Having shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, former President Frederik Willem de Klerk was largely credited with courageous leadership and a key role in dismantling apartheid. But his legacy, both before and after the transition, is decidedly mixed.
Mourned, derided, in equal measure…
Since South Africa's last white ruler Frederik Willem de Klerk died at his home in Cape Town on Thursday at the age of 85, the reactions of South Africans have mirrored the contradictions that characterized de Klerk's political life.
De Klerk is widely heralded for his role in dismantling the brutal apartheid state and ushering in the dawn of South Africa's democracy, having shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with Nelson Mandela, who succeeded him as president.
In a statement on Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa labeled his actions "courageous," and celebrated his "decision to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency."
"He became a small man"
But not all reactions were positive. In an article by South African weekly Mail & Guardian, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation acknowledged de Klerk's pivotal part in the country's transition to democracy. But the foundation also chose to repeat the words of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu — another winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — who said before de Klerk's death that he "could have gone down in history as a truly great South African statesman, but he eroded his stature and became a small man, lacking magnanimity and generosity of spirit."
After becoming the leader of the National Party in 1989, F. W. de Klerk was expected to continue the system of racial segregation and repression of dissent of the party — a party that his grandfather helped form in the 1940s.
But instead, on February 2, 1990, at the opening of parliament in Cape Town, de Klerk gave a quantum leap speech that stunned the world: announcing a series of reforms including lifting the ban on the African National Congress. A week later, he sanctioned the release of Mandela, the charismatic freedom fighter with whom de Klerk would negotiate the end of apartheid.
A complicated legacy
South African daily The Star's Nov. 12 front page
The pain of apartheid
However, there are many South Africans who will never view de Klerk as the national hero which he has largely become to the international community.
While, As Deputy President from 1994 to 1996, de Klerk played an instrumental role in the Government of National Unity, many still hold he missed the many chances he had to fully reconcile with South Africans. The most glaring example is de Klerk's failure in February 2020 to fully acknowledge the extent of the damage caused by apartheid, telling public broadcaster SABC he felt there weren't enough deaths to qualify it as a crime against humanity, despite it being declared such by the United Nations in 1962.
In a video released by his foundation on the day he died, de Klerk didn't backtrack on the matter, even though he apologized for the "pain" inflicted by apartheid, or what he called in the video "separate development."
Failing to reconcile
The controversy over de Klerk's death, only weeks before the 25th anniversary of South Africa's democratic constitution, also comes at a time when the risk appears greater than ever that the country's hard-earned progress could be undone.
Already reeling from decades of economic decline and the corruption-plagued rule of Jacob Zuma, South Africa is also suffering the brutal consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, with looting and riots having swept the poverty-stricken country during the summer. In June, as hundreds were killed in a mix of political and protest against structural poverty, President Cyril Ramaphosa called it some of the worst violence witnessed in South Africa since the 1990s.
De Klerk's death is a reminder of both the oppression and liberation of the past, but also the uncertainty of South Africa's future.
A return to the past?
The Citizen's Nov. 12 front page