Give FW de Klerk his due

Mark D Young says critics of the former President forget what the circumstances were in the late 1980s, and what the alternative was

I realise that many fellow citizens still reading this opinion piece may have been born and raised, or reached adulthood, in the happy period following the most tragic and turbulent years of South African history in the 1980s.

However, part of the duty of being a citizen, in my view, is to do what we can to promote the image of the country that spawned, raised, clothed, fed, educated and carried us. Ill-informed ad-hominem attacks on our countrymen who are lauded internationally for what they have achieved does not serve that end.

Attempting to understand all the myriad forces at work on our body politic and acknowledging our history forms part of that duty - and at the outset might I point out that I deeply understand just how fraught an exercise that can be. The winners always re-write history to cast the most flattering light on their particular version of events and their conduct.

I discovered this while I spent many a period outside my senior history class in the 70s for insisting on an answer to - what I thought - was a simple question about who schooled His Excellency King Dingaan in the Dutch language and the concepts of European law.

I felt that this knowledge was fundamental to my understanding of the most probable course of events when the sovereign of the Zulu nation was alleged - by the trekker negotiating party - to have concluded a valid and binding treaty with them and then, on their version, reneged on it when they arrived to claim what they felt had been given to them. Perhaps it was not the way the matter was understood by His Majesty?

The vitriol and indignation I witnessed as a response to my questions has, sadly, been mirrored many times (especially in recent weeks) when any hint is heard that former President F W De Klerk might be honoured in some manner or that he is due respect for his role in shaping the nation in which we live today.

Like the conundrum about King Dingaan, understanding the context and not the spoon-fed narrative of the revisionist historians is fundamental to understanding why former President De Klerk is due, in my view, his rightful place in the pages of history.

I can share some thoughts about the context of the times taken from personal experience. In so doing I hope that we may glimpse just a small portion of the mountain he needed to climb in order to undo the log-jam the country faced as a consequence of his numerous predecessor's damaging reign at Tuynhuis.

That F W De Klerk accomplished all he did in a low key manner and with so little apparent drama - at least on the surface - is possibly the reason his hard work is dismissively denigrated today.

As a photojournalist, I saw at first hand how the creeping totalitarianism of the Vorster and Botha administrations had removed any semblance of normality for most of our citizens.

I met the uniformed and plain-clothed bastions of the fight against the Rooi Gevaar and the Swart Gevaar on a regular basis.

If not at one of the numerous, ever-present and astonishingly mobile road blocks en-route to or in the townships, then during their many allegedly social visits to newsrooms or when they knocked on the front door at 2 am in the morning.

Raising points of law did not, as many of our struggle heroes discovered, cut any ice with these chaps. They had been raised in a mindset that said might was right and that anyone remotely critical of the state was to be dealt with.

Anyone denying the existence - and effectiveness - of these officials should perhaps read some of the stories about their actions. A very pertinent set would be the numerous reports filed by Helen Zille in regard to the death of Steven Biko in 1977. His is but one example among many that illustrates the impunity with which they could operate.

Not surprisingly, the use of such methods necessitated stronger and stronger clamp-downs on liberty and normality to prevent the rightful anger of the populace. In the mid-1980s PW Botha decreed a national state of emergency. It was a de-facto state of martial law, despite what those in the leafy suburbs of the cities at the time may contend.

The emergency regulations made it legal for anyone in the armed forces or police - with a rank of corporal or above - to detain without warrant any person they deemed to be engaged in actions against the state, supporting banned organisations or of recording or reporting on any security force action.

Reporting the news became a particular art form unique to South African journalists. The emergency regulations forbade the use of black strips to indicate that words, names or details had been censored - as they often were. That is, of course, if the entire edition of the newspaper had not already been banned forthwith. Likewise, the use of blank spaces was also verboten.

Individuals could also be banned. This strange concept involved - among other things - the complete censorship of anything you said or wrote and your social isolation. You could not meet more than one or two people at a time unless they were direct family members and then, often only with permission of a magistrate. The terms of individual banning orders varied but some, such as that served on Mrs Winnie Mandela, included restriction to a particular location as well.

This was all, we must remember, in the pre-internet age. Other than word of mouth, there was virtually no other secure method of conveying information. Tapping of telephone lines, interception of mail and the very visible, close and incessant following of people suspected - often on the flimsiest of pretexts - of being engaged in activities contrary to the welfare of the state (in exercises called hakke-trap ) were a daily reality for those targeted by the security establishment.

To empower this type of society, a process had been followed for many years of the systematic identification, selection and promotion of members of the government services, armed forces and police who were deemed to be of the mindset to willingly support and enforce the various laws of segregation. It was common knowledge among many with whom I came into contact in the state apparatus that questioning of the processes of subjugation was not a wise career choice.

