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Apartheid South Africa’s rulers better than terrorist ones north of the Limpopo

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Apartheid South Africa’s rulers better than terrorist ones north of the Limpopo

I was saddened by last week’s news of the death of Frederik Willem de Klerk, South Africa’s former president. My sadness was deepened by his video-recorded “last message”, a deathbed apology, “without qualification” for “the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to Black, Brown and Indians in South Africa.” 


Watching him deliver his message filled me with pity for a man who almost certainly recognized the vanity of all that he and his kinsmen had considered too important to share with non-European South Africans. With death rapidly approaching, the once confident and full-bodied last king of Boerland was a sad and frail man, desperately hoping to erase his name from the list of those who had made repression of fellow humans their reason for living. 


I saluted him for the courage to do what he did even as every breath was hard work, every muscle of speech barely able to retain its ebbing energy, the vitality of the man who once bestrode South Africa in full retreat.


I saluted him for the role he had played in the dismantling of formal apartheid, though I understood that his celebrated actions thirty years ago had been driven by the survival interests of his Afrikaner tribe, not the interests of most Africans in his homeland.


However, I wished he had gone the full distance to acknowledge that apartheid had been a crime against humanity. I wished he had taken full personal responsibility for his role in the evil policies that had reduced millions of people to complete despair and non-citizenship in their homeland. 


Now, it is hard to appreciate the criminally indefensible nature of apartheid without having lived under it. Even we who visited Apartheid South Africa multiple times during our exile in the Kingdom of Lesotho cannot claim authority on the subject. Yes, we witnessed and experienced the humiliation and dehumanization of apartheid. However, the pain, despair and long-term effects of the evil system were (and are) only known to the people of South Africa. 


It was therefore very heartening to hear de Klerk acknowledge the “total unacceptability” of apartheid. One wishes he had called it what it was – a crime against humanity. Yet one understands why de Klerk did not do so.


Whereas I do not excuse him for the crimes his political party and government committed, I understand the chains that bound this man and the mental fogginess that afflicted one who was nurtured by the culture of apartheid. 


Notwithstanding his claim of a conversion in the 1980s, complete with a realization that “apartheid was wrong and morally unjustifiable,” de Klerk’s actions that led to Nelson Mandela’s release and majority rule in South Africa were forced by a roadblock that obstructed the march of racial segregation and the dehumanization of the majority within dysfunctional puppet states called Bantustans. 


The roadblock was not so much the effort of the growing armed resistance inside South Africa, but a concerted international effort to use economic pressure to force the racist regime to the negotiating table. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, signalled the collapse of the communist Soviet empire whose threat had, hitherto, encouraged the capitalist world to shore up the wretched South African regime. 


With that threat gone, de Klerk and his colleagues recognised that they had lost leverage and would quickly become orphans. The future would be dark for European South Africans unless their leaders faced a stark reality that demanded pragmatic action, starting with political liberalization and release of Mandela and other freedom fighters.


To his credit, de Klerk was not burdened by a self-destructive stubbornness that would have made it impossible for a man like Pieter Willem Botha, his predecessor, to take bold steps that would lead to only one outcome – African majority rule. He changed his mind and, with his speech to the Apartheid Parliament on February 2, 1990, in which he lifted the ban on prohibited political parties and announced Mandela’s imminent release, he pulled South Africa from the brink of a looming catastrophe. 


Nevertheless, one recalls that de Klerk’s actions during the transition to majority rule that followed betrayed a man who was seeking a restructured but not a transformed South Africa. There again, I understood the constraints that disabled him from fully renouncing everything that apartheid had represented and done, and from standing side by side with Nelson Mandela to unequivocally reject all vestiges of European racism, domination, and control of South Africa.


Like all racists, tribalists and other ethnic chauvinists, de Klerk, a brilliant lawyer, and politician, was ultimately a small-minded and fearful man. Among the ethnically narrow-minded, fear of others masquerades as strength. An inferiority complex manifests through self-exaltation and repression of others. It is their nature, whether in South Africa or Uganda, whether in America or India. It is fear and ignorance that was at the heart of apartheid. It remains at the core of the racial and anti-foreigner tensions that persist in South Africa. 


Whether or not de Klerk eventually overcame this fear during his last years is very hard to tell. His failure to call apartheid what it really was – a crime against humanity, devoid of any redeeming qualities – suggests that he probably did not break free from the chains of the culture in which he had been born and raised. 


However, before we get carried away in our judgement of the architects and practitioners of apartheid, we should remember that most of Africa north of the Limpopo has no legitimate claim to being better than South Africa under the Boer regimes. Many African rulers who were supposedly fighting apartheid were, in fact, excellent students of the policy. They ruled and still rule with oppression, repression, anti-democratic behaviour, grand corruption, and prejudice against those who do not support them. Many of their territories have become rivers of blood and sources of millions of refugees.


Indeed, one of the most evident indictments of the regimes in so-called anti-apartheid Africa were the thousands of refugees who flocked south in search of refuge in Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and South Africa’s Bantustans of Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and Venda.  FW de Clerk and fellow practitioners of apartheid must have smiled. They were better rulers than the lot up north who terrorised and continue to terrorize their own people. 


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