Foreign Minister, Australia 1988-1996
President and CEO of the International Crisis Group 2000-2009
I Crossed Swords With de Klerk But Came To Admire His Great Human Decency
By GARETH EVANS
Published: Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 2021
Without FW de Klerk, the destruction of apartheid and South Africa’s transition to democracy could never have been peacefully accomplished. Despite his family background – Afrikaner royalty – and uncritical defence of the indefensible throughout his entire political career until becoming National Party leader, de Klerk saw the light at the right time, delivered in full on the expectations he created, has been an influential voice for peace and reconciliation around the world ever since, and fully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he shared with the great Nelson Mandela in 1993.
Although – as I wrote to FW shortly before he died, at 85, on Thursday – my main ambition as Australian foreign minister, when I first crossed swords with him in the late 1980s, was to make his life impossible, I came in later years, after getting to know him well personally, to enormously appreciate his great human decency, and total commitment to achieving peace, reconciliation and good governance right around the world. His passing will be very widely, deeply and genuinely mourned.
Australia played a central role over many years in the international campaign against apartheid. The sports boycott conceived and led by the Whitlam and Fraser governments was psychologically important in creating a sense of isolation and vulnerability, as were – to an extent – the trade sanctions we always strongly supported. But it was the financial sanctions – strangling South Africa’s access to international capital – which Bob Hawke played a key role in designing and advocating, that ultimately had the most profound economic, and political, impact, as De Klerk personally confirmed in later conversations I had with him.
But the crucial point to appreciate is that while relentless international pressure, and the ever-mounting internal tensions, had created all the necessary conditions for change, that would not have occurred without massive bloodshed in the absence of a white political leadership clear-headed enough to grasp the moment. That came, at last, with de Klerk’s succession to the presidency in February 1989, replacing the ailing hardliner PW Botha.
The speech de Klerk made to launch the reform process in February 1990 was genuinely historic, announcing as it did the government’s willingness to enter into serious negotiations on a wholly new democratic and non-racial constitutional dispensation, the unbanning of the African National Congress and other political organisations, and above all the release from imprisonment, after 27 years, of Nelson Mandela. And with de Klerk’s unremitting drive and determination to see the process through, the transition to Mandela’s presidency was accomplished, if not seamlessly, ultimately very effectively.
It is true that de Klerk became seriously disenchanted with Mandela’s successors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Who could not have been? And he remained disappointed at the inability of the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, with all his capacity, decency and energy, to make the ANC any kind of model of effective governance. Who would not be?
And for many years he was never as forthcoming as some would have liked in denouncing the awful excesses of the apartheid regime he had served so long. But to my knowledge he never, ever, publicly or privately, regretted for a moment his role in overturning it, and making South Africa a genuine democracy. And I would defy anyone now to be unmoved by his last video message: “I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to Black, Brown and Indian South Africans.”
That message was released publicly, after he died, by the Global Leadership Foundation which he founded in 2004, and became the great sustaining passion of his last years of public life. This is a London-based group of former presidents, prime ministers – and some other lesser has-beens like me – which aspires to offer quiet, behind-the-scenes, advice to leaders, particularly in developing countries, who are trying to work through difficult democratic or economic transitions, or are facing other problems where they might find helpful an experienced shoulder to lean on. It is difficult to gauge how much difference our group has so far made – given that the willingness of leaders to ask for and accept such advice tends to vary inversely with their need for it.
But the nature and scale of the GLF’s ambition is the measure of the man who conceived and drove it. FW de Klerk’s achievements both as a South African and global statesman are inspirational, and demand – and will receive – the world’s lasting respect.