As evidenced with other totalitarian regimes throughout history, strategic placement of such kingpins throughout the machinery of state was vital to its future existence.

Thus we have the state of play when F W De Klerk was elected leader of the National Party in 1989.

The upper echelons of the most powerful army and state security operation on the African continent were populated, in key areas, not only by party sympathisers from the eras of Malan, Vorster and Botha, but with people groomed throughout their careers to act in the narrow interests of one small section of the population.

The public service was replete with individuals who had spent their careers climbing up the ladder on the basis that they would manage, control and regulate the apartheid system and maintain the status-quo.

In other words, at very moment when the country inaugurated a President who had promised to make the reforms vital to the future of its citizens, many of the people in charge of essential organs of state that needed to assist with the dismantling of apartheid, had achieved their positions because they had constructed, enforced and maintained it.

In essence therefore, the very people needed to carry out the changes were, in critical positions, the wrong ones for the new dispensation envisaged by President F W De Klerk.

Try and consider, if you will, how disgruntled some people might have been when they became aware that everything they had spent their careers doing would be tossed-aside and the usual modus-operandi be changed forthwith.

Lest some are unaware of the fact, we must not forget that South Africa was a nuclear military power at that point. So not only were there thousands of potential "Not on my watch!" armed security personnel deployed in places where they could easily have sown discord and fostered armed opposition, there were also people with access to and control of weapons of mass destruction.

Luckily, however, the majority of the core of the rank and file plus the lesser career officers took their oath of professionalism and service to the country - irrespective of the politics of the commander in chief - seriously. They offered a basis upon which to forge a more egalitarian society.

Arrayed on the other side, of course, were the many armed insurgents infiltrated into the country by our various liberation movements. The opposition parties, newly un-banned, did their best to mobilise - perhaps with ill-advised rhetoric - the majority of the population in "rolling mass action". The Bisho massacre during the CODESA process is but one illustration of how that type of grand-standing by the liberation movements, aimed at political points-scoring, could easily back-fire and needlessly cost many innocents their lives.

In short, the country was a powder keg populated by indoctrinated, trained combatants and ideologically primed insurgents ready - and itching - to have a go at each other in a showdown to end showdowns.

Despite the insanity of using violence towards political ends, each group on every side was, in its own mad way, confident that it held the high ground, that it had right on its side and that it would prevail.

I believe that our country was extremely fortunate that we had, in President De Klerk, a man who had the courage and political capital, to carefully deconstruct and neutralise the most volatile of the ignition sources that stood in the way of sanity.

It could not have been an easy task. Given his legal background, Mr De Klerk would have been careful to operate within the law as it stood until it could be repealed. The to-and fro about his reluctance to interfere in Ciskei and impose a leader on the nation - in terms of SA law an independent entity - as his CODESA counterparts demanded, is but one example of the many complications our convoluted national system added to the task.

Were I in President De Klerk's position at the time, I would, furthermore, have been acutely aware of the fact that just eight short years before, in another African military superpower, a President had been assassinated by members of the military for negotiating peace with an old enemy and for bringing about multi-party democracy in that country.

The Egyptian military had followed a similar path towards semi-state control as had the securocrats in South Africa. The end result of the resentment by the military establishment towards the changes brought about by the wider regional imperatives in the mind and understanding of President Anwar Sadat was that soldiers shot and killed him during a military parade.

Certainly, there were fairly open threats, and no doubt plans, on the part of the most radical of the right-wing thinkers to "take out" FW De Klerk. Many of that persuasion saw his actions at ending apartheid as treason. Such enemies of the state, as many of that mindset saw it, had but one fate to share.

One need only browse press cuttings of the era at the National Library to glean an inkling of their thoughts towards President De Klerk after his various speeches following his election as President in 1989.

Taken on the record of service and loyalty to South Africa as President of the country, I have little doubt that much of what then President F W De Klerk had to do behind the scenes in order to create - as fraught as they were - the conditions for a negotiated settlement, will not be divulged by either himself or his inner circle of the time.

Many of the quiet re-deployments of senior military and security cluster officials at the time were accomplished in a low-key manner. Cabinet posts were re-arranged and new internal alliances had to be forged to ensure that when instructions concerning reform were given, there was a reasonable chance of them being carried through.

Sadly, the TRC revelations about the activities of criminal gangs of security cluster units show that not all was perfectly controllable. In effect, the very mindset I alluded to above - of being placed in that position because you opposed freedom and dignity for all - came to the fore in these actions.

The record shows that where these activities became known to President De Klerk, steps were taken to legally deal with individual perpetrators or disband the units forthwith.

Many people have accused former president De Klerk of just being in the right place at the right time. Having realised the inevitability of change they say, he just milked the opportunity history gave him. Others repeatedly state that as a member of the cabinets before, he was responsible for building apartheid in all its facets.

A dispassionate study of all the factors of history exerting their influence over our country at the time will show, in my view, that such statements are too simplistic.

To claim that he knew everything that was being ordered in all the security cluster departments and divisions of previous governments is akin to claiming that an integrated circuit knows every aspect of the history of computing.

Another analogy would be to expect that Mr Mandela must have known, and thus be directly responsible, for all alleged unauthorised disbursement of public funds or any supposed wrongdoing by cabinet ministers during his administration.

Such logic does not follow, nor does it accord with the record as it has become known of how B.J. Vorster and P.W. Botha operated with their inner circles.

F. W. De Klerk was not, taken on the record, part of the very close inner circle at all. In fact, in some quarters of the ruling clique of those years, he was regarded as a dangerous liberal.

We must remember too that he was not a shoe-in for the Presidency. Had others - and specifically P W Botha - had their way a man called Barend Du Plessis would have succeeded President P W Botha. Do some of your own research about that option and contemplate how different matters could have been.

Furthermore, in a reply to a lengthy open letter to Mr. De Klerk published in a major daily newspaper in 1989 - he actually read it and replied - he made the following undertaking: "I cannot promise you the sky but I give you a commitment. Whatever the future holds for me in terms of my position and influence, I promise to work towards a country where all South Africans...can feel safe and proud to be citizens."

This was penned before he was elected leader of the party and some time before he was elected President of the Republic. In those words one can see the intent to make a positive difference. That this was some time before he was close to the levers of power that would permit him to deliver on his undertaking is revealing of itself and a counter to the arguments alleging an opportunistic approach to matters.

One final point about the allegations of opportunism, is that the then foreign minister, Mr R.F. Botha - commonly called Pik Botha - was a far more popular option for many to occupy the presidential seat than F.W. De Klerk. However "Pik" Botha took himself out of contention at the first opportunity. In one interview I recall, he bluntly said that he would never consider the job as being President of South Africa then would be the "...most difficult job in the world."

The enormity of the task and the considerable courage required by both former presidents De Klerk and Mandela to make the difficult and dangerous - although obviously morally correct - decisions needed to avoid igniting the powder-keg that was South Africa at the time cannot, I submit, be denied by even the most churlish and aggrieved of commentators.

In a speech prior to the awards ceremony in 1993, the Nobel committee recognised this courage and risks taken - on the part of both men - in the following words:

The two Prize-Winners, from their highly disparate points of departure, the one from the side of the oppressors and the other from the side of the oppressed, have taken initiatives to break the vicious circle that their country was caught up in. These are initiatives the world has taken note of, initiatives which reflect personal integrity and great political courage on the part of both men. They have both chosen not to dwell on the deep wounds of the past.

In so doing, they are different from leaders in many other conflict areas, even though the wounds in South Africa were deeper than perhaps anywhere else. Mandela and de Klerk have chosen reconciliation rather than the alternative, which would inevitably have been an ever more bitter and bloodier conflict. Another aspect of the policy of reconciliation is compromise and the recognition that one must give in order to be able to take.

Reading yet further, the Nobel committee sounded a warning to both sides to avoid the hubris that comes from claiming the process as entirely the result of only one side's actions. It also, sadly, pointed out something that has, in recent days, become painfully obvious:

South Africa today is still a society marked by bitterness, fear and violence....There is an unquestionable need for more statesmanship...It is the conviction of the committee that Nelson R. Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk have made a brilliant contribution and attained astonishing results with their policy of peace and reconciliation. They have given peace a chance. Whether peace will prevail, time will have to show.

While various opinions exist among my countrymen, as they may do, as to the correctness of the decision to award the prize jointly, I do not understand how anyone with a sense of history can flippantly dismiss the dangers inherent in the convoluted and knife-edge circumstances under which former President De Klerk had to work towards the removal of apartheid. It was not easy. It was not straightforward. It was not a walk in the park.

The world recognised him for the courage involved with not just one, but several peace awards and citations.

In the spirit of give and take and the need for further statesmanship alluded to by the Nobel committee, should we not then all stop the petty politics of spite and accord credit where it is due?

Rather than seek to write out of our history the man that took up the challenge presented by the edifice of apartheid and donned his figurative climbing boots to conquer it - and made such a difference to us all in the face of numerous and un-predictable risks - should we not acknowledge him for breaking down that mountain from the very top?

At great personal and political risk he and his team took his constituency along as he reached into the looming darkness to actually deliver the prospect of a brighter sky than could have been imagined by even the most optimistic of critics of the day.

I, for one, applaud his courage in doing so and think he is, therefore, due his place in the sun of our history along with other great South Africans who have been internationally recognised by the Nobel committee.

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