Richard Poplak is a Canadian author and journalist based in Johannesburg.
The list of Nobel Peace Prize winners includes gruesome recipients, many of whom then used their awards as a bloody club. But here’s a strange one: In 1993, the Nobel Committee decided to split the Nobel Prize between South Africa’s liberation hero (and future head of state), Nelson Mandela, and the last president of the apartheid, Frederik Willem de Klerk. The award was presented during the sepia period of racial reconciliation that is said to have defined South Africa’s democratic transition. But over the years, apartheid’s grunts of violent death have been analyzed in more depth, and de Klerk’s inclusion on the Nobel list raises an unfortunate question: what do you mean by peace, exactly?
Mr de Klerk died this week at the age of 85. Known as FW both to his friends and foes, he grew up in the eye of the system: his father was one of the architects of institutional apartheid, having served as a well-known National Party minister in successive cabinets. A lawyer by training, FW first entered the all-white House of Assembly in 1972 and has never looked back. He was the young and hawkish face of the National Party, an arms debater who served, like his old man, in successive ministerial roles.
Even if we had to use the loosest interpretation of the term “liberal”, M. de Klerk never came close. He was not a reformer either. He served the apartheid regime as a devotee of apartheid, helping to craft, calibrate and sometimes soften its policies (the latter usually for optical purposes). He was a shameless Afrikaner supremacist, a virulent anti-Communist, and a conservative of just about everything else. But he was also a pragmatist fascinated by the laissez-faire neoliberalism promulgated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom later became staunch admirers of Klerkian.
Imagine if South Africa could have both racial segregation – or, rather, entrenched economic rights for the white minority – and open markets! This was heresy in the fading light of Prime Minister PW Botha’s brutal tenure, as the South African townships grew more reluctant and the regime instituted an all-out attack on the liberation forces. Nelson Mandela was in prison, his party, the African National Congress (ANC) was banned, a state of emergency was in effect. But cooler heads within the National Party gave the numbers, and after the imposition of international economic sanctions in the 1980s, the country’s books were firmly in the red. When Mr. de Klerk became president in 1989, he had only one choice. South Africa was broken and broken; apartheid was being sorted out. It was time to give birth to a new dispensation.
After freeing Mr. Mandela, unblocking the ANC and ending institutional segregation, too much has been done with Mr. de Klerk’s moral strength. Far too little has been made of his brilliance as a political strategist. As the lower minds of his cabinet lamented as institutional white supremacy dismantled around them, government-linked dark forces stoked black-on-black violence, creating a volatile and bloody scene for the theater of transition. How much M. de Klerk knew of the architecture of the Civil War is still in dispute; nevertheless, at least 10,000 people died during his five-year presidency.
In the end, what Mr. de Klerk wanted was a helping hand in negotiating the constitution, the final draft of which was to be drafted by those in power after the first free elections in April 1994. The miracle of this famous process was not the unlikely of Mr. Mandela. past from unjustly imprisoned revolutionary to president, but the fact that the National Party managed to garner more than 20 percent of the national vote, mainly white and mixed populations. It is one of the most astonishing electoral victories of all time, and it effectively gave the National Party a say in the final constitution – including rights that would ban economic redress or reparations for the South. -Black Africans.
M. de Klerk had won. But he wasn’t a sportsman about it. He never recognized the brutality of the National Party. Nor does he âfullyâ – his word – agree with the United Nations designation of apartheid as a crime against humanity. He exercised a earthy presence alongside Mr Mandela as one of his two vice-presidents, and angrily left that post in 1996.
As for the atrocities committed during his tenure, he has always remained silent. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, he was fortunate to be outspoken, to at least provide assistance to the victims of the regime he helped lead. He refused. Just before his death, he recorded a video that presents a posthumous apology, but which acts as a protective revisionism of the legacy, a specialty of Klerkian.
He took many secrets and a Nobel Peace Prize to the grave. Hopefully both prove to be more useful in the Hereafter.
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