For some in South Africa, FW de Klerk was a great statesman – the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped end the system of legalised racism which he inherited.
For others, he reaped enormous benefits from the same system and deserved to be prosecuted for its numerous crimes.
He was, in fact, a man of many parts.
The 85-year-old former apartheid president of South Africa. During his presidency, security forces used extreme violence against black South Africans who simply wanted an end to the country’s white minority’s rule – fighting for Nelson Mandela’s and other leaders’ release from prison.
Apartheid was not long ago, and it is still very much alive in South Africa, not least because no one has been criminally prosecuted for the violence of the time. Crimes were committed, and their victims could be found, but there appeared to be no criminals.
Some believe De Klerk could and should have done more to change that – to ensure accountability for what the apartheid system did to black people’s lives and the violence of his government, and even to face justice himself.
After all, he had been on the inside for decades, with a front-row seat to the apartheid machinery at work and had benefited from it for many years.
‘Moment of change’
De Klerk, a trained lawyer who had been a National Party MP since 1972, had a firm understanding of the party that created apartheid and found a way to rise to the top by working within its structures, though he was undoubtedly more moderate in his views than his predecessors.
Perhaps it was because of this that he was able to carefully steer even the most fervent supporters of the apartheid system within his party to the negotiating table, where Mandela was offering a chance to help rebuild the country – a negotiated way out of what many thought would have been a bloodbath.
His contribution to the democratic transition was recognised by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Foundation:
“The late FW De Klerk was a pivotal figure in South African history.” At a time when not all of his colleagues saw the country’s future trajectory unfolding in the same way, he recognised the need for change and demonstrated the determination to act on it.”
The custodians of Nelson Mandela’s legacy, with whom De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize, pointedly described him as having a “big” but “uneven” legacy.
De Klerk chose to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC) at a time when many countries and former allies had abandoned the National Party and their government was on the verge of collapse. According to sceptics, he was more of a pragmatist than an idealist because he had little choice.
Mandela stated in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, that “despite his seemingly progressive actions, Mr de Klerk was by no means the great emancipator.”
“He did not institute any of his reforms with the intention of removing himself from power.” He made them for the exact opposite reason: to ensure Afrikaner power in a new dispensation.”
‘Coward’ and ‘sell-out’
However, this decision alienated him from many in his party and years later some in his Afrikaner community still saw De Klerk as a traitor.
A few years ago I visited the whites-only town of Orania – home to people disenchanted with the “rainbow nation” dream, choosing instead to live in isolation.
De Klerk was missing – erased from their list of “heroes” there on a hill, in the small town where a flag inspired by the old apartheid standard flew and bronze statues of past apartheid government leaders were proudly displayed.
People I spoke with saw him as a coward who had sold them out.
Even as he battled illness, De Klerk appeared to be uneasy about his own place in South Africa.
In a video message released by his foundation shortly after his death, a frail-looking De Klerk stated that, while he once supported the “separate development” project known as apartheid, he “changed completely” in the 1980s.
He called his change of heart a conversion and stated that it was the reason he agreed to negotiate with Mandela and other political leaders.
He went on to say that in the years since the oppressive regime’s demise, he had done everything he could to continue to condemn it, even in the face of scepticism.
“Let me today in this last message repeat: 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,” De Klerk said in a video dubbed his “final message”.
The legacy of apartheid has resulted in millions of people living in poverty and persistent inequality for the majority of South Africans.
Some here believe that redress has not occurred because there is no shared acknowledgement that apartheid has gone unpunished – De Klerk’s death raises uneasy questions about how to deal with this.
“In 1984 and 1985, De Klerk sat in on a State Security Council meeting where they discussed the fate of Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata,” said Lukhanyo Calata of the Fort Calata Foundation.
Fort Calata, his father, was an anti-apartheid activist who was murdered by apartheid police in 1985, along with Matthew Goniwe and two other men – the so-called Cradock Four.
He has been working for years to bring them justice, and in June of this year he approached the courts to assist in the prosecution of apartheid-era murders. A decision is still pending.
“It is tragic that yet another apartheid criminal has died without having accounted for the crimes he assisted in committing against our humanity,” Mr Calata said.