Philosophy Weekend: Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk

I wonder if all the glory that’s been heaped upon Nelson Mandela since his death on Thursday is hurting his feelings. This level of adulation has got to be hard for anyone to endure, living or dead.

Well, the glory is well-deserved, but just for the sake of originality I’d like to celebrate two South Africans today: Nelson Mandela and his political opponent and partner F. W. de Klerk, the last white President of South Africa, who had the courage to take the steps to negotiate an end to apartheid. De Klerk’s courage was very different from Nelson Mandela’s, but it’s no less worthy of praise.

Unlike Nelson Mandela, Frederik Willem de Klerk didn’t really look like a hero. He was 18 years younger than Nelson Mandela, but his body shape and physical presence made him look 18 years older. Mandela spent 27 years in jail; de Klerk spent nearly his entire life as a politician in the government that kept Mandela there. Mandela was the son of a Xhosa chief; de Klerk’s last name means “the clerk”.

But when de Klerk was elected President by his troubled nation’s white minority in 1989, he moved fast and decisively to open discussions with the outlawed African National Congress, to finally release Mandela from jail, to remove racial barriers to voting and turn South Africa into a true majority. He initiated a national referendum on March 17, 1992 to end apartheid — a referendum in which, of course, only white South Africans could vote, because it was only by acheiving a “Yes” vote that all South Africans of all ethnic backgrounds would be granted the right to vote.

This was a political moment of M. C. Escher-like reflectivity, as well as a moment of drastic cultural importance for the nation and for the world. The “Yes” side won by a landslide: 68.7% to 31.3%. From this point on, the brighter future of South Africa was assured.

History has a way of scaling over itself with a patina of inevitability, and I’m not sure if historians of the future will be able to understand how truly surprising South Africa’s ascent to racial justice and decency was at the time it took place. History may also fail to capture how impossible it once seemed that peace could ever come to this violently torn nation, which had been suffering from the ravages of colonialism for centuries. Ten years before the referendum to end apartheid, it seemed likely that apartheid would never end peacefully.

There seemed to be two choices: violent revolution, or the terrible status quo. Brutally depressing novels like J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians captured modern South Africa’s Kafkaesque situation as most of us understood it: there might be an ending to the story of apartheid, but there wouldn’t be a happy ending. The option of a simply successful negotiated path to peaceful coexistence was rarely mentioned; the idea would have come across as a naive and foolish dream.

Today, we still hear that there can never be peace between, say, Israel and Palestine, or between the United States of America and Iran. Between 1989 and 1994 (the year that Nelson Mandela was elected President, replacing F. W. de Klerk to the world’s joyful near-disbelief), two men proved the pessimists wrong.

Of course, South Africa did not become a perfect nation after apartheid ended. Of course, F. W. de Klerk was a highly flawed politician, and Nelson Mandela must have been flawed in a few ways too (though I must admit that I can’t think of any). Just today, I saw a blog post arguing that it was ridiculous to claim that Nelson Mandela was a pacifist. Maybe this is true. Likewise, for all I know, F. W. de Klerk may in his private soul have been as vile a racist as the preceding white Presidents of his racist nation (indeed, how do you allow yourself to become President of a racist nation through a whites-only election if you are not a racist?).

To all this I say: who cares? Both men were imperfect, and both men exceeded themselves to solve an utterly bleak dilemma.

Mandela and de Klerk appeared to like each other, though their relationship remained complex. They won a Nobel Peace Prize together, and were photographed repeatedly shaking hands or smiling at each other, so many times that they both must have gotten sick of it. But the world needs an endless supply of photographs of Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk shaking hands. These photographs can remind us that anybody who ever declares that peace is not possible — in any part of the world, no matter how troubled — doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

3 Responses

  1. Levi, you make a great point.
    Levi, you make a great point. I have been thinking along the same lines and you are the first I’ve seen write it anywhere.

    The ANC surely did not defeat the SA government militarily, nor could they have. They could have kept Mandela in jail for his whole life. De Klerk must have seen transition was best and right and the only transition was with someone like Mandela.

    As far as pacifism, Mandela was not. He was jailed for being part of the military wing of the ANC and refused to renounce violence while in prison as a condition for release. He only renounced it after his release.

    As far as his shortcomings, I could never understand why he embraced communist dictatorships that still held political prisoners. Cuba and China for example. How could he turn such a deaf ear and blind eye to those suffering in exactly the same way he was forced to suffer?

    I went to see him at the Oakland Coliseum in 1990 when he did what I call his freedom tour. KRS-1 performed and others and Mandela gave a speech. I believe he did this all over the country. It was fund raising, I’m sure, and politicizing. it was exciting.

    I was so disgusted when later as president he gave a freedom award to Jiang Zemin.

    Mandela though did keep the peace and that is more important. He did divorce his murderous wife as soon as possible as well.

    The ANC is becoming more and more a one party ruler of the country and we will see how things shape up without the figure of Mandela there anymore.

  2. This is incorrect on SOOOOO
    This is inaccurate on SOOOOO many levels.

    1.1 FW De Klerk did not initiate the talks of negotiation, – the talks were already being had by his predecessors already.
    1.2 Negotiating was the initiative of the African National Congress.

    Refer to Mr. Mandela’s response to De Klerk’s ambush speech at the CODESA’s proceedings – 20 December 1991, “He has told you – and I say he is less than frank, because he has not told you that it is the African National Congress, not the National Party, nor his Government that started this initiative. I have been discussing with Mr. Kobie Coetsee and other top Government officials since July 1986, when I was still in prison, asking that the ANC and the Government should sit down to explore a peaceful solution. As a result of the pressure of the people inside this country, and of the international community and as a result of persuasion from us, they eventually agreed to sit down to discuss with us.”

    2. Your sensational part about “History may also fail to capture how impossible it once seemed that peace could ever come to this violently torn nation, which had been suffering from the ravages of colonialism for centuries. Ten years before the referendum to end apartheid, it seemed likely that apartheid would never end peacefully.” is also inaccurate. The talks started in 1986 , the ANC and Mandela saw the possibility of a peaceful end to Apartheid and sort to makeit happen, lmost a decade prior to such a referendum – so it wasn’t an IMPOSSIBLE thought at all. Klerk was not about the “rightful rule of the majority”. Through out the negotiations he insisted on throwing commands of shared power, minority whites still having a vast say and he repeatedly agreed to one thing behind closed doors during the talks that would uplift South Africa and doing the opposite in reality – cowering back to his racist white minorty jabber.

    The hero here and the champion of a bright futured South Africa was Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress.

    I’ll revert you to another excerpt from the speech mentioned herein above, “I have tried very hard, in discussions with him, that firstly his weakness is to look at matters from the point of view of the National Party and the White minority in this country, not from the point of view of the population of South Africa. I have gone further to say to him, no useful purpose will be served by the ANC trying to undermine the National Party, because we wanted the National Party to carry the Whites in this initiative. And I have said to him on countless occasions that no useful purpose will be served by the National Party trying to undermine the African National Congress. He continues to do exactly that and we are going to stop him.”

    and in closing – De Klerk here had no real power and he knew that, The ticking time bomb of Apartheid’s end was upon him and he knew there is nothing he could do about it.
    a) the black majority in this country was always going to outnumber the white minority .
    b)Their savage killing and violent rule would no longer work because the black majority were getting armed aid, training and support from all over the world.

    He knew that his only option was to listen to the urging of the ANC, to sit down and try negotiate themselves into a somewhat still lavish existence in a country they had murred with the attrocities of killing, oppressing, stealing and savagely taking away human dignity from the custodians of this country.

    Nelson Mandela reminded him of this as well on 20 December 1991, ” I am prepared to work with him in spite of all his mistakes And I am prepared to make allowances because he is a product of apartheid. Although he wants these democratic changes, he has sometimes very little idea what democracy means and his statement here, many people will regard it as very harsh, where he is threatening us, where he says this cannot be done. He is forgetting that he cannot speak like a representative of a Government which has got legitimacy and which represents the majority of the population.
    These are statements which can only be used by somebody who represents the majority of the population in the country. He doesn`t represent us. He can`t talk to us in that language, but nevertheless I am prepared to work with him to see to it that these democratic changes are introduced in the country and we can only succeed if we are candid and open with one another. This type of thing, of trying to take advantage of the co-operation which we are giving hi,” willingly, is something extremely dangerous and I hope this is the last time he will do so.”

  3. Lwethu, thanks for this
    Lwethu, thanks for this information. I presume you’re right about these points, though I don’t think it invalidates the different point I was trying to establish, which is that mediocre politicians can sometimes help to produce great progress.

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