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Constitutional overhaul as seen from the inside: An interview with F.W. de Klerk of South Africa

F.W. de Klerk is credited, along with Nelson Mandela, with ending South Africa’s long-entrenched system of apartheid, or mandated racial discrimination. Riding a wave of far-reaching but long-delayed reform, his five-year presidency was devoted to hauling South Africa out of its troubled past and into what his foundation’s website calls the «miracle of South Africa’s peaceful and democratic transformation.» President de Klerk was in Athens to deliver the keynote address to the Association of Chief Executive Officers (EASE). He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his experiences. You were raised in a political family and chose politics over law and academia as a career. I was on my way to become a professor at my old alma mater in Administrative Law, when suddenly in the constituency in which I used to practice law the member of Parliament became an ambassador, and the people came to me and said, no, no, you must represent us in Parliament. I was at a crossroads in my career, but I decided to do the political side of things, and I never looked back. I really found great fulfillment in my political career. What was so appealing about the profession of politics in those days, before South Africa was truly a pluralistic society? Already then, it was clear that South Africa would have to embark upon a road of fundamental change. South Africa is in a sense a hybrid country – fully developed but also a developing country. And in such countries I think the challenges for political leaders are greater and more dynamic. In highly developed countries, political leaders are maintaining an already developed system. In a developing country, you have to think creatively. You have tremendous stumbling blocks on the way toward a better life for all the people of the country. In South Africa, after more than 10 years of full and free and fair elections, our unemployment runs at 25 to 40 percent. So there are great challenges for political leadership beyond merely maintaining a good system. You came in with a reputation as something of a moderate, not exactly as a bold reformer. Yet within months you were taking some unprecedented steps. Were you a closet reformer all along, waiting for your chance, or was it a case of coming into high office and realizing delay was impossible? One acquires a sort of reputation in politics. And I came from the north, where the ultra-conservative element in the old National Party used to be the strongest. There was a big split in the National Party in 1982. And they broke away and established what they called the Conservative Party. On the party-political side, I constantly had to fight against an onslaught from the right, and that process… gave me the image of being very conservative myself. I was constantly reassuring our power base that we’re not ultra-liberal, we’re not selling out their interests. So I achieved this reputation. But, during that whole period, I served on a very powerful cabinet committee to work out a new constitutional regime. And I was part of planning a resolution that was accepted by the National Party’s congress of 1986, saying that we abandon the policy of apartheid, and that we accept the vision of one united South Africa, one person one vote, with all forms of discrimination to be scrapped from the statute books. But, we kept the protection of our various cultural minorities, with effective controls over the misuse of power. My predecessor [P.W. Botha], after this, didn’t fully pursue this new vision. When I became leader, I saw it as my task to put into practice what we had already decided in principle should be done. Mandela At least twice before you came to office, the release of Nelson Mandela was discussed, between 1986 and 1989. Why did it not come to pass in practice in those three years? There were two specific efforts to release Mandela. But on both occasions, P.W. Botha wanted to attach conditions to it. On the one occasion, he said that Mandela could be released provided that he agree to settle in the Transkei, which is his home territory. Mandela refused. On another occasion, P.W. Botha said Mandela can be released, provided that he reject any form of political violence, swearing off the armed struggle of the ANC. Mandela refused. Why do you think he refused? Because at that stage, the official policy of the ANC was to actually increase the armed struggle. They would now target civilian targets. If he accepted [the offer of conditional release], he would have been acting counter to the official policy of his party. He, however, quite some time before this, started talking on a confidential basis with some senior officials…. about the need for negotiations. He was given the green light to write and communicate with the ANC leadership in exile, and when I became leader, my party decided that there should be fundamental change, and the ANC, also under the influence of Mandela, realized that they will not have a victory through the barrel of a gun. And their support base of the USSR as an expansionist world power fell away with the coming down of the Berlin Wall. All this gave us a window of opportunity for dynamic and dramatic initiatives. You and Nelson Mandela have been described as «chained at the ankle,» yet you had barely met the man by early 1990, as I understand it. How important was it for you to establish a personal bond with him, and what were the elements of that bond? Yeah, I had only met him twice before he was released. In December 1989 the sole purpose was for us to get the opportunity to look each other in the eye and to get a feel for the other person. We could report back to our constituencies that we think we can do business with each other. I found him a man of integrity, a man with a strong personality. There was great sincerity in what he was saying. I think he came to the same conclusion about me. That established a sort of mutual trust, which lasted for a long time, which came under great stress during the whole negotiation period, when we were also political opponents, but also because of the ongoing violence – violence against the official policy of our side, and against the official policy laid down by Mandela. The second meeting was when I advised him on which date he would be released. It was an interesting anecdote. He immediately objected and said, «It’s too soon!» I said, «Why?» And he said, «We need more time to prepare!» And I said: «You know, Mr Mandela, we will negotiate in future after your release, but on this we won’t negotiate. You’ve been in jail long enough, you will be released on that day, we can negotiate on the place and time, but not on the date.» In the initial phases, in exploratory meetings, this feeling that we could basically trust each other increased, it grew. And all this resulted in a broad agreement on the basic values and processes in order, through compromise, to reach a new constitutional dispensation. You were also running a government and heading a party at the same time, and vice versa for Mr Mandela… … Except that he wasn’t running a government. He was running a party and heading the negotiations. Who do you think had the tougher task in bringing their people along? I think it’s difficult to speculate on that. I no doubt had a very tough task, but I think likewise with him. Still today, there is a feeling among the ANC that too much was given away in the negotiations. I think this will, in the end, result in some sort of split in the ANC alliance. The cement that used to keep them together has gone. Are you surprised that that hasn’t gone further in the last 10 years, that the ANC hasn’t gone through any formal split? No, I’m not surprised. Political leaders have a