Fredrik Willem de Klerk

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Fredrik Willem de Klerk

Fredrik Willem de Klerk (born 1936) was state president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994. He abruptly pointed his country in a new direction in 1990 by opening negotiations with previously outlawed anti-apartheid organizations.

In 1989 Fredrik Willem de Klerk was described by one observer of South African politics as "strongly loyal to National Party interests and a cautious, not bold, mover," an opinion shared by most analysts. Thus few were prepared for the dramatic news of February 11, 1990, when de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela, the South African resistance leader, from prison after 27 years. At the same time, de Klerk restored to legality the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party, and other opposition groups. These moves, far from cautious, thoroughly revolutionized the political landscape of South Africa.

Brief Overview of South African History

De Klerk's actions as President went against a long tradition of suppression. In the early nineteenth century, England seized control from the Dutch of the Cape Colony at the southern tip of Africa. The Dutch-speaking inhabitants were displaced in power and influence by English-speaking settlers. In numerous ways, but especially in its more liberal treatment of African people, British rule angered many Dutch. Between 1836 and 1838, several thousand Dutch Boers (farmers) emigrated from the Cape Colony to establish new societies in the interior of South Africa, beyond the reach of British authority.

This mass emigration, known as the Great Trek, created two sorts of enemies for the Dutch, who began calling themselves Afrikaners. The first enemy was the British, from whose power they were attempting to escape. The second was a number of powerful Black African states, the Zulu being the best known, whose lands they were invading. Over the next 150 years, the Afrikaners struggled against both.

By the 1960s, the Afrikaners seemed to have triumphed. The historic campaign to remove British power, the major confrontation being the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902, ended successfully with the election of a purely Afrikaner National Party government in 1948. As a result, South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth in 1960.

National Party Established Apartheid

The National Party's policy of apartheid, which virtually eliminated Black African participation in government and reduced Black Africans to a powerless, cheap labor supply, appeared to have ended the Black African threat by the mid-1960s. Afrikaners, convinced that their success was the result of their unity of thought and action, brought schools, newspapers, television, and radio under government control to mold the minds of young Afrikaners. The Dutch Reformed Church, of which almost all Afrikaners were members, provided scriptural and moral support for apartheid. Opposing views were censored. Dissenters were branded traitors and treated accordingly.

Black Protest Revived

Black protest revived in the 1970s. Strikes by Black workers, the uprising of school-children in Soweto and other Black townships in 1976, intensified sabotage by the ANC, and a growing campaign by people in other countries to isolate South Africa economically put intense pressure on the Nationalist government.

The response of National Party leaders was defiance. President John Vorster and his successor, P. W. Botha, suppressed dissent vigorously and assured the outside world that pressure would make Whites more resistant to change, not less. Botha instituted mild reforms. For example, in 1983 a new constitution was approved by White voters that gave a small bit of influence to people of Asian and mixed descent, though none to Black Africans. It also gave enormous power to the state president.

Largely because they had been denied any role in the new constitution, Blacks rose again in 1984. Demonstrations and riots were ruthlessly suppressed. Killings increased, rising into the thousands by 1986. Botha eased some "petty apartheid" laws, but left the system's basic structure intact. He declared a state of emergency, which suspended what civil liberties were left and led to the detention without trial of unknown numbers, perhaps thousands, of Black and White dissidents.

South Africa's economy suffered enormously, both from the effects of sanctions and from plunging investor confidence. The Rand, the basis of the currency, lost nearly two-thirds of its value. But Botha maintained his resistance to fundamental change. Into this situation stepped F. W. de Klerk.

De Klerk's Early Years

De Klerk was born on March 18, 1936, in Johannesburg. J. G. Strijdom, a prime minister of South Africa in the 1950s who instituted many apartheid laws, was his uncle. De Klerk attended Potschefstroom University, a center of Afrikaner Nationalist thought. He was a member of one of the more conservative branches of the Dutch Reformed Church. While teaching law, he was elected to Parliament in 1972, representing the town of Vereeniging. All this activity was in the province of Transvaal, a focal point of Afrikaner political power and the location of most of the mineral wealth that is the basis of the South African economy.

