A misguided attempt by FW de Klerk to reframe apartheid’s impact damages his legacy

FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president, died on 11th November 2021
FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president, died on 11th November 2021
Image: REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham
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From sports to beauty pageants, South Africa has been enjoying a series of global victories; and now a political party wants to continue the trend. Except instead of winning another trophy or sash to add to the country’s tally, the opposition party Economic Freedom Front (EFF) wants a prize to be rescinded.

The EFF and others are rallying for the Nobel Peace Prize committee to revoke the 1993 award to former deputy president FW de Klerk. It had been given jointly to de Klerk and president Nelson Mandela for their work in ending apartheid. De Klerk’s inclusion was controversial then and has come under scrutiny again this month after he argued in a TV interview that the brutalities of apartheid had been misunderstood and misappropriated. The interview was commemorating the 30th anniversary of his speech which unbanned liberation movements including the ANC

As an uproar began, his foundation doubled down and released a now-deleted statement that apartheid cannot be considered a crime against humanity. Such conclusions are false, it said, and a “project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC/SACP allies “to stigmatize white South Africans by associating them with genuine crimes against humanity—which have generally included totalitarian repression and the slaughter of millions of people”.

This position contradicts that of the International Criminal Court which in 2002, declared the crime of apartheid as similar to other crimes against humanity, “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.

The statement was widely condemned including by another South African Nobel laureate, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Most detractors called for de Klerk to retract his statement, but the EFF also made a call for de Klerk’s Nobel prize to be revoked.

Ordinary citizens and activists are also boycotting de Klerk, rallying together under #deKlerkMustFall. While there may be a few who will continue to buy his book, attend his keynote addresses, and perhaps even donate to his foundation, there is no doubt that de Klerk’s acclaim is falling. But what happens after his brand equity has been decimated? After he has fallen.

Symbol vs system

For many South Africans, the sobering reality is that little will change. De Klerk may be the current symbol of oppression, but he is not the system.

A report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) describes South Africa’s unemployment crisis as one of the deepest in the world. It found over 38.5% is unemployed of the potential work force is unemployed. “Between 2008 and 2019 the number of people who want work but cannot find it or have given up looking rose from 6.5 million to 10.3 million. Every day some 1,700 adults join the labour market and fewer than 500 of them find work.”  

Jobs aren’t likely to materialize in the near future as South Africa’s economy is mired in its own challenges. The World Bank has cut South Africa’s growth forecast for 2019 through to 2021, citing weak investor sentiment and lingering policy uncertainty.

Growth is expected to hit 1% in 2020, 0.7 percentage points lower than the previous forecast, and 1.3% in 2021, again half a percentage point lower than prior estimates. By the end of Q3 2019, the country entered its 70th month of a downward cycle. This is the longest since 1945.

Amidst the multiple scourges of power load-shedding, student protests, and horrific crime, by stating it wasn’t a crime against humanity, de Klerk may have been trying to strategically detach himself from the system behind much of these challenges.

But, apartheid’s impact before and following democracy cannot be downplayed. It’s reflected in South Africa having the widest inequality gap in the world.

Following country-wide castigation, de Klerk released a statement clarifying his revised position. “I agree with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation that this is not the time to quibble about the degrees of unacceptability of apartheid.  It was totally unacceptable. The FW de Klerk Foundation has accordingly decided to withdraw its statement of 14 February unconditionally and apologizes for the confusion, anger and hurt that it has caused.”

An unintended consequence of de Klerk’s original belief that apartheid was not a crime against humanity, is that it has caused damage to his legacy. His acclaim is falling.

While he falls, and once he’s fallen, concerted effort needs to be put in to repair South Africa’s economy. During the NKC Economics colloquium, held in Cape Town in 2019, experts gave their suggested solutions for government to put the country on the mend.

These included fixing the electricity crisis, a commitment to structural reform measures and sticking to policies that safeguard economic stability. By creating a system that protects and serves citizens, the South African government has a chance to make sure crimes against humanity are never again committed. And this can be whether or not the symbols of apartheid have fallen.

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