De Klerk and the legacy of Apartheid
Updated: Mar 23
On the 2nd of February, to mark thirty years since the release of Nelson Mandela, ex-South African President FW de Klerk gave an interview with SABC news. In February 1990, the then-President made the historic move to unban liberation movements and release political prisoners, he announced a moratorium on the death penalty and stated that negotiations would begin for a ‘new South Africa.’ De Klerk has been heralded as a hero of Apartheid and was even awarded a Noble Peace Prize in 1993. He was given this for ‘the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.’
However, in his recent interview de Klerk caused much controversy for claiming ‘apartheid cannot be compared to genocide, there was never genocide.’ He went on to suggest that, ‘more people died because of black on black violence than because of apartheid.’ This recent interview has raised many questions around the country over de Klerk’s role in ending apartheid and the continuing social and economic issues that have prevailed since Mandela’s release thirty years ago. At the State of the Nation address a few days later, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) demanded the removal of de Klerk from proceedings, accusing him of being an apartheid apologist. They caused such disruption that the address was delayed for over an hour.
De Klerk did release an apology for his remarks in which he said, ‘the FW de Klerk foundation…unconditionally apologies for the confusion, anger and hurt it has caused…we remain deeply committed to national reconciliation.’ Understandably, this apology has convinced very few people. De Klerk wanted to be known as a hero in South Africa, the man who released Mandela and paved the way to a ‘new South Africa.’ In his speech in 1990 he stated that, ‘the time for reconstruction and reconciliation has arrived.’ What this recent interview has highlighted is how shallow these claims actually were.
The past is still very raw in South Africa. Only last year, a primary school teacher was accused separating students by race. Most of the complaints received by the SA Human Rights Commission are race-related. Race-related slurs are also thought to be on the rise. A lot of the social and economic structural injustices that existed during apartheid still exist today, in some cases they are even deemed to be worse. Apartheid may officially be over, but its repercussions still dictate the present South Africa.
De Klerk’s interview not only exposes the man for who he truly is, but it can also be used to expose many of the issues in South Africa today. The continued disruption of the EFF at events such as the State of the Nation Address, huge students protests such as Fees Must Fall (2015) and the continuing racial issues illustrate the fragile state of the country. De Klerk’s interview caused a furious debate merely hours after it first aired, filled with exclamations that the man had finally been exposed as an apartheid denier who motivations were far from altruistic. It has been thirty years since the release of Nelson Mandela. It is interesting to wonder what sort of South Africa he would have imagined would exist today. It would seem unlikely to be this one. De Klerk’s interview should be seen as a wake-up call to the current situation in South Africa and the work that needs to be done to fulfil Mandela’s dream.
At the time of writing, Ellie Chesshire is studying Justice and Transformation at the University of Cape Town.