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Letter from America: De Klerk’s death bed confession, is he forgiven?

The death of South Africa’s last white supremacy leader, Frederick de Klerk has stirred the ghosts of apartheid which had been allowed to lie low in their grave for some time. His death bed confession will be the subject of disputation among aspiring scholars for a very long time. 

The issue here is whether by his confession, we and our brothers in ZANU-PF and other African leaders can learn something.

A few days before his death on November 11, De Klerk recorded a video confession. Two issues, in his own words are important. Born in 1936, he was a long-time member of the ruling Afrikaner Nationalist Party and later serving as president of South Africa, 1989-1994. While his power base came from the Transvaal wing of the Afrikaners, that same group was heavily dependent on its sponsorship by the financial moguls, the Oppenheimer family, a liberal Jewish dynasty. This was their Achilles heel.

Apart from their own liberal bent and their patrimonial attitude towards blacks, the Oppenheimer’s were globalists. As apartheid became a dirty word in international sports, at the United Nations and was condemned as sin by the World Council of Churches in 1960, when the Organization of African Unity imposed a one fly zone for South African Airways, and when in the final straw, their staunch supporter, US President Ronald Reagan (1984) was forced to accept comprehensive sanctions against South Africa, their world was collapsing under their feet.

De Klerk, who was educated at a Dutch Christian school in Potchefstroom, says in his confession that by the 1980’s his conscience was troubling him, and he went through a conversion. Suffice to say that in 1967, Dutch Reformed Church moderator, Dr. Beyers Naude, was expelled from that church because he had publicly made a similar confession and conversion. That was more than ten years before De Klerk felt the pain of conscience.

In his own words, he says:  “Allow me in this last message to share with you the fact that since the early 80s, my views changed completely. It was as if I had a conversion,” de Klerk said in the video message released by his foundation hours after his death.

“And in my heart of hearts, I realized that apartheid was wrong. I realized that we had arrived at a place which was morally unjustifiable,” he said, adding that action was then taken to negotiate and restore justice.

The debate is whether De Klerk’s conversion was gratuitous or was being forced upon him as leader of the Afrikaner nationalists by changing events in the world and by his financiers the Oppenheimer’s.

A personal anecdote. I was a student at St. Andrews University in Scotland (1970) when Sir Harry Oppenheimer was visiting the Vice Chancellor. The VC, to make Sir Harry welcome, asked me (as the only African he could find) if I could attend a reception for the great man.

In that same reception, being sensitive hosts, the VC and his wife indicated that I should pass the wine, though highly recommended for its taste, was under sanctions by the United Nations.

F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, apologized for his past statements on apartheid, which had angered some people who still live with the legacy of its injustices, in a posthumous video. Mr. de Klerk had helped dismantle the apartheid system as the president. (Picture via F. W. de Klerk Foundation)
F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, apologized for his past statements on apartheid, which had angered some people who still live with the legacy of its injustices, in a posthumous video. Mr. de Klerk had helped dismantle the apartheid system as the president. (Picture via F. W. de Klerk Foundation)

Nevertheless, immediately after assuming office in South Africa, De Klerk initiated far reaching changes, called a new dispensation, releasing political prisoners including Nelson Mandela, unbanning of the African National Congress, and in 1991, abolishing discrimination in public places. For these, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Mandela, at the time, in an interview with Ted Koppel of the American Broadcasting Corporation (1993) thought the award was undeserved, a view he later revised.

This is the heart of the disputation today. Mandela argued that De Klerk should not have been rewarded for doing the right thing. First the ANC was a lawful party. It should never have been banned. Second, many people were put in prison, families destroyed, others died on what De Klerk himself then confessed was a wring policy of apartheid. When De Klerk reversed the evil deeds of which he himself was the initiator, the world cries out in adulation.

That misses the point of conscience, and ZANU-PF can learn a lot from De Klerk. A saint, as Mandela himself later confessed, is a sinner, who when seeing his past mistakes, stops aiding and abetting them but tries to reverse the dame done prior and works for the rest of his life to make amends.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (Malema Party) has taken the view that to honor De Klerk is to “spit in the face of all the families who suffered at his hands and their children murdered in the quest for freedom.”

Were this argument to be accepted, it would leave no room for sinners to repent and make amends. To bring this matter home, it behooves ZANU-PF to come clean on Gukurahundi, accept that in a moment of madness, sometime on or about December 3, 1893, their Polit Politbureau decided to wipe out the Matabele nation because ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo had refused to accept a one-party state.

A Saint

De Klerk’s life is full of those convolutions, meanderings, trials and tribulations and personal which are the hallmark of a saint.

Married to his university sweetheart, Marike, whom he met at Potchefstroom University, she remained a thorn in his side. As he went through racial conversion, Marike remained “stalwart” (Zimbabwe English), adumbrating her views publicly that the Colored Peoples of South Africa were the leftovers of humanity.

As fate would have it, her adopted son Willem was inseparably in love with Erica Adams, a Colored girl. Marike was distressed. Under apartheid laws, it was as if an eagle married a fish, there was no home for them, either in the air or in the sea, De Klerk took the trials and vicissitudes with equanimity. Then there was the “housing humiliation.” Mandela had promised them that they could stay in the presidential residence, only to change his mind, moved them to an unfinished residence, an act Marike saw as unforgivable ingratitude by blacks.

The final straw was the discovery that De Klerk had shifted his love from his lifetime sweetheart to Elita Georgiades, a Greek temptress, the wife of a tycoon financier of the party. De Klerk, foolishly in love, bereft of his former wisdom and political acumen, sent Marike a letter of divorcement on Valentine Day, the 37th year of their marriage.

Marike was murdered in her apartment in 2002, a lonely figure, a shadow of her former self, unyielding and unrepentant.

Such are the complicated affairs of men.

(Ken Mufuka is a Zimbabwean patriot. He is putting the finishing touches to his last book, Matters of Substance that will complete his prior bestselling books, Matters of Dignity, Matters of Conscience into a trilogy. His books are available at kenmufukabooks.com)