Frederik de Klerk : Riding the Whirlwind to End South Africa's Apartheid Policies

Scott Kraft is The Times bureau chief in South Africa. He and three other reporters interviewed Frederik W. de Klerk in the president's office

Right-wing whites, including some of his former friends, call him "Red Fred," and worse. Black opposition leaders question his sincerity, even his integrity. But, through it all, Frederik Willem de Klerk manages to keep South Africa afloat and headed for constitutional negotiations with single-minded confidence and optimism.

"I don't lie awake at night," De Klerk says, smiling. "You know, there's a saying, 'Cowboys don't cry.' My wife has another saying: 'If you want to give yourself out for a toffee (taffy), you must not worry about being chewed.' "

De Klerk has been chewed plenty in the two years since he became president of South Africa and set about to end 40 years of apartheid and whites-only rule with a speed that shocked even his closest friends and colleagues.

The president's challenges are just beginning. South Africa still has a difficult road to travel before blacks have the vote in a true democracy. But the country today looks nothing like it did before De Klerk took office. Anti-apartheid protests are legal, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela is free, black opposition groups operate openly and the government and black leaders are set to begin negotiations next month for the first time in history.

The man largely responsible for that is a genial 55-year-old lawyer and veteran politician, a father of three who stands a stocky 5-foot-7, smokes filtered cigarettes, loves a good political discussion, makes jokes about his balding pate and plays golf, from the left-handed side, to a 19 handicap.

He works out of a large office in the Union Buildings, hilltop seat of government in Pretoria. Unlike his predecessors, De Klerk runs a relaxed shop, consults with his Cabinet and prefers consensus to dictatorial policy-making.

Even as a youth, De Klerk showed a love for politics, following his father on the hustings. His uncle, J.G. (Hans) Strydom, was the nation's second National Party prime minister and De Klerk's father served in Strydom's Cabinet.

"F.W.," as the president has been known since childhood, was elected to Parliament in 1972 and joined President Pieter W. Botha's Cabinet six years later. In 1989, when the party chose him as its leader and de facto heir to the presidency, experts pegged him as an anti-reform conservative. But they were dead wrong. As his older brother, Willem, a college professor, says: "He's not a political philosopher, but a pragmatist."

Question: It's been seven weeks since the national peace accord was signed, yet well over 200 people have died in township carnage. Is there anything you can do? Why is this continuing?

Answer: The fact that violence continues is not a surprise. It is unfortunate . . . but (no one) expected the violence to just stop. We must now implement the peace accord. And I think that will make an important contribution toward abating the violence. . . .

We've also gone to great lengths to improve police effectivity. We've increased the police force by 10,000, at a cost of 1,000 million rand (about $400 million). . . .

But the biggest single contribution would be for the leaders to sit together in a (constitutional) conference. . . . When the leaders of all the most important parties sit together around the table, I have no doubt that that will have a calming and very constructive effect on the atmosphere throughout our country.

Q: But people wonder how the same government that was able to so effectively crack down on violence a few years ago now seems powerless to do so.

A: The methods used (then) were found totally unacceptable. There's no elegant way, really, to crack down on violence. We are leveling the political playing field at the moment, and political leaders should do more to get their followers to . . . start acting as people in a democracy should act, and to stop fighting and struggling as if they are still part of a liberation effort in a situation where they are suppressed.

. . . . I'm doing everything in my power to ensure that we act against the violence in a democratic way. . . . (But) we will not allow the country to fall into a state of chaos. And we will act stronger if need be. . . .

Q: When you released Mandela from prison, you characterized him as a man you could do business with. He characterized you as a man deserving of respect. In recent months, he says his opinion of you has changed--for the worse. What is your estimation of Mandela today?

A: . . . . I would like to refrain from attacking him personally. I have grounds for such attacks, but let us leave that.

(But) I'm disappointed if I look at political substance . . . . I think the ANC is vacillating. The ANC is not taking a clear line on reconciliation and on uninhibited negotiation. . . . They, on the one day, come across as being conciliatory and really seeking solutions on the basis of give and take. The next day they make the most outrageous demands and threats. . . . We must realize that the ANC isn't a political party with a clear-cut political policy. . . . Mr. Mandela is leading what I believe to be a very uneasy alliance . . . of conflicting political views and philosophies.

Q: You've spoken in general terms of your willingness to allow black leaders a say in an interim government. The ANC has expressed concern that you want to be "referee, linesman and scorekeeper" in the process. Are you ready to give up power?

A: I don't want to be referee and player simultaneously. . . . I am prepared to look for transitional arrangements which will assure (that) . . . I cannot be accused of that.

. . . . However, if that means a new government which governs . . . by decree and without a proper democratic base, then I'm dead set against it, and I cannot participate in such an exercise.

If, however, it means, as in the case of the peace accord, that effective mechanisms are brought into being alongside government to ensure that on important decisions there is proper consultation--then I have no problem with such transitional arrangements, and I think agreement can be reached on it.

Q: Some have criticized your party's constitutional proposals as an attempt to ensure continued control for whites. How will you convince people that you are not trying to keep white control?

A: . . . . There is no way our proposals can be interpreted as putting power in the hands of a minority to such an extent that a minority will be able to enforce its will in any way whatsoever against the will of the majority. . . . That will be impossible in terms of our proposals.

Democracy has two main streams throughout the world. The one is the British system, which is a winner-takes-all system. With 51% of the vote, you get 100% of the power for five years. We do not favor that. . . .

We favor the American, Belgian and Swiss models, where there are . . . checks and balances to prevent any majority from misusing its power to the suppression of specific interests. We believe that model of democracy is the correct one because of the sheer size of our country, because of regional differences, because of the complexity of our population, and because of the tremendous potential for conflict built into our society. . . .

Q: South Africa's economy is headed for its second year of negative growth, when all agree it needs at least 5% growth to meet challenges of the post-apartheid era. How will your political reforms be sustained without some miraculous turnabout?

A: The reform proposals of no party in South Africa . . . can succeed unless we have a strong, growing economy. It seems to me there is a lack of understanding about this reality in the ANC and (others) who still dabble with Marxist-Socialism. . . . Fortunately, this country has a tremendous economic potential. . . . The lack of growth at the moment is due to a lack of investment, which, in turn, is due . . . to the irresponsible statements made by the ANC, on the one hand, and the violence, on the other hand. If we get our house in order, . . . I have no doubt that the international community . . . stands ready to invest at a breathtaking scale in South Africa.

Q: Nonetheless, your initiative depends on reaching an understanding with your political opponents. There hasn't been a lot of progress on the economic front. What will you do if agreement cannot be reached?

A: . . . . Before the end of this year, there will be the start of a multiparty conference. And, therefore, I'm not at the moment breaking my head about what I will do if we fail. Because I don't think we will fail. I'm breaking my head to make sure we succeed. . . .

Q: Will you say yes to a system that will involve massive state intervention to redistribute wealth?

A: No. Because that is the quickest way of ensuring that you don't have a strong, growing economy. Those who are suffering as a result of poverty or whatever cause have a vested interest in the success of the entrepreneurs of South Africa. Only if the entrepreneurs succeed . . . will we be able to create sufficient jobs for our growing population.

But . . . we're a developing country as well. And the government, as we have done, will have to undertake massive programs to improve the quality of life of people. . . . It will have to finance such programs in a way that will not harm the economy. . . .

Q: How do you respond to the criticism from the many whites who fear change?

A: I'm sensitive to criticism if, on analysis, there's merit in the criticism. . . . But I really don't worry much about personal attacks because I believe in what I'm doing.

Obviously, one is human, and when it (criticism) comes from former friends and so on, on a very personal level, yes, it hurts. But I don't lay awake at night.

Q: Aren't some white fears legitimate?

A: . . . . If the result is, as we intend to ensure, that we get a constitution which offers security for minorities in a non-discriminatory manner and in a non-racial manner, then those fears are not valid.

And can I just say we don't define minorities in racial terms. Minorities define themselves on the basis of freedom of association and freedom of choice, and their autonomy should also be safeguarded in the new constitution. . . .

I think we will get a constitution which will allay the reasonable fears. I cannot cater to unreasonable fears.

Q: You are getting support from South Africans of all colors. Do you think the black people deserve some clear statement from you--from the party--that apologizes for everything that apartheid has done? Do you need to address the question?

A: I think it has been addressed sufficiently. I know there is still a school of thought which differs from that, but it emanates more from those who have very much to apologize for themselves. For terrorism, for the killing of innocent civilians, women and children, by planting bombs in public places.

I'm not demanding specific apologies. I think the future of this country lies in reconciliation. I think that sort of a Nuremberg approach . . . works against reconciliation. So we must put our faces to the wind and we must take hands and we must build a nation. . . .

The policy of (apartheid) definitely resulted in some negatives, and I'm sorry about it. The fundamental purpose of building (black) nation-states--which did not succeed--needn't be apologized for. . . . What is happening in the East Bloc proves that it was a viable solution. In our case, it has become clear that it is not a viable solution.

So, one should accept the painful part of history with a sense of sorrow and learn from that and not make the same mistakes in the future.

Q: How have you managed to persuade so many international leaders of your commitment to reform, given your party's past record in South Africa?

A: I speak to them as I speak to you. There was no trick involved. No public-relations scheme worked out well before with professional assistance.

I speak from my heart, and try to be as truthful as any human being can be. Put the facts on the table, say what I believe, and then people must judge for themselves. . . .

The fact is, I am absolutely committed. The fact that I'm continuing to do what I'm doing, notwithstanding the tremendous resistance, is visible proof of that commitment. Some more leaders in South Africa need to stop playing the typical politician, stop trying to be all things to all men. We've reached a moment of truth in our history which requires leaders to say what they stand for. . . .

Mr. Mandela must give the type of leadership which will cost him some of his support. . . . And I think each-and-every other leader must also do so. I did it. And I'm not trying to be holy in saying it. I knew when I did certain things that it would cost me some support, but it's gaining me new support.

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