Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Overlooked Man of the New South Africa

On 11 February 1990 Nelson Mandela finally walked free after 26 years of captivity. Today's Observer has an interview with Frederik Willem de Klerk the then South African President about the lead up to that day.

On the 9th Mandela was taken to Cape Town to meet the President in his office. FW de Klerk says:

"I told him he would be flown to Johannesburg and released there on 11 February 1990. Mr Mandela's reaction was not at all as I had expected. He said: 'No, it is too soon, we need more time for preparation.' That is when I realised that long hours of negotiation lay ahead with this man."

In the end the date was of course kept, but instead of Johannesburg at 4pm on the day the world's most famous political prisoner walked to freedom directly from Victor Verster prison, in Paarl, near Cape Town.

Four hours later he addressed a rally of supporters when he said, "The factors which necessitated armed struggle still exist today."

The following day he addressed the world's media for the first time.

De Klerk himself had launched what he called 'a new South Africa' 9 days before the release.

"There were gasps in the house, yes, but not at the news of Mr Mandela's release. The gasps came when I announced the unbanning not only of the ANC but also the South African Communist party and of all affiliated organisations, which included the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe. There were gasps then and, from the far-right party, protests and boos."

FW de Klerk had only replaced PW Botha in September of 1989 but as he says the wheels were already somewhat in motion before he took the helm. He says:

"I wanted us to take a more adventurous approach to the nation state concept, but the project ultimately failed because the whites wanted to keep too much land for themselves.

"The third phase – which coincided with my entering cabinet but was not started by me – was a shift towards reform. It focused on making separate development more acceptable while still believing it was just. But by the early 1980s we had ended up in a dead-end street in which a minority would continue to hold the reins of power and blacks, outside the homelands, really did not have any meaningful political rights. We had become too economically inter-dependent. We had become an omelette that you could not unscramble."

In 1986 the National party abandoned the concept of separate development.

"We embraced the idea of a united South Africa with equal political rights for all, but with very effective protection of minorities. Then my predecessor lost his enthusiasm. When I took over, my task was to flesh out what was already a fairly clear vision, but we needed broad support. We needed negotiation."

So it was that when he came to power de Klerk arranged to meet the man that had been the nemisis of his predecessors for years. He talks of their first meeting being a feeling out, but then as negotiations carried on the different philosophies, his National Party's free market policies and the ANC's communist centralism showed that there were difficulties ahead. But there was persuasion for the ANC to maintain free market principles for the sake of the country. The victories that he negotiated potential saved South Africa of the post-colonial void that other African states suffered.

Looking to the future de Klerk says:

"You cannot say we are a healthy, dynamic democracy when one party wins almost two-thirds of the vote. We need a realignment in politics. I am convinced there will be further splits in the ANC because you cannot keep together people who believe in hardline socialism and others who have become convinced of free-market principles."

He also points out that in some cases of affirmative action black Africans are getting more that brown or Indian South Africans. The spirit of Mandela's reconciliation he says need to be revived.

Despite the international recognition of his brave moves following his speech on 2 February those twenty years ago there are still some white South Africans who accuse him still of giving away the country. The last National Party President of South Africa realises the truth of where South Africa was and was heading when he took over compared with what has come after.

"To those people I say it is a false comparison to look at what was good in the old South Africa against what is bad today.

"If we had not changed in the manner we did, South Africa would be completely isolated. The majority of people in the world would be intent on overthrowing the government. Our economy would be non-existent – we would not be exporting a single case of wine and South African planes would not be allowed to land anywhere. Internally, we would have the equivalent of civil war."

They say it takes two to tango and that is certainly true of South Africa. De Klerk took the lead and bravely twenty years ago. Wuthout him it is hard to say what path South Africa may have taken, Mandela may have had a longer walk to freedom, or maybe none at all.

De Klerk was a key part in the new South Africa, the one that we see today. He also see yearns to see his nation grow in stature going forward.

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