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Watching the Nimble Tightrope Walker : South Africa’s De Klerk celebrates four years in power

Frederik W. de Klerk didn’t promise reform when he campaigned to lead South Africa. Reform, however, has become the hallmark of his presidency as South Africa evolves from international pariah to multiracial democracy.

De Klerk became the National Party leader four years ago this week, after he bested the unyielding hard-liner P. W. Botha. Shortly after that Cabinet showdown, De Klerk revealed his hand. He recognized South Africa’s largest and most powerful anti-apartheid group, the African National Congress, which had been banned by the white minority government. He released Nelson Mandela, the champion of democracy who unjustly spent 27 years in prison. De Klerk also prodded the racially segregated Parliament to repeal the legal pillars of apartheid, laws that have restricted the lives of black South Africans from cradle to grave. Later De Klerk agreed to the creation of a multiracial Transitional Executive Council to oversee the government prior to the April election--the first in which black South Africans will be allowed to vote. Finally, the transition from legalized racial segregation to universal democracy has become irreversible.

THE SHREWDNESS: Some suggest that it was timing, more than conviction, that led the shrewd and pragmatic De Klerk slowly down the reform path. His release of Mandela, while of course heralded the world over, had a flip side: The moral suasion that Mandela automatically wielded from inside a prison cell was harder to command once De Klerk’s government made the now 75-year-old political symbol a free man. Thus some still ask: Was De Klerk playing the role of fair-minded liberator or shrewd white politician? Probably a bit of both.

Either way, there’s no doubt that De Klerk was South Africa’s first president since the National Party came to power in 1948 by advocating apartheid to recognize the internal and external pressures that demanded change.

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Economic sanctions, the financial restrictions imposed by the United States and Europe, certainly contributed to the new freedoms for black South Africans.

THE REFORMER: The international isolation didn’t stop in the financial arena. A sports boycott excluded South Africa’s white-only teams from the Olympics and from other international competitions. Those restrictions hit home in a nation with many rugby fans who had long delighted in beating British teams. A cultural boycott compounded South Africa’s estrangement.

As much of the world shunned South Africa, internal pressures continued to mount. Student protests put the government on notice that the next generation of South Africans would not docilely accept apartheid. The religious community, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, hammered away at the immorality of apartheid. The demands for change welled up from university campuses, from white businessmen tired of losing business, from sports fans, from black and white and mixed-raced South Africans until the groundswell could no longer be contained by brutal police--or ignored by savvy politicians like De Klerk.

On his fourth and perhaps final anniversary in power, De Klerk says he has no regrets stemming from his role as reformer. His business is unfinished, but his legacy is intact. South Africa will soon be a multiracial democracy. When that happens, De Klerk, and of course Mandela, will deserve no little credit.

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