tendency to try and keep their flock together. You said in your Nobel acceptance speech in 1993 that the key factor was a «fundamental change of heart.» Yes. The [main] change was the realization that we had failed to bring about justice through the concept of separate development. And that realization – that we ended up with a system where a minority suppressed or ruled over a majority, where the basic freedoms and human rights of people were being infringed by the system – was wrong. It was morally unjustifiable, and the conviction which came to me and my fellow leaders in the National Party, was that we could not build, also for our people, a secure future based on injustice to the majority of the people. At what point did this change come about for you personally? I did not have a «Damascus Road experience,» one evening where I fell asleep thinking that separate development was the right road to go, and the next morning saying it’s all wrong. All of us went through phases. The first phase was to «soften» apartheid, to give segregation and separate development a more human face, removing some of the strident aspects of it, changing society into a more open society, but nonetheless adhering to the constitutional goal of separate nation-states. The next phase was when we brought about, in 1982, fundamental constitutional changes, bringing the people of mixed origin, and Indian South Africans into a three-chamber Parliament, and into the mainstream of politics. Part of the reform program was to offer an election to blacks outside the homelands. Under the influence of the ANC, they turned that down. And we realized that much more dramatic constitutional reforms were necessary. We then went through four years of consultation, planning and investigation. It led to a moment of truth where you had to say: «I can’t reform this policy. I have to abandon it and replace it with a totally new vision. We have to make a quantum leap, and we have to get out of the corner into which history, and we ourselves, have put us.» Sanctions You’ve mentioned many times that external pressure was not decisive. … But it played a role. How much of a role did it play? Well, at times it was totally counterproductive. In 1977, for instance, the platform in the general election was «who are the Americans to tell us what to do?» On the basis of anti-American sentiment, the Nationalist Party under John Vorster won its biggest victory ever. Secondly, it inhibited our economic growth. In the 1960s, extremely strong economic growth led to a tremendous influx of black South Africans into the cities. All South Africans became integrated into one economy. Third – and it applies generally – is sanctions usually hit the poorest of the poor, the very people they are meant to help. But it made us realize that we were more and more isolated. It kept us on our toes. What sort of impact did the Rhodesian problem have? We believed that Rhodesia under [Prime Minister Ian] Smith adopted the wrong attitude. They clung to power without offering the Shonas and Matabeles full political rights and self-determination. Secondly, I would say that Rhodesia – but much more later on, Namibia – made us realize that the only way in which to resolve a deteriorating situation would be taking the initiative on negotiations at an early stage. They could have made a better deal at an earlier stage in their negotiations, and I think we learned a lesson from it. Let me ask you briefly about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At one point, you threatened legal action against them. I took them to court, and I won the court case. Twice I had to take them to court! Because they were trying to implicate me in an unjust manner in incidents where I was not involved. You personally, or your government? Me personally. They were trying to say that it was official government policy to assassinate people and to murder them. And I maintain, still today, that I was never part of any decisions, in the government or the state security council on which I served, which took any policy decisions which could, in a reasonable way, be interpreted as a license to, in cold blood, assassinate people. Yes, military action was authorized, but assassination and murder was never part of the policy of which I was part. They then tried to say I was not prepared to accept overall responsibility for what was done under the National Party government. I have accepted publicly, in front of the Truth Commission, overall responsibility, but for all decisions taken by the government, and all acts committed, in terms of any reasonable interpretation, of the policies and decisions of the country, but not for that which was in conflict [with it.] The continuance of elements in the security forces, underground elements, in political violence was in direct conflict with the very things I was standing for! So I won both cases. Helping Africa Many have essentially written off Sub-Saharan Africa as a lost cause. … There is a lot of Afro-pessimism. Yes. Is there validity in that criticism? I would have liked to see more self-assessment by the former colonial powers, with regard to the way in which decolonization took place. I think there is reason for them to accept residual responsibility. In none of the former colonies they left behind democratic systems… Aid in the post-colonial period, while well intended, was misdirected. It should have been focused on specific projects and should have ensured that the money was used for the purpose to which it was given. So, I really think there is a joint responsibility. I’m not exonerating African leaders or justifying what dictators like Idi Amin and others have done. But the developed world did not prepare the ground properly before taking decolonization to its full consequences. Where do you stand on the issue of sovereignty versus stepping in to defend human rights and nation building? I think a sort of prescriptive intervention from outside is quite often as counterproductive as sanctions are. I firmly believe that the best way in which to get a country from being a failed state to one with good prospects is to convince the leaders to take the right initiatives and to do the right thing. I think a «Big Brother» attitude of the strong nations of the world toward Africa will achieve nothing. A partnership with African leaders is the most viable route. I have also a foundation focusing on promoting dialogue, to prevent us from falling back into old patterns, to concentrate on upholding and strengthening the constitutional accord which we have built. Internationally, I have started an organization called the Global Leadership Foundation. It’s registered, in order to underline its neutrality and objectivity, in Switzerland. We have at the moment 20 former presidents, prime ministers and a few senior ministers, all retired and no longer with any political ambitions, who are working together in offering, not for profit, quiet, discreet and confidential advice to leaders in the developing world. We are not a secret organization, but they want to keep it very private and discreet. Do you make the first step, or do you wait to be asked? We are in a learning curve on that. I think as we build up a track record we will be asked. In one instance, people in the private sector came to us and said: «We really think this country can benefit from objective advice. Can we help?» In another instance, an organization involved more on the charitable side came to us on the issue of governance. So it’s going to work in different ways. We don’t want to compete with anybody doing good work anywhere. Our claim to integrity is that we don’t represent any specific interests. We have desisted in trying to get very large donations, so nobody can say, «You are pushing this specific interest of this company or that foundation.»