From the blog

Archive Interview – FW de Klerk, January 1999

FW de Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa, died today. Here’s our Hot Press interview with him from January 1999, two years after he retired from politics. At the time he was promoting his autobiography The Last Trek – A New Beginning.


“Hot Press eh?” booms FW De Klerk when we meet in his Shelbourne Hotel suite. “You’re the right-wing publication? I’m teasing!”

It’s not easy to predict how history will assess Frederik Willem De Klerk’s role in the emergence of an equal South Africa. Although undoubtedly a major factor in the demise of apartheid, he was also vehemently opposed to sanctions and the African National Congress’s “unnecessary and counter-productive” armed struggle. And no matter how many reforms De Klerk implemented, one can’t forget that he also participated in a regime responsible for immeasurable injustice. Some men change history, some men are chosen by the times as instruments for change. De Klerk will most likely be seen as the latter, the intermediate link between Botha and Mandela, a transitional but important figure.

De Klerk was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on March 18th 1936, of Dutch ancestry, although one of his direct ancestors was Indian, a fact seldom referred to when he was a child. The product of a conservative religious background, De Klerk followed his father into politics after pursuing a successful career as a lawyer, and became MP for Vereeniging from 1972 to 1989. He held several ministerial posts (including environmental planning, post and telecommunications, internal affairs and education) before becoming leader of the National Party and State President, succeeding PW Botha in ’89.

Soon after being named president, De Klerk began dismantling many of the provisions of apartheid, setting the stage for the 1994 multiracial general election. In February 1990 he lifted a 30-year ban on the ANC and other black liberation parties, and freed Nelson Mandela from prison. Three years later, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, and when the ANC leader was elected State President, De Klerk became Executive Deputy President, and held this position until 1996 when the National Party withdrew from the Government of National Unity, and he became the leader of the official Opposition. He retired from politics in 1997.

Peter Murphy: As a reformer, did it cause you any personal disquiet to go against your political heritage, to the extent of repealing laws that your father had put on the books?

FW de Klerk: No. I really believed in what I was doing, and in my inner self I was convinced on the basis of what my father said, and his reactions during the last few years of his life, that he himself understood the need for change, and that he had also in the last years of his life, grown with the changing times. And I think I would’ve basically had his support for what I did.

In the early 70’s you were involved in an initiative to modernise South Africa’s censorship and publication laws, ostensibly to eradicate pornography. What kind of works were banned during this period?

I was not directly involved in banning. We had a censor board which viewed all films, put down age restrictions, said some of them are totally unacceptable. Books were only on complaint, in other words, there wasn’t ever a situation where each and every book published must first go through a process – that applied only to films. But when complaints were received from whichever source, then it would be looked upon. In the field of political works, I can’t think of a specific one. I think we were much too strict – one should cultivate a much more open debate, and that open debate was not helped along by keeping some works propounding views on specific philosophies out of the hands of students.

Wilbur Smith’s first novel When The Lion Feeds was banned because of some sexual descriptions of sex scenes. It was taken to the supreme court and was allowed then in a very important case, and I think the judge took the right decision. But also, there’s been development, and I think the pendulum can swing too far. Somehow or another I think a government has a duty to ensure that at least the really dirty stuff should not be readily available. Moral standards, as with law and order, are to an extent also the responsibility of the government.

On the subject of moral standards, Sun City had an international reputation as a “pleasure centre”, a gay holiday haven, and a city where what would’ve been considered “deviant” sexual practices, as well as gambling, were tolerated because they were a source of foreign revenue.

I don’t think it was ever seen on the sex side really, but the churches were strongly against gambling, and gambling was unlawful in South Africa. Sun City was erected because in terms of South African law, Bophuthatswana – although the rest of the world didn’t – was recognised as a free sovereign country. As we recognised France and America, we recognised Bophuthatswana. And as an independent country, they can do what they want. And now, with the new dispensation, all the other provinces and cities say, “But we also want the same facilities,” so the pendulum has now swung to the side where casinos will be spread across South Africa.

When you say “tolerated”, it was because they had the right to do so. It did bring in a lot of revenue for that specific country, and actually Bophuthatswana was quite well run, and most of the revenue that they got was used in upgrading the education, the housing and so on, so in the end they made good use of the income. It wasn’t a sort of an undercover thing that we said, “Okay, have a casino because we want you to earn money” – there was a lot of pressure on us from the churches to step in and do something about it, but we said, “No, they are independent, and it’s their right to do what they want.”