He joined Vorster's cabinet in 1978, serving successively as minister of post and telecommunications, social welfare and pensions, sport and recreation, mineral and energy affairs, and internal affairs. De Klerk eventually became the chief of the Transvaal branch of the party.

De Klerk Replaced Botha As Party Leader

In January of 1989, P. W. Botha suffered a stroke that forced him to resign as head of the National Party, though he remained state president. De Klerk replaced him as party leader. An extraordinary episode occurred in August when de Klerk, without Botha's knowledge, announced a meeting to talk about the South African situation with Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda. Botha publicly chastised de Klerk and then suddenly resigned the presidency. De Klerk succeeded as acting president. In September of 1989, the National Party won parliamentary elections, though by a decreased margin. De Klerk thus became state president, which set the stage for the extraordinary events of February 11, 1990.

While the sweeping nature of de Klerk's actions on that date surprised almost everyone, elements of his background aided his ability to discard the rigidity of Afrikaner nationalism. First, his brother, Willem de Klerk, was a founder of the anti-apartheid Democratic Party, which advocated a nonracial democracy for South Africa. Willem de Klerk described F. W. de Klerk as "open-minded," "pragmatic," and "very much inclined to find solutions for South Africa." Perhaps hinting that his views might have had some effect on F. W. de Klerk's, Willem de Klerk noted that their relationship was "basically sound."

Second, at the outset of his presidency de Klerk seemed to associate himself less with the security and military branches of the government, which have always favored greater repression, and more with the economic and foreign policy offices, which are more interested in South Africa's standing abroad.

Finally, there is de Klerk's undoubted loyalty to the National Party. As South Africa faced hard times in the 1980s, so did the party. Even P. W. Botha believed that South Africa must "adapt or die," and his halting steps toward reform split the party between those who wanted to strengthen and those who wanted to reform apartheid. Having inherited this fragmentation, de Klerk may have believed that the way to save the party was to attract reformers, many of them English-speaking, who had hitherto supported other groups.

On May 7, 1990, de Klerk and a government delegation had their first formal meeting with Mandela and representatives of the ANC, who had once been denounced by the government as terrorists. Both leaders reported the meeting to have been amicable, and each stated his regard for the integrity of the other. Mandela reported that "we are closer to one another." Both leaders were well aware that years of repression had produced many dangerous forces that could at any time sabotage the results of that meeting and its hope for South Africa's future. But de Klerk's role as the catalyst in changing the course of South Africa's history seemed secure. Additional evidence came September 24, 1990, when at a meeting with President George Bush he became the first South African head of state to visit the White House.

De Klerk Became Second Vice President

De Klerk worked with Mandela to abolish apartheid and grant constitutional voting rights to all South Africans. In 1993 the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize. In April 1994, they saw their efforts come to fruition as they campaigned against each other in the first all-race election in South Africa. In this election, with Black South Africans casting the majority vote, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. De Klerk became the second vice president in Mandela's Government of National Unity. In 1996 the government adopted a new constitution that guaranteed equal rights. De Klerk was concerned, however, that the constitution would not protect minority group rights. The National Party, still led by him, broke away from Mandela, saying that South Africa needed a strong multi-party system. In August 1997, de Klerk resigned as head of the National Party and quit politics. At the news conference, he stated, "I am resigning because I am convinced it is in the best interest of the party and the county."

Further Reading

Sketches of de Klerk's background can be found in such articles as Harald Pakendorf, "New Personality, Old Policies?" Africa Report (May-June 1989); Allister Sparks, "The Secret Revolution" New Yorker (April 11, 1994); Los Angeles Times (May 3, 1994). See also the interview with Willem de Klerk in Africa Report (July-August, 1989). Among the best accounts of Afrikaner ideology is Leonard Thompson, The Political Mythology of Apartheid (1985). A good account of the anti-apartheid struggle is Tom Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945 (1983). □