FW de Klerk

FW de Klerk

If you ask people about Nelson Mandela they will rattle off plenty of facts and stories about the South African icon who became the first black President of the country. But mention de Klerk and, unless they have been doing South African Studies or have lived there a long time, you will get a blank stare. Which is not as it should be. FW rightly received the Nobel Peace Prize at the same time as Mandela. Which is what he deserved.

I last saw FW, who has died at the age of 85, when he visited Singapore some ten or fifteen years ago. He was still the steady, reliable man I had met briefly in Johannesburg back in 1975. He had made the decisions that allowed South Africa to transfer power from aparthaid-based white power to Mandela and a government more – though not fully – representative of the people of this most beautiful country.

The history of the transfer of power has been well recorded and I don’t need to do that again here. There is one decision that FW made that I think has been undervalued. His decision to release Nelson Mandela from prison was a brave one because it involved releasing about ninety other political prisoners at the same time. This strengthened the African National Congress (ANC)  tremendously. So much so that it began terrorist activities again. This involved FW having to make the most difficult decision of his political life – whether he should negotiate with Mandela as the head of the ANC, and therefore technically a terrorist. The voices against his doing so were strong and tenacious, sometimes to the point of threatening.

But he made what I am sure most people now think was the right decision and went ahead with discussions with Mandela, a formidable debater with his position of both numerical and moral power. I have heard FW talk of this about three times – and I have heard the other side, too, though not so often. But to me his decision made him a leader in the true sense of the word. He took a risk and it worked. The transfer of power in South Africa was peaceful.

It remains the most beautiful country I have ever visited. It’s not just the stunning  scenery and the approachable wildlife. The people of South Africa are themselves beautiful, whatever their political leanings. From the raw, hard farming and mining to the skilful preservation of the stunning nature, there are so many good people in South Africa that it will win in the end. May that end be not too far away.

I remember all my South African friends frequently and wish them every success. I cried when my plane left the ground on my last flight out of South Africa. I suspected that I might never go back. But my heart is still there in Boschendal and the vineyards and wineries. And in Rhodes Cottage where my wife and I spent the most enchanting weekend we ever had together.

And I remember FW and thank him for gently but firmly taking a frightening decision.

May he rest in peace.

John Bittleston