You have stated that you believe sanctions to be more of an impediment than an aid to reform. When trade was carried out in breach of these sanctions, say, in the case of coal being imported to Ireland via one-day stopovers in European ports, did you view those responsible as allies or as profiteers?

Well, to survive, we had to circumvent the sanctions, so it was almost economic warfare. And yes, in the process we had to cooperate with some agents who made it their business to create channels for selling our goods or buying whatever we needed, or what we couldn’t buy within the frame of the sanctions. In the end, the financial sanctions – at a price of course – were quite effectively circumvented. When I was a young minister of mineral and energy affairs, we had enough oil shored up, coupled with our own production of oil from coal, to withstand an absolute blanket successful embargo on oil entering South Africa for four years.

Do you think the US should lift sanctions on Iraq?

I wouldn’t like to make a specific pronouncement on the specific issue. I think generally sanctions should be reserved to be used as a last resort. Secondly, I think that sanctions should be planned, when they are really necessary, to have short or medium-term results, and if they prove to be unsuccessful, then I think failure must be admitted and other ways of influencing the situation should be used.

As a man who understands the toll that politics can take on family life, do you have any empathy for President Clinton at the moment?

I don’t want to make any comment on Clinton. I just want to say that it’s not good for the rest of the world that the only remaining superpower is in the state it is in as a result of this, and I think from outside America, everybody hopes that the matter is finalised one way or another as soon as possible.

During the sanctions against your own country, did you have knowledge of Unionist paramilitaries importing arms from South Africa?

No, not with me. We did our level best to prevent arms smuggling. We were forced by sanctions to develop our own armaments industry and we had a set of rules and regulations with regard to whom we sell to and to whom we don’t sell to, and we tried with those rules and regulations to stay within the parameters of norms which should be universally acceptable. Because we were at the receiving end of our civilians being subjected to risks because of the supply of arms to revolutionary people, one of the rules was to stay out of revolutions.

That doesn’t mean that some of the arms produced in South Africa didn’t in a roundabout way find their way into the hands of revolutionaries. It has definitely happened in Africa where sales were made with an N-certificate and the arms intended to go there turned up in quite a different place. I was never directly involved in the arms industry, it was never near my specific responsibilities as a minister, but broadly, it grew in me that it is a very dirty industry.

Would there have been any empathy with the Unionists in Northern Ireland as a fellow culture under siege?

No, I don’t think so because I think the general approach towards the Irish in South Africa, amongst my people, if I can put it that way, is one of a broad understanding of all the causes involved. Because of our own history, having fought the Anglo-Boer war, I think there is a sort of an empathy amongst the average Afrikaners with regard to this fierce sense of the individualism of the Irish, and feeling that they have their own identity. And the average Afrikaner does not look upon himself as an extension of another nation in any way whatsoever. We really mean it when we call ourselves Africans. We’re white Africans.

Would you have any recommendations with regard to the reform of the police force in Northern Ireland?

I think it’s a very complicated issue because in South Africa, for generations, a fair percentage of the population began to believe that the police were their enemies, and to change that boat around is not so easy. I’m supportive of programmes which are being implemented in South Africa at the moment, in cities and certain townships and so on, to form community committees and to set up structures for interaction between police in charge of that area and the community. In other words, there’s an effort to ensure that the police project their sensitivity about the needs of the community and for the community leaders to form personal relationships with the police officers in charge, to build a position of trust. That is one of the exercises which have been decided upon, and in quite a number of communities the report back is that it is having a very good effect.

The police force in South Africa has had a terrible reputation . . .

It’s had a political bad reputation, but they were quite effective in fighting crime. And unfortunately at the moment, it’s not going so well in that field because of a number of factors which includes unbalanced – and I want to make sure that you don’t misunderstand me, because I’m in favour of affirmative action – but because of unbalanced affirmative action, I really think the police as well as many other departments of the civil service have lost too many experienced managers, which has depleted its management capacity.

You have repeatedly stated that you were “not aware of or involved in the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by operatives of the former security forces”. But as a member of the government, did you feel a personal responsibility for the many reports of police brutality?

Yes, and one would . . . you have an overall responsibility, so how do you deal with that? You participate in drawing up rules which can prevent it, you ensure that if those rules are broken, if something happens, that there is a proper investigation, and disciplinary action is taken. And if crimes have been committed in the process, that members of the forces are then charged in an open court for those crimes. This we did regularly. I’m not saying we succeeded in really stamping certain wrong things out, but we didn’t cover it up. There were such rules, and from time to time, and especially since I became leader, we expanded the rules, we made them stronger, we even, in my presidency, developed a special investigative group, because the allegation was made that the police can’t successfully investigate their own people. A special group was formed to carry out a more objective investigation on complaints of serious misconduct.

What about inequalities in sentences handed down to blacks and whites?

We always had a very independent judiciary, and while we had in many fields, discriminatory legislation, our criminal law never distinguished on the basis of racial colour in prescribing maximum sentences, and sometimes even minimum sentences – which I as a lawyer never liked because I think the court should have a discretion. For some serious crimes like drug smuggling and so on, there were efforts to bring in minimum sentences, but it was never racially discriminatory. So I know that there was that overall impression, but that is one form of discrimination which was never institutionalised, which was never policy. If it happened, it was in the hands of the individual. So I was always, as a lawyer, proud of our legal system. I’m not saying that there weren’t mistakes, or that there weren’t trends within the time-frames which now in hindsight seem to have been harsh. I think one can identify such things.

In your autobiography, you state that while, as a boy, you felt no animosity towards other black children, “such friendships ended at the kitchen door”.

Well, it was the typical life pattern almost all across the globe. It was the pattern with which kids grew up in America. It was the pattern with which the children of colonial civil servants grew up in the African colonies. There was racism, there was discrimination, and this really started only changing in the rest of the world also from the ’50s onwards. So, it’s a way of saying, not justifying it, but saying, “This is how it was.” I’m trying in the book to use the various stages of my development as a person, and through my eyes and experiences and that of my family, to explain the pattern of thinking, the whys and the why nots as it was perceived at that stage, and try to bring some perspective.

Because this image of Afrikaners hating blacks and having just these stamping boots and being cruel, it’s really not a true image. Yes, we have hard-line racists, and we’ve always had them, as all races have. America has its Ku Klux Klan – it’s wrong. But the average moderate Afrikaner never hated blacks. And there’s always been in South Africa, even at the height of apartheid, an underlying goodwill. You could always walk into a department store or a supermarket, and you would find, generally speaking, a bonhomie; smiling people, not sullenness, not a confrontational tense atmosphere.

You also write about the effect that figures like Danny Glover and Bill Cosby had not only on blacks, but Afrikaners, in terms of accepting black people as figures of power, to the extent that conservatives were disgruntled at the influence of TV.

Oh yes, I think young South Africans across colour lines followed trends with regard to heroes, you will find the same set-up of people liking Michael Jackson or whomever that you will find in Ireland or England or America.

Except it had far greater significance in South Africa.

Yeah, but no longer so. South Africa is now a non-racial country and some of the black singers have always been very popular in South Africa, like Tina Turner, because she sings so well!

U2 were extremely vocal in their condemnation of apartheid in the 1980s. Was there any recognition in political circles of what they were doing at the time?

Not that I can remember, but pop music and so on was not my scene. I had enough to keep me busy.

Other Irish acts such as Joe Dolan and Foster & Allen received vociferous criticism at home for breaching the boycott and playing South Africa. Did you ever go and see such entertainers perform?

No, I never went to a show to show political solidarity or thankfulness, and I never boycotted any show to show disapproval. Once again, I didn’t have much time. For a long time I never visited Sun City, because my church is very much against gambling, and the conservative part of our support base in the ’70s and ’80s . . . it was not the in-thing for ministers to go to Sun City.

Also in Ireland in the mid-’80s, Dunne’s Stores workers went on strike to protest against the importation of South African goods. Did you have any contact with any of the Dunne family?

No, not that I know of. I do know that when I became president and on my first visit ever to Ireland, I used to opportunity to say, “Things are changing in South Africa – can’t Ireland also change its attitude and allow South African fruit back?” and so on. Part of my international campaign at that stage was to get international recognition for the changes in South Africa and to get some of the sanctions lifted, which we succeeded in doing. The ANC didn’t want the sanctions to be lifted at our behest, they wanted the sanctions to be maintained right up to the election and regularly called on governments to keep up with the sanctions. But it was clear that there would be a new dispensation, some basic agreements had already been reached, and it was in the best interests of their own supporters to get South Africa back into the international trading community as soon as possible.

Do you really believe that equality would’ve come about sooner without sanctions and the ANC?

Generally speaking, yes, because I believe that economic growth and development is a tremendously powerful force in bringing about change. In the end, it was economic development which resulted in urbanisation, in bringing millions