For Some South Africans, de Klerk Missed Chances for True Reconciliation

JOHANNESBURG — In February of last year, as South Africa’s last white president sat in Parliament listening to a state-of-the-nation address, a firebrand young politician interrupted the proceedings.

“Honorable speaker, we have a murderer in the house,” said Julius Malema, the politician, pointing to F.W. de Klerk, the man who as president had helped dismantle the apartheid system, but whose statements about it over the last decade angered South Africans, particularly Black South Africans who still live with the legacy of its injustices.

Then, as Mr. de Klerk sat stone-faced, Mr. Malema led a chant to force him out: “De Klerk must go! De Klerk must go!”

Mr. de Klerk stayed, and the incident was over in minutes. But it would stain the already tainted legacy of Mr. de Klerk, who died on Thursday at the age of 85. Despite apologizing for the suffering caused by apartheid policies, Mr. de Klerk repeatedly shied away from describing South Africa’s brutal segregationist rule as a crime against humanity, and at times sought to justify the separation of ethnic groups.

Though he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 that he shared with the country’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, Mr. de Klerk never took responsibility for the violence perpetrated by security forces under his leadership.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, also a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said before Mr. de Klerk’s death that he “could have gone down in history as a truly great South African statesman, but he eroded his stature and became a small man, lacking magnanimity and generosity of spirit.”

The country’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, and Mr. de Klerk with their Nobel Peace Prize awards in Oslo in 1993.Credit…Pool photo by Jon Eeg

This sentiment shaded the news of Mr. de Klerk’s death in South Africa, and an effort to rebut it could be heard in the final message he recorded for South Africans before his death, clarifying his stance on apartheid.

“In this last message, I repeat, I without qualification apologize for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage apartheid has done to Black, brown and Indians in South Africa,” he said in a video released by the F.W. de Klerk Foundation hours after his death.

Still, these words of a dying man may not be enough for a generation of young South Africans who associate him with the kinds of statements that led to his being booed in Parliament. Days before that incident, Mr. de Klerk had appeared on the South African Broadcasting Corporation, rejecting the view that apartheid was a crime against humanity.

“Genocide is a crime. Apartheid cannot be, that’s why I’m saying this, cannot be, for instance, be compared with genocide. There was never genocide,” Mr. de Klerk said. “Many people died, but more people died because of Black-on-Black violence than because of apartheid.”

His foundation released a statement to clarify his comments, but many were reminded of an interview Mr. de Klerk had done with Christiane Amanpour in 2012, when he told her he had publicly apologized for the brutality of the apartheid regime but then added a qualification.

“What I haven’t apologized for is the original concept of seeking to bring justice to all South Africans through the concept of nation states,” he said, referring to apartheid’s system of semi-independent states for different ethnic groups.

Mr. de Klerk during the last apartheid-era session of Parliament in 1993.Credit…Rodger Bosch/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In his final appearance, in the video on Thursday, Mr. de Klerk tried to explain his change of heart.

“Allow me in this last message to share with you the fact since the early ’80s, my views changed completely,” he said. “It was as if I had a conversion and in my heart of hearts, realized that apartheid was wrong. I realized that we had arrived at a place which was morally unjustifiable.”

The video was “a last-minute revision of history” and Mr. de Klerk’s self-conscious attempt to preserve his legacy as the hero who released Mr. Mandela from jail, said Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria.

“The more tragic part of F.W. de Klerk’s death is that he dies with so many secrets,” said Ms. Mbete.

Among those secrets is any knowledge of the planning that led to the murder of the “Cradock Four,” four activists killed in 1985 by state security forces as violence roiled in the last years of apartheid, analysts and relatives of the victims said.

“He takes all of that knowledge with him, and it deprives us of the truth and closure of the deaths of the Cradock Four,” said Lukhanyo Calata, the son of one of those activists. While their families refused to engage with Mr. de Klerk directly, they pushed for him to reveal any information that could have led to a trial, and demanded in vain that prosecutors compel him to do so.

“If he’d said, ‘I apologize and this is what I am now going to do with my assets, with my foundation, this is how I am going to speak up for the people who were the victims on my watch, I will account for my part’ — but there was nothing of that at all,” said Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest and anti-apartheid activist who lost both of his hands when he opened a letter bomb sent by the apartheid regime’s security forces in 1990.

“No matter how much he acknowledged that apartheid was a mistake, he refused to come to terms with it as a gross human rights violation, as an atrocity,” said Mac Maharaj, an anti-apartheid activist who participated in the negotiations to dismantle the system.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president of South Africa, who led those negotiations on behalf of the African National Congress, was more gracious, lauding Mr. de Klerk’s “key role in ushering in democracy” in South Africa.

A new generation of South Africans, however, were far less polite. Mr. Malema, who started the chant in Parliament last year, vowed to protest if Mr. de Klerk was given a state funeral.

Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters political party, called Mr. de Klerk a murderer during a session of Parliament last year.Credit…Pool photo by Rodger Bosch

Talk radio stations fielded calls that showed how divisive Mr. de Klerk’s legacy continued to be, with Black callers criticizing Mr. de Klerk while some white callers struggled to understand their anger.

Many more voiced their disdain for Mr. de Klerk on social media, repudiating any international praise Mr. de Klerk received.

“I don’t want any sanctification of his legacy in death. He was already given too much while he was alive,” a student activist, Neo Mosala, said on Twitter.

Stephanie Nolen contributed reporting from Johannesburg.

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