Interview: FW de Klerk

"I go on because I believe so deeply in the need for a realignment in South African politics."
How can you be dedicated to non-racialism and be an admirer of Verwoerd? FOCUS investigates the world of FW de Klerk.

Mr de Klerk, you have been a Cabinet Minister, the President of the country, Deputy President and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Now you are merely the leader of an opposition party. Why do you go on?

Obviously it is not a question of ambition that drives me on. I go on because I believe so deeply in the need for a realignment in South African politics and especially the need to establish a multi-party democracy. The National Party is the best vehicle - perhaps the only vehicle - able to achieve this.

Your whole career seemed to lead up to the great change of February 2, 1990, but presumably that change took shape over time?

Certainly, it was not a Damascus road experience, it was not a sudden impulse. It wasa process of which I was only part along with other colleagues in the NP. It started in the early 1980s when the NP decided to embark on reform, a step-by-step process beginning with the 1983 constitution and then the final break made from separate development in 1986 when the NP accepted a single citizenship and an equal vote for all South Africans together with the removal of all forms of discrimination. What I have done should be seen merely as a continuation of a process begun before me and with many other participants.

But in the end you merely came round to agreeing with what Helen Suzman had been saying for decades.

Well, yes, there is some truth in that. But the changes could only be made by the National Party, which is a people's party. The NP could take people with it in a way that the Progressive Party and all its successors could not, both because it is a rich man's party and because it is small. Could Vorster at the height of his popularity have been able to make those changes that we made in 1990? No. It was a matter of the ripeness of time for change and the ability to carry the people along with one.

You have cited the growing moral imperatives involved in making such a change. Yet even to be a child growing up here in the 1950s was to witness the everyday indignities and cruelties of the apartheid system. If one was finally to acknowledge the moral rottenness of that system, surely it was always morally bad and not just by 1990? Moreover, the policy was always unworkable. It was always quite clear that demography alone would make majority rule inevitable in the end and that therefore apartheid was a complete blind alley.

You must realise that we, as young NP back benchers, argued throughout this period as to what action we should take. How could we retain what we represented as whites and Afrikaners, our freedom and self determination, while giving justice and full rights to all other people? That was the problem. We had a deep belief that we could build a little Europe here in Africa and that we were simply one nation out of many here. Within the NP many of us were very critical that not enough was being done to create viable nation states for those other nations. As young back benchers we tried to force the consolidation of Bophuthatswana and KwaZulu. We were critical when the Tomlinson Report was not fully accepted. We wanted a fair solution. We never had a good answer with regard to coloureds and Indians but we were conscious of the problem even then. Even Verwoerd agonised about these groups in his letters to Menzies, saying in the end they will be with us but if they come over to us too soon we will never succeed with the creation of black nation states. But these ideas did not fully materialise and we ended up with a morally indefensible system. From that point on I and my colleagues realised that it would have to go.

At one point in your negotiations with the ANC, one of your negotiators said that getting the wording right on every clause was less important than building a long-term relationship with the ANC so that power sharing could become a permanent reality. This strategy now seems to have failed completely. There is no long-term relationship, indeed, power sharing has not even lasted half way through the government's first term and the man with whom the special relationship was cultivated, Cyril Ramaphosa, is no longer an ANC front bencher. Was not your strategy a mistake?

That was not really our attitude. We obviously wanted maximum cooperation but we certainly wanted the right wording as far as we could get it. We are not naive and we know that you can never bank on what current personalities say or do.

Many Afrikaners seem to feel that the implicit deal was that Afrikaners would give up power completely and without any tricks and would even show a degree of deference to the new rulers. In return for that, what they wanted were binding guarantees for the cultural and linguistic survival of Afrikaners as a group. Moreover, although they do not want to say this, many of them feel that under apartheid these rights, at least, were guaranteed to other national groups and that the least they can demand is the same for themselves now. Now, however, there is hardly an Afrikaans high school in the country without parallel medium English instruction. And the same process is under way at universities.

We always wanted to achieve the maximum degree of cultural self determination. The language is fundamental and we want mother tongue education for all who desire it. We believed that we had built sufficient guarantees into the Constitution but this now appears not to be so. Partly because of court decisions but also because the ANC is interpreting the constitution as narrowly as possible and is not making any bonafide effort to live up to those constitutional promises. Mandela seems to understand the issue of language and culture better than most but he does not seem able to persuade his key leaders and ministers to see things the same way. I agree that the feeling you talk about exists but the basis has been laid for all groups, including Afrikaners, to have a meaningful and sufficient degree of cultural protection.

One result of what you have achieved is that South Africa is on the road to becoming an English speaking country. This too makes many Afrikaners uneasy.

The Freedom Front can sound good on this issue but they are counter-productive in the end because there is ultimately a racial basis to their approach. The NP continues to represent the majority of Afrikaners and the majority are comfortable in the new South Africa. They are not demanding exclusivity. Parallel medium schools are acceptable but where schools are full and demand justifies single medium schools then these have to be allowed and the Constitution agrees with that. It is true that there will a substantial reduction in the number of single medium schools and Afrikaners accept that. But we are fundamentally against the deliberate breaking down of existing schools and other institutions where they are meeting an existing demand. As you will know, many Afrikaans school actually have waiting lists.

Surely you have a problem as an opposition leader. On the one hand you want to represent your constituency but you also represent the transition. If the present government succeeds then it will get the credit. If, on the other hand, it fails then you will receive part of the blame because you were the architect of transition.

This problem is receding by the day. The longer the ANC is in government, the less tenable is the excuse that an NP can be blamed for everything that goes on. As for my constituency, one can always remind them that whatever happens things would be far worse today if we had not made the changes that we did in 1990. We had to do what we did and we achieved a two-third majority in a referendum on those changes from our supporters. But we are not satisfied with just keeping our present constituency. We want to dramatically expand our support base and to change its demographic composition. We want to make a dramatic breakthrough to the black electorate. We are already the majority party of all the non-black groups and we are now targeting millions of blacks who voted ANC but who, we are confident, believe in the same things as we do and share our fundamental values.

The ANC will not take kindly to that.

Yes, but the ANC is still not a party. It is deeply affected by its own transition and it has lost its raison d'etre. It was kept together by the need for the struggle against apartheid and yet in the end it did not even have the satisfaction of overthrowing apartheid - it was we who removed it. Now they must become a party, now they must make choices between socialism and free enterprise, for example. They cannot continue to compromise on everything. We have faced our moment of truth but for them the moment of truth still lies ahead. But we are not waiting for the ANC to split. We will take the initiative and we will shake the political and patty system of this country.

How will you do that?

One scenario is that a new political movement will develop, but either way there has to be a complete realignment. Provided that the values


of such a movement are such that we could fully share in it, we are ready even to cease to exist in our present form. But that is future music: for now the main task for us is to grow.

What about cooperation with the DP?

We can cooperate with the DP on issues but there is a problem if the party nearest to us finds it easier to seek its growth at our expense. For our part, we are not interested in destroying the DP simply in order to gain another one or two percent of the vote. We are looking for 30% growth.

But the NP does not look fitted to opposition. It is still the DP that makes all the running in this respect. The NP is not only less vocal in Parliament but in the end you voted for all the budget votes and you agreed to having committee meetings behind closed doors on the Publications Bill, and so forth. Basically, the DP seems to be better at opposition than you, perhaps because it has more experience of it.


Well, the DP has more experience of opposition but it also has more experience of remaining a small party. We don't just want to be an effective opposition or any kind of opposition. What we want is to return to power and we want to redefine the whole political scene. In South African history only Jan Smuts has succeeded in putting together a movement which re-conquered power after it had lost it. But that is what we need to do. We will achieve this realignment by a break towards a value based and value driven system of the sort which informs the typical mainstream parties seen in Europe. Already, though, we have had considerable success in Opposition. Under our pressure the ANC has made a 180 degree turn on economic policy. So there is not really a policy problem here: the ANC has accepted the NP's economic policies. The problem is not policy. It is a problem of management and implementation.

Smuts was an Afrikaner leader who resisted the British but then made peace with them - to a point where he was attacked as a sell-out by more intransigent Afrikaners. You are in exactly this position, Mr de Klerk. You resisted the ANC, then concerted with them, and are now attacked by your own intransigent spirits. Do you find Smuts a useful comparison?

Well, all comparisons are odious. I am often compared with Gorbachev but the comparison is superficial and there are also problems in your comparison with Smuts. Obviously one can draw lines but there are differences in motives, All I can say is that I have a high respect for all previous NP leaders. Some of them were giants. General Herzog was great man - if you read his speeches you will see him arguing, agonising and struggling with the long-term question of what should be done and what would happen with black South Africans.

But he hardly solved that, and nor did any other NP leader.

Yes, but one cannot understand South African history without remembering that the heart of the first 50 years of the NP's existence was its commitment to full self-determination and to bring the country to a point where the last trace of colonialism had been removed. This was the dominating thrust of Afrikaner nationalism all the way until a Republic had been achieved. Only then did attention and emphasis shift to the real problem, which was how to accommodate black and brown South Africans.

The great fear in the rest of the world is that South Africa could slither down the same slippery slope as the rest of Africa. Do you not fear this?

We will not go the route taken by the rest of Africa. Not for a moment do I believe that. We cannot be compared with any other African country. The key reason why this is so is the existence of our own private sector. Nowhere else on the continent do we have a country which has its own major indigenous banks and financial institutions, based on the efforts and savings of its own people. Nowhere else do you find big industrial conglomerates like Anglo-American and Rembrandt, created over the years by our own people, our own efforts and our own money. That means that our entire economic and social structure is different. It will be important that this private sector plays its full part with regard to the development of a multi-party political system, too. To be sure, we may go through difficult periods but in the end I am confident that common sense will prevail and that this will be because of the inherent imperatives stemming from our own managerial and financial capacities.

What do you believe is the greatest danger?

Without a doubt the possibility of our drifting towards a de facto one party state. If we, the Opposition leaders, fail to break the log jam that exists in the political thinking of the electorate, which is now based on outmoded prejudices, that could happen. The greatest task of the NP is to become fully non-racial and to make non-racialism work in a South Africa whose party system has been wholly realigned.

But you have in effect already conceded the next election. You talk only of regaining power in 2004.

We do not concede the next election. What we have done is to set precise targets. We want to hold and increase our position in the Western Cape in 1999. We want to win the Northern Cape. We want to bring the ANC below 50% in Gauteng and thus hold the balance of power there and do the same in KwaZulu-Natal. That, together with reasonable NP growth in the other provinces, should be able to bring the ANC nationally below the 50% line. We believe this is reasonably achievable.

But to talk about a one party state is to suggest that the ANC has a propensity for that. Do you believe that they would really be willing to accept defeat in an election?

Well, we dearly cannot depend on the ANC 's internal democracy which is already breaking down. As for not accepting the rules of democracy, well, we have many instruments available to prevent the one party state, all the guarantees which are in the constitution. If these were wilfully ignored by the majority party this would bring the full pressure of the international community against them even more strongly than the international community acted against apartheid.