conflict, of reconciliation over recrimination – was in no small part thanks to the courage and the conviction of FW de Klerk.

FW de Klerk’s speech on the 2nd of February 1990, in which he announced the unbanning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, was a brave act.

In taking this bold step, De Klerk heeded the call by Nelson Mandela who, while still incarcerated, told the apartheid rulers that the only way to resolve what he called the perpetual crisis in the country was through negotiations between the ANC and the National Party government.

In taking such a bold step FW de Klerk went against many in his own party, and against many white South Africans who had been taught about the ‘swart gevaar’, who had been brought up to fear majority rule and to regard black aspirations as a threat to their way of life, their culture and their very existence. 

De Klerk went against elements in his own state security apparatus, and against diehards who were prepared to take up arms to preserve the status quo. 

In the words of Frederick van Zyl Slabbert: “His intervention was extremely fortuitous, individual and extraordinarily audacious, and history surely owes him a debt of gratitude for what he did.”

We cannot say with conviction what course our country would have taken had that speech not been made.

We can, however, say that the country was faced with a stark choice, between a negotiated settlement and a protracted civil war far more destructive than anything we had experienced before.

And that was a key moment when we chose the path of peace rather than strife. 

We do know that the decisions announced that day contributed to a process whose eventual outcome was a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist Constitutional order. 

We also know that under his leadership, the National Party was deliberately steered towards a democratic Constitution, and that white South Africans came to accept the inevitability of change.

In many ways the change that took place freed them from their fear of majority rule and made them accept that South Africa belongs to all who live in it as set out in the Freedom Charter. 

It made them realise that the protection of minority rights they sought was inextricably linked with the protection of the rights of all South Africans as clearly enunciated in our constitution.

And while his predecessors had never managed to cross the Rubicon, FW de Klerk embarked on negotiations with the liberation movements and was brave enough to see them through to their ultimate conclusion. 

In his latter years, he remained a strident voice for constitutionalism and rule of law. 

I came to know FW de Klerk over many years during negotiations, first at CODESA and the multi-party talks, and later in the Constitutional Assembly. 

We had moments of friendliness, but we also had our disagreements. 

He could be affable but he could also be stubborn. 

He could be prepared to compromise but he could also dig in his heels. 

Sometimes he offered me counsel; other times I offered it to him. 

And there were times when strong words were exchanged between us.

Yet even in moments of difficulty, at times when we were close to the brink, I found him to be courteous, respectful and committed. 

FW de Klerk had the courage of his convictions.

In remembering FW de Klerk, and in according him this State Memorial Service as a former Deputy President, we recognise that his contribution and his legacy remain contested.

We recall that President Mandela’s statement that De Klerk was “a man of integrity” was put to the test as state-sponsored violence continued to ravage communities in what is now KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

We can neither ignore, nor must we ever seek to dismiss, the anger, the pain and the disappointment of those who recall the place FW de Klerk occupied in the hierarchy of an oppressive state.

We must never forget the injustices of the past.

We must never forget the atrocities at Boipatong, Bisho, KwaMakhutha, Langa, Soweto and Sharpeville.

We can never forget the lives that were lost, the families that were torn apart, the land that was taken, the livelihoods that were destroyed, the rights that were denied, and the dreams that were dashed.

We can never forget the humiliation, the degradation and the inhumanity.

Nor must we ever forget the responsibility that we each bear to consign such suffering and injustice to the past.

Each of us has a responsibility to help build a new nation and a new society dedicated to the realisation of the potential of all.

Change did not come soon enough for the many South Africans who lost their lives at the hands of a cruel regime, but change did nonetheless come. 

It came in the form of our Constitution, in whose shade millions of our people shelter today. 

As much as we cannot escape history’s scrutiny, as much as the wounds of the past are still fresh in the minds of many, we should strive to give effect to the promise that we made to ourselves on that day in Sharpeville 25 years ago.

Dit is die belofte wat vervat is in die Aanhef tot ons Konstitusie: ‘n belofte waartoe FW de Klerk homself, sy party en sy Stigting verbind het.

[It is the promise that is contained in the Preamble to our Constitution, a promise to which FW de Klerk committed himself, his party and his Foundation.]

The Preamble of our Constitution reads as follows:

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to –

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

We are still to reach the end of our journey towards a truly united, non-racial, nonsexist, prosperous and free South Africa. 

It should not and cannot be that the task of bringing about reconciliation rests squarely on the shoulders of those who were oppressed. 

It is the responsibility and the duty of us all, black and white. 

Ending the racism that is still prevalent in our society, doing away with discrimination in all its forms and building a united nation takes hard work and it takes acts of courage. 

FW de Klerk was a man whose life was bound up in the fortunes of our country, its crises and its triumphs, its complexity and its contradictions.

Hy het op ‘n tydstip beheer gehad oor ‘n onregverdige stelsel, maar hy het die moed van sy oortuiging gehad om ‘n ander koers in te slaan vir sy party en vir sy mense. Vir dit sal ons hom onthou.

[He once presided over an unjust system, but he had the courage to steer a different course for his party and for his people. And for this we shall remember him.]

To the De Klerk family, you have lost a husband, a father, a brother and a friend. 

To you, and to his many friends and colleagues, I offer you my condolences and those of the South African government. 

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born of the African soil.

And it is to the African soil that he has now returned.

And it is here, within the warm embrace of the African soil, that he shall forever remain. 

Let us release him to rest.

I thank you

Issued by The Presidency, 12 December 2021