Peter Young: Hero Or Villain In The Ending Of Apartheid?

THEN South African President FW de Klerk, left, with the future president Nelson Mandela in 1990.

THEN South African President FW de Klerk, left, with the future president Nelson Mandela in 1990.


Peter Young

EARLIER this month, the last President of South Africa under apartheid, F W de Klerk, recorded an extraordinary video which was apparently intended to establish his legacy. He had been suffering from cancer and died soon afterwards at the age of 85.

The video was released posthumously. In what he called his last message, he said that on many occasions he had apologised for the pain of the indignity that apartheid – also known as separate development –- had brought to people of colour, and now he wanted to repeat that. He said that without qualification he apologised for “the pain and the hurt and the indignity and damage apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa”.

Historians remain divided on the issue of de Klerk’s legacy which they maintain was uneven. For some people, the former President was a great statesman who abolished the iniquitous system of apartheid based on colour and race, and for this achievement he won a Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Nelson Mandela who became President of South Africa as a new democracy in 1994. Others, however, considered that, since he had been on the inside track for a long time as a senior member of the ruling National Party responsible for imposing and enforcing apartheid and had benefited from it, he deserved to have been prosecuted for what have been described as crimes against humanity.

The truth about de Klerk probably lies somewhere between these two extremes. But, notwithstanding the division of opinion, there can be no doubt he was the key figure in the dismantling of apartheid – and his critics may temper their views as a result of his posthumous apology.

Apartheid is today largely an issue of the past. But, from its introduction in 1948 by a National Party government until the turn of the century it remained near the top of the international agenda. In the context of accountability and reconciliation, which I wrote about in this column last month, de Klerk’s apology is significant because some still believe the violence perpetrated against black South Africans should not remain unpunished – despite creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 and the determination of Nelson Mandela and the then recently retired Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, not to allow crimes and human rights abuses to affect the future of a new democratic South Africa.

The former President was born into a line of Afrikaner National Party politicians. After a series of ministerial posts took him to leadership of the Party, he became President in 1989. Conservative by nature, at the beginning he believed in apartheid but, reportedly, he soon came to realise a segregated nation was no longer sustainable – and, in his own words, his attitude changed completely. He described this as a “conversion”. Those who condemn him as a diehard Afrikaner responsible for the horrors of apartheid may be unaware of the reform moves which went back to the 1970s under the Vorster government and took hold in the following decade when the National Party split politically, with de Klerk firmly in the camp of the “enlightened group” – known as verligtes – who favoured reform.

But he also realised that, rather than reforming apartheid, its whole structure had to be swept away entirely. So, when he became President, he started to tear it down and lifted the ban on the African National Congress while freeing political prisoners from jail including, most importantly, Mandela in 1990; and, for this, he incurred the wrath of some in the Afrikaner community who saw him as a traitor and coward for selling them out.

Some say his actions were based on pragmatism and were a political priority for him rather than a moral imperative, and that he only pursued such fundamental change because he saw the writing on the wall in the face of increasing international pressure to abolish apartheid. Certainly, such pressure was relentless. I know from personal experience that during the height of apartheid one of the main tasks of British diplomats in South Africa was to convince political leaders and others that it had to be brought to an end. But critics nonetheless questioned his motives, including Mandela himself who reportedly did not regard him as a “great emancipator” and said in his book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ that de Klerk made reforms not with the intention of putting himself out of power but “for precisely the opposite reason: to ensure power for the Afrikaner in a new disposition”.

It seems to me, however, from reading de Klerk’s autobiography published in 1998, that his so-called conversion was more genuine than not. It was clear he accepted that (in the words on the coversheet of his book) the system by which white South Africans had tried to entrench their right to ethnic self-determination in an overwhelmingly black continent could no longer continue – and it may be significant that he described Mandela on the latter’s death as a “great unifier and very special man” whose emphasis on reconciliation was “his greatest legacy”.

Whatever his motives, de Klerk was the driving force in South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition from a racist state to a full-blown representative democracy. It was his courage and determination that changed the course of the nation’s history. An unstoppable tide may have eventually brought about the end of apartheid. But, clearly, he accelerated the pace of change and made it happen - and his role in this ensures his positive place in the history books of the 20th century.


FROM all the evidence, what is happening in Britain at present in relation to public protests is not only puzzling millions of people but also infuriating them. Since September, a group that calls itself Insulate Britain has been protesting in London and other cities by blocking highways. Large numbers of people have been sitting down on roads - and sometimes gluing themselves down - in full view of the police who, reportedly, look on without taking any real action apart from pulling a few of them away and arresting small numbers. The result has been massive traffic chaos.

The group claims its purpose is to publicise its demand that the government should pay for all homes in the country to be insulated by 2030 and that it will continue its protests until action is taken on this.

I wrote about the matter briefly at the beginning of October when it was still a relatively new phenomenon and return to it today more fully because, even though a few of those involved have been jailed, the protesters are indeed not letting up and the police are still adopting a hands-off approach despite the adverse publicity they have received. Some observers view all this as a fine instance of tolerance and respect for individual rights in the ancient democracy of Britain which in the past has been an exemplar for other countries.

On the other side of the argument, critics regard the disruption as a grotesque surrender to an irresponsible minority who have precipitated an absurd situation which no other country would tolerate.

It is essential, of course, in a democracy to allow non-violent peaceful protests to take place. That is a basic element of this form of governance. But, as in most things, balance and proportionality are needed. Judging from the outpouring of comments in the UK press which can be found online, huge numbers of the public are genuinely mystified why a relatively small number of people are allowed by the police to block the “Queen’s highway” when that must surely already be a criminal offence. They are even more mystified that it is necessary for the authorities concerned to seek High Court injunctions to stop this, a number of which have been issued but widely ignored by the protesters.

One result of doing so is that so far nine protesters have received jail terms for contempt of court – ranging from four to six months – and will spend Christmas behind bars. Others, who have also defied one or more such injunctions, are facing similar charges. So it appears they are not being prosecuted for obstructing the highway. In these cases, the judges concerned have remarked that the defendants seem to want to be martyrs for their cause but we (the judges) “must act dispassionately and proportionately”.

Another judge added ordinary members of the public “have rights too” and went on to say “the public’s toleration of peaceful protest depends on an understanding that, in a society subject to the rule of law, there has to be a balance between the right to protest and the right of members of the public to use the highways ... and that should be according to the law and not the say-so of the protesters.”

Most reasonable people would surely agree with that and they condemn the police’s softly, softly approach. It appears that many do not necessarily quarrel with the group’s aims but object to having their own right to freedom of movement curtailed illegally by protesters. Furthermore, comparisons are now being made with the strong-arm tactics last weekend of police in Rotterdam and Brussels in response to riots about COVID restrictions and vaccinations, though the use of water cannon has always been considered to be off limits in Britain.

In my view, it is incomprehensible that in a developed and well organised country like Britain this damaging activity is being allowed to take place to the clear detriment of a majority of people whose lives are being adversely affected by the selfish actions of a few, including blocking ambulances on emergency calls. Moreover, the protesters themselves must realise that it makes no sense to alienate everybody, not least at the time of COP26 when the government is already playing a demonstrably active and effective role in trying to control global warming. Sad to say, all this is a poor example to other countries and one can only hope the situation improves before long.


HOW depressing it was to watch the reaction by no less a figure than the US President to last week’s acquittal of the 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse on murder charges following his shooting of three white people, two of whom died, during violent Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin in the summer of 2020.

To many, Joe Biden’s remarks to the press about being angered by this result were both wrong and irresponsible, even though he also said the jury’s decision should be supported. It beggars belief that a head of state in a democracy where the rule of law is paramount should publicly express anger about a court’s verdict, particularly in such a controversial case. Moreover, Biden is also under fire for describing Rittenhouse as a white supremacist during last year’s US presidential election race. Such words may only encourage violence by those already displaying banners saying “no justice, no peace” and with some protesters claiming that the not guilty verdict was a “blow to the entire nation”.

It is surely a sad sign of widespread disrespect for the law in a divided nation that so many seek to voice judgments about this case when only the court - and most importantly the jury - had the full facts available to them. Questions have been raised about the shooter being on the scene armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, presumably to become involved in some sort of vigilante justice. But it must be a matter for the jury alone to decide whether he acted in self-defence in shooting three people – and its verdict must be respected if the rule of law is to prevail.

Some now say America is a tinderbox about to explode if one more match is lit. At the time of writing, there have been marches in a number of places by people outraged by the Rittenhouse verdict, with protests in Portland being declared a riot. Furthermore, this week the culmination of another controversial murder trial is looming – this time of three white men accused of chasing down and shooting a black man out jogging in Georgia. The trial has been described as one of the “most politically and socially consequential trials in recent times in Georgia”. Its outcome could ignite further violent demonstrations and be that one more match that sets off - in a repeat of the widespread riots of 2020 - the chaos and mayhem that so many now fear.


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