Opinion: One of the hallmarks of a leader is that they have the ability to trigger a national dialogue, whether it is through their actions or lack thereof.
Such was the ability of FW de Klerk. Ever since his election as leader of the National Party, almost every action or decision he took resulted in South Africa embarking on a dialogue. Even now, after he has passed on, he still commands some level of influence to get South Africans talking – regardless of whether those comments are positive or not.
Since he passed a few days ago, South Africans from all backgrounds have engaged in the fierce debate about his contribution to South Africa. Regardless of whether one may agree or disagree with this contribution, the indisputable fact remains that he shaped the history of South Africa.
I make no attempt to defend the decisions he took, nor do I make any attempt to cast his role as that of a hero of any sort. I share only my personal experiences with him during the time that I worked with him. South African’s have every right to express themselves in the manner they do. It is the consequences of the very same freedom of speech that FW de Klerk supported during the drafting of SA’s Constitution, is one that he too has to accept.
The national dialogue for decades now generally centred around whether he was sincere in the reforms that he proposed by unbanning the ANC and releasing Nelson Mandela or whether he was forced to do so by the declining state of affairs in the country at the time.
Whichever side of the debate one may find themselves in, one can hardly disagree that by virtue of the bold steps he took, South Africa began the dawn of a new era.
His passing creates the opportunity to reflect on some of my own experiences and interactions that I shared personally with him many years ago.
It was late 1992. I was then one of about four young Indian activists that were employed as political organisers to mobilise support for the National Party in the Indian community at the time. It was not really a difficult task, as by then, the overwhelming majority of the community I came from in Chatsworth were already staunch supporters of FW de Klerk and revered him for having the courage to end apartheid and work towards building a more united South Africa.
Just shortly after I was appointed and still going through some informal training programmes, FW de Klerk was scheduled to visit Durban on official presidential business. It was an opportunity to introduce the team of political organisers to the leader of the party, a rare opportunity that made many among us nervous as young but enthusiastic upstarts at the time.
The anticipation of meeting a stern and no-nonsense leader made the experience even more nerve-wrecking. However, the real experience was the complete opposite. He made every effort to personally greet and speak to the few of us in that closed meeting, and immediately, his sense of humility created a comfortable environment to have a decent conversation.
I recall his explanation for taking the bold reform steps at the time by unbanning the ANC and working towards a democratic SA. He simply explained: We cannot continue the path of division. Only unity will save us (or words to that effect).
For those of us who listened attentively to him, we understood the sincerity of his words. You could feel the emotion in his words. It was not just political speak. It was a genuine attempt to charter a new course for SA, even if it meant losing the seat of power. The idea of a government of national unity and power-sharing was the solution to end one-party dominance.
In doing so, he was determined to secure the rights of minority groups in the process. This is probably one of the reasons why the Indian community felt closer to FW de Klerk than to Nelson Mandela at the time. Perhaps it was the same reason why the overwhelming number of white and coloured voters also voted for the NP at the time, not so much for what the NP represented, but more about what FW de Klerk was trying to achieve at the time.
In the run-up to that election, I was part of the team tasked to organise political events and public meetings for him, from Tongaat on the north coast to Umkomaas on the south, and on every occasion, there was never an empty seat to be found. On every occasion, he made the effort to thank each of us personally before leaving.
I was part of the organising team tasked with arranging a public meeting in Chatsworth for FW de Klerk a few weeks before the 1994 elections. Fearful that the TV cameras will focus on the empty chairs, we set them out as far as possible. It was not to be, the Arena Park Regional Hall was eventually packed to capacity, and several squabbles broke out at the two entrances to the hall as people forced their way into an already packed hall to catch a glimpse of him and hear him speak.
This affinity played out in the April 1994 elections. I recall spending endless nights immediately after the elections at the same venue which turned out to be the only counting station in Chatsworth. Hundreds of metal ballots boxes were piled up to be counted. For every few hundred ballots placed in the NP pile, two or three ballots were placed in the ANC pile.
De Klerk always demonstrated deep respect for people, and although robust in his political approach, insisted that politicians should always “play the ball and not the man”. This type of politics is unheard of in SA today, where politics has become more of a battle of personalities as opposed to a battle of ideas.
He placed much emphasis on the separation of party and state. This became quite evident when he became annoyed with me at an event I organised for him at the Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in Phoenix. I was to organise a small welcoming party for him as State President at the time. He was scheduled to lay the foundation stone for the hospital in early 1994.
He took great exception to a lady in crowd who waved a hand-written “Vote NP” placard and immediately summoned me to take corrective action. He was there in his capacity as SA President and did not want the event to be turned into a political rally. Today, it is common place to see ANC regalia at state events, and no ANC leader will take exception to that. On the contrary, they often encourage it.
His vision for SA at the time, given the diversity that existed in the country, that the best alternative was a government that represented all South African’s, a paradigm shift from the past. A government of national unity, where even minorities could be represented in Cabinet, was, for him, the solution to SA’s problems at the time.
However, his decision to withdraw from the Government of National Unity in mid-1996 was, to some extent, his own undoing. He resigned a few months after that decision.
I recall during a brief discussion with him at an event at the old Langoustine Restaurant in Durban North, when we were planning to distribute a million leaflets titled “WE DID IT FOR YOU” to explain the rationale for his decision, he explained then that the ANC was not genuinely committed to nation-building and power-sharing.
They were more infatuated with power and buoyed by the outcome of the ’94 elections. He would rather exit Cabinet than take responsibility for their failures. He predicted that the ANC’s obsession with putting the party before the state would cause SA to move in the wrong direction. Twenty-seven years later, his predictions now become clearer.
It’s not often these days that you find politicians apologising for their actions, and when they do, we must welcome that warmly or else others will be too afraid to apologise when they too make errors of judgement.
Where I think he could have done much more than apologising for apartheid, was to have followed up those words with real reconciliatory actions. Nelson Mandela did so when he went to meet Verwoerd’s wife. That was a symbolic reconciliatory gesture aimed and sending a message to SA to let go of the hate and build unity even with those who were your former enemies.
Perhaps if De Klerk followed in Mandela’s footsteps and dedicated the rest of his life to social cohesion, the current dialogue in SA would not be so divided. It leaves one to wonder, therefore, whether his actions during his term as a leader, has had any impact on the “unity project” he so desperately wanted to achieve.
Haniff Hoosen, Provincial Chair, DA-KZN