Dreams of Justice

An Interview with F.W. de Klerk

Along with the legendary politician and human rights activist Nelson Mandela, former State President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa played a key role in ending apartheid and creating the nation’s modern constitution. Here, this visionary leader lays out his thinking on the move towards liberalization and peace that characterized much of geopolitics at the end of the 1980’s — and what imperils those objectives today.

Wikimedia. F.W. de Klerk shakes hands with Nelson Mandela. The two men made history by ending apartheid.

Wikimedia. F.W. de Klerk shakes hands with Nelson Mandela. The two men made history by ending apartheid.

Octavian Report: The late 1980’s and early 1990’s saw significant improvements in the prospects for peace in long-running conflicts: the Cold War, the end of apartheid, the Oslo Accords, and Northern Ireland. To what do you attribute this?

F.W. de Klerk: One of the main factors was Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to power in the Soviet Union. The Soviets no longer showed the same enthusiasm to support proxy wars in Third World countries and were more willing to enter into agreements with their opponents. The withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola — following a tripartite agreement between Angola, Cuba, and South Africa in 1988 — opened the way to the successful implementation of the UN independence process in Namibia. Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, created a new strategic situation for South Africa and for the world.

OR: Your personal and political background was conservative. What made you decide to take the steps to end apartheid? Was this a pragmatic or moral decision or both?

De Klerk: There was no Damascus Road conversion. The leadership of the National Party had since the late 1970’s been acutely aware of the need to find an acceptable way of dismounting the tiger of minority rule — as P.W. Botha put it, “to adapt or die.” However, we had well-founded existential fears regarding the tiger-dismounting process. During the first half of the 1980’s we implemented far-reaching and genuine reforms but these simply inflamed expectations and redoubled demands for radical change. By the mid-1980’s I had personally reached the conclusion that it was both immoral and untenable to deny the majority of South Africans the same rights that we demanded for ourselves. By the end of the 1980’s — with the ending of widespread unrest in South Africa and the collapse of the Soviet Union — we realized that there would never again be circumstances more propitious for the commencement of negotiations on a new, inclusive constitution that would guarantee the rights of all South Africans.

OR: What gives courage to leaders  — like you and Mikhail Gorbachev — to dismantle their own systems?

De Klerk: It was simply the conviction that the continuation of white minority rule was both immoral and untenable and that we had to find a workable and just solution to the problems that confronted us. Our future and the future of all our children depended on it.

OR: On the topic of sanctions, the Reagan administration was criticized in the West for its policy of “constructive engagement.” Do you think that this was, in fact, a wise policy or did sanctions have more of an impact?  Which is the more effective policy at exerting pressure?

De Klerk: It was certainly a wise policy. We were much more inclined to cooperation with President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher because they accepted that we had legitimate concerns. Sanctions do not work against people who have genuine existential fears. Most of those who supported sanctions were simply not interested in the fate of white South Africans and frankly, in our perception, regarded us as being expendable.

OR: How was South Africa able to have such a peaceful and successful transition?  Was this driven by process or by its leaders?

De Klerk: Our transition was not so peaceful. In any peace process there will be spoilers on both sides who do not want peace and who continue to foment violence. Our transition was successful because it was home-grown. We did not require external facilitators. The negotiation process was carefully planned and structured. However, in the final analysis leadership played a key role. I was fortunate to have Nelson Mandela as my principal negotiating partner — and opponent.

Unfortunately, our truth and reconciliation process did not promote reconciliation. It produced a one-sided version of our history and stamped white South Africans with the indelible stain of collective moral inferiority.

OR: What made Mandela such a great leader? You have called him a “great unifier” — was there more to it than that?

De Klerk: Nelson Mandela had enormous charisma and natural authority — derived perhaps from his birth into the Xhosa aristocracy. He was an astute politician who was able to take his constituency with him at crucial moments. However, I do believe that his greatest contribution was the role that he played after he became president in promoting reconciliation and national unity.

OR: What do you think modern democracies need to do to protect the rights of their minorities? Where do you see those rights as especially endangered?

De Klerk: We live on a daily basis in South Africa with the problem of the tyranny of the majority. Majoritarianism is particularly dangerous in countries like ours with permanent ethnic and cultural minorities — particularly where people continue to vote according to race rather than political conviction. The best way to address this is through strong constitutional protections for minorities and through the development of institutions that support and recognize diversity. There are signs that South Africans are gradually beginning to vote for parties that reflect their ideals rather than their race.

OR: Nuclear disarmament is a major issue right now. What are your thoughts, almost 30 years on, about de-nuclearizing South Africa? What’s your take on the risk nuclear weapons present today?

De Klerk: Dismantling South Africa’s nuclear weapons was one of the most important decisions that I took during my presidency. Retention of our atom bombs made no strategic sense: our challenge was to reach a just, constitutional solution for all of South Africans.  We realized that our security depended on our being able to do so — and not on being able to threaten others with destruction.

The problem is that none of the nuclear power nations has the slightest interest in abandoning nuclear weapons. They are a bit like Gollum’s ring. The challenge is to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists; to stop proliferation, particularly to unstable states; and to persuade nuclear powers to reach agreements on the gradual reduction of their arsenals.

OR:   Are you concerned about the future of South Africa? How far has Jacob Zuma taken the ANC from the vision of Mandela? Why has it been so challenging for African countries to have stable and free political systems and transitions?

De Klerk: South Africans have always been deeply concerned about the future. It is what we have done on a daily basis for hundreds of years. Now we are particularly concerned.  President Zuma has 783 outstanding charges of corruption against him. He has captured key state institutions — including our National Prosecuting Authority; our version of the FBI; and the intelligence services — and is using them brazenly to harass his opponents and to protect his friends. He has opened the floodgates of corruption and patronage. Some African countries — like Botswana — have done very well. However, too many have fallen into the trap of “big man” politics.

OR: It has been common on the Left to describe Israel as an apartheid state. You have described such a comparison as odious. Could you expand on why?

De Klerk: The situations in South Africa before 1994 and Israel today are in no way comparable. Among other things, we were not confronted by negotiating partners who did not recognize our right to exist. However, having said that, I strongly support all those who are working for a just and genuine solution that will accommodate the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.

OR: You were involved in a controversy over Oriel College’s decision to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes. How should we deal with the historical legacies of important but problematic figures?

De Klerk: There would be very few statues of national heroes in Washington, London, or Paris if we were to judge historic figures by today’s values. This would include Jefferson, Churchill, and certainly Napoleon. History is not a beauty or a popularity competition. It is about what happened — and who was involved — in creating the world we now live in. We impoverish ourselves if we try to censor it.

OR: What do you view as your greatest accomplishment?

De Klerk: It was — together with my colleagues — to use the window of opportunity that history suddenly flung open at the end of the 1980’s to negotiate a new constitution that would bring peace and justice to all the people of South Africa.

OR: Are you optimistic about prospects for peace in the world?

De Klerk: Yes. We are living in one of the most peaceful eras in human history — despite the continuation of bitter localized wars in places like Syria and Iraq. Humanity has benefited enormously from the process of globalization that started after World War II. However, I am worried by inward-looking populist tendencies in some countries that could undermine globalization. I am also worried by the tendency in some countries to question the norms of non-racialism and toleration that I believe were among the greatest contributions that the 20th century made to humanity.