Pieter du Toit: Apartheid, democracy and FW de Klerk’s options for a new South Africa

The weight of history and the desperation for freedom shared by the vast majority of South Africans was going to overwhelm any pretense the conservatives held about agreeing to a participatory democracy, writes Pieter du Toit

There is a popular refrain in the conservative media complex, in Afrikaner organisations and voiced by their surrogate commentators and echoed by many Afrikaans speakers that FW de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid state, “could have done better” during the negotiation period.

The crude argument goes that De Klerk and his lead negotiator, Roelf Meyer, were “sellouts” and “traitors” to their own people, and that they meekly capitulated, surrendering the future of Afrikaners, their language and their schools.

They lied and connived and in the end the much vaunted “checks and balances” that would have kept the communists at bay count for nothing.

“Look at the country today!” is the rallying call.

The nuanced, but no less bitter, argument goes that De Klerk and Meyer were ill-prepared for the battle-hardened ANC negotiators, that they relented too quickly on the matter of group rights, were unable to safeguard the rights of Afrikaans speakers and did not go far enough in curtailing the powers and reach of government.

De Klerk and Meyer could and should have done more to ensure that simple majoritarianism does not engulf whites and Afrikaners, they say.

The last white president, many believe, also didn’t have a “mandate” to agree to constitutional negotiations or a hard date for an election.

There’s also a clamour about a second referendum, which should have followed the first, so that De Klerk could have been clear about what he could “give away” and what he wasn’t allowed to concede.

And then the arguments about constitutional sleights of hand, like a rotating presidency, an upper house in Parliament with veto rights over the lower house or a power-sharing model called consociationalism.

There’s no doubt that when De Klerk sized up his options after he replaced PW Botha as head of state in September 1989 he looked at the domestic political situation, weighed it up against the rapidly changing geopolitical environment and considered intelligence reports about the shambles in which the ANC in exile found itself in – and saw an opportunity.

The reality from which many of those who attack De Klerk seem to have divorced themselves from is that South Africa really didn’t have many choices. The economy was weak and getting weaker, inflation rates were in double digits, and sanctions were biting. The country remained a pariah state, its citizens couldn’t travel how they wanted to and had to scrounge for oil and technology.

Not to mention the sports boycott.

But beyond the economic and financial difficulties the country found itself in, which manifested in practical problems such as high fuel prices and the lack of international rugby, apartheid was an inhumane, unworkable and immoral system of institutional and legalised racism.

It couldn’t stand.

Townships were ungovernable, the media had started to expose the brutality of the state and opposition to the status quo inside white South Africa –  and specifically Afrikaner society – was growing.

The only way out of the dead-end Afrikaner nationalism had led the country into, was a full and swift transition into a constitutional democracy.

De Klerk, in sizing up his options, did want to retain a measure of control over the process. He, of course, wanted to negotiate from a position of strength and try and extract as many concessions as possible.

And when the negotiations started the hardliners in the National Party government were not in favour of a simple democracy.

But as events started to unfold it became increasingly clear that the weight of history and the desperation for freedom shared by the vast majority of South Africans was going to overwhelm any pretense the conservatives held about agreeing to a participatory democracy.

Honourable men like Meyer and Leon Wessels, with the support of De Klerk, motivated for constitutional tenets like universal suffrage and individual rights not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it was the only thing they could do.

And because if a democracy, with its weaknesses and shortcomings, was not the prize, then a failed state would have been our just desserts.

Group rights and a special dispensation for Afrikaans? Why? And on what grounds?

De Klerk initiated an honourable abdication from the Afrikaners’ throne of apartheid.

There was no other way.

– Du Toit is News24’s assistant editor for in-depth news. He is the co-author, with Adriaan Basson, of Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma stole South Africa, and how the people fought back (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017)

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