F.W. de Klerk
On the stage of world history, F.W. de Klerk stood in the
harsh glare of the footlights and received both applause and
jeers for his role in ending apartheid in South Africa. Last
week, he took the stage at Shriver Hall to explain how it came to
pass that his life intersected this most controversial historical
The former South African president was the first speaker in "Origins of Conflict and the Journey to Peace," the 1997 Woodrow Wilson International Symposium series sponsored by undergraduates in international relations. Although their first choice, Winnie Mandela, was forced to cancel her U.S. tour due to a scheduling conflict, de Klerk more than adequately satisfied the symposium's goal to bring current issues to the attention of students and the public.
From the very beginning it seems that de Klerk was destined to become a prominent figure in the political arena. He was born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936, to a well-known Afrikaner political family with a history of public service in South Africa. De Klerk's great-grandfather had been a senator; his father, the late Jan de Klerk, served in several cabinet posts and as president of the Senate; and an uncle, J.G. Strijdom, was prime minister from 1954 to 1958.
Many may agree that the path to his political career was paved by his forefathers, but de Klerk took some drastic steps of his own along the way. He graduated with bachelor of arts and bachelor of law degrees from the Potchefstroom University for Higher Christian Education, where he was active in student affairs. After practicing law in Vereeniging, Transvaal, he won the local seat in Parliament for the then-ruling National Party in 1972. In 1978, he was appointed to the South African Cabinet. He was responsible for six different cabinet offices between 1978 and 1989.
De Klerk's most profound step was taken on February 2, 1990, when he announced that he was going to change the face of history in South Africa.
"We all had to come to accept that there must be one South Africa, one country with one constitution so that we could ensure a better life for all the citizens of South Africa," de Klerk said.
Not only did he speed up the elimination of apartheid, lift the ban on organizations such as the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, he also introduced a set of initiatives that led directly to South Africa's first-ever universal franchise election in 1994. But the most remarkable change that the whole world still remembers is his release of South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela. Mandela's release was indeed a moment of truth.
After Mandela was elected president in 1994, de Klerk received one of the two executive deputy president posts because of the number of votes won by the National Party in the same election. But with victory came a number of problems.
"South Africa was a country plagued by violence, racial tensions, international sanctions, a sagging economy, and we were becoming increasingly isolated," de Klerk said.
Even though de Klerk did not want to paint a rosy picture for the 350 or so students and faculty who attended, he did suggest that the United States should look at South Africa as a model for change. Although de Klerk has never admitted that apartheid in South Africa was morally wrong, he has in the past apologized for the ramifications of that system.
"We needed to create a new South Africa where the citizens could enjoy economic and technological resources and where racial tensions would be narrowed. The problems of South Africa needed to be solved through genuine negotiations," he said.
One of de Klerk's most profound moments in his journey to peace was in 1993. He was co-recipient with Nelson Mandela of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for the leading role he played in the democratization of South Africa. He was also named Time magazine's "Man of the Year."
Promoting multiculturalism and diversity was the best antidote in de Klerk's eyes that would turn South Africa around. However, multiculturalism has a different meaning in South Africa than in the United States. Multiculturalism in South Africa entails separate states, separate schools and separate native languages so that there is no dominant group within the society. For the United States this view of multicul-turalism serves as a reminder of the '60s "separate but equal" institutions that were dismantled by the Supreme Court.
Basically, the balance of power in South Africa has been shifted from the hands of 17 percent of the population, who are the white Afrikaners, to 83 percent of the population, the black South Africans. With this shift has come a sense of fear and alienation by the whites. As a result many of the Afrikaners are seeking protection by the newly implemented constitution for their rights and interests.
With support from the ANC, de Klerk promises to "safeguard the interests of all the people, preserve languages and cultures, and prevent discrimination at all levels of government," he said. "We are cutting at the very roots of ignorance, fear and alienation. This is an enormous challenge. There was no single recipe for achieving peace. There was no simplistic journey," he said.
De Klerk remembered the struggles and the conflicts. He also reminisced about his own journey to achieving peace for South Africa. He said, "I would hope that history will recognize that I, together with all those who supported me, have shown courage, integrity, honesty at the moment of truth in our history. That we took the right turn."
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