My Deathbed Conversation with FW de Klerk, the Leader who Killed Apartheid
14 November 2021
In an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of white power in South Africa, I asked FW de Klerk when he had had a change of heart about apartheid and its inevitable — and probably bloody — end. It happened, he said, one night in the mid-1980s when he was at one of President PW Botha’s bosberaads, or bush conferences. “I came to the conclusion that apartheid was morally wrong,” he said, “and we couldn’t reform or improve it. We had to abandon the whole concept.”
He was a senior minister in the Botha government at the time, born into the apartheid culture, which he actively supported until midlife. It would be a further five years before, having shouldered aside the ill Botha, he was able to make the huge leap he had been planning for some time. That came on February 2, 1990, when, in his first presidential address to parliament, he announced the release of all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and — more importantly in his view — the South African Communist Party, and abolished more than 40 years of apartheid restrictions. Crucially, he committed the government to free and fair elections.
As historians generally acknowledge, it was Frederik Willem de Klerk who ended apartheid that day — not Mandela. He was in jail.
In later years de Klerk got into the habit of writing deeply personal letters to the long-dead Mandela, reflecting on his conversion from white supremacist to reformist president.
He showed me one of them: “Dear Madiba,” he wrote, “I am often asked what made me embark on a course of fundamental transformation. Did I experience some form of Damascene conversion? The answer is ‘No’. It was a slow, gradual and often painful process.”
In real life he never would have used the “Madiba” title, Mandela’s tribal name used only by friends. Relations between the two, although they were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize, were at best guarded and at worst downright hostile. De Klerk ruefully recalled the occasion in 1991 when he accused Mandela of condoning a series of bloody attacks on whites across the country.
“Mandela launched a vitriolic attack on me, saying I was without moral standards and was not fit to be the head of government and represented a regime which did not have legitimacy,” said de Klerk. “All I could do was roll with the punches. We were always going to have serious differences.”
He also recalled the day, soon after his parliamentary address, when he visited Mandela in Victor Verster prison, where he was living in a warder’s bungalow. “I told him that the decision had been taken to release him the next day, and he said to me, ‘No!’ And I said: why ‘no’? And he said, ‘We need another week to prepare.’
“I told him, ‘Mr Mandela, you have been in jail long enough. You and I will negotiate about many things in future but not about the date of your release.’”
The next day, February 11, 1990, Mandela, hand in hand with his soon-to-be-estranged wife, Winnie, walked out of the prison gates, watched on TV by half the world.
That was the third big interview I did with de Klerk. The first was in May 1994 in the imposing British-built government buildings in Pretoria. Although he was in his last week as president, he was in a confident mood, saying that he had a good chance of winning the coming election with the support of the black population.
When I expressed scepticism at this unlikely outcome, he invited me to join him at a political rally in a football stadium in Soweto the next day. It was the first time I had heard him speak in public, and the transformation from the quiet, formal man I had met the previous day into a passionate, powerful public speaker astonished me. So did the reaction of his largely black audience, who cheered him wildly, chanting: “NP! NP!” for the National Party, the same party that had oppressed them for more than 40 years. Two days later he got 20.6 per cent of the vote against more than 60 per cent for Mandela’s ANC.
De Klerk was an excellent public speaker, second in demand only to Mandela in the months after the election. In June 1994 we invited him to speak at a Sunday Times event in London, where the demand for tickets was so high that we had to take the Albert Hall. When Andrew Neil, then the editor, introduced him, the whole audience, including Margaret Thatcher, stood to applaud.
I reminded him of that occasion two weeks ago when I went to see him for the last time at his house in Cape Town. “That was one of the best days of my life,” he said, almost choking. He was weak and frail but he wanted to talk, mostly about the way he would be perceived after his death. “I’m going down,” he said calmly. “But Elita [his wife] and I try to do something every day.”
The previous day he had recorded his last message to the world, trying to kill once and for all the accusation that he had continued to justify apartheid long after he abolished it.
“It is true that in my younger years I defended separate development,” he said. In later years he had tried to apologise but not everyone believed he meant it. Now he wanted to make it clear and unequivocal.
“I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa.”
That’s not a bad note to go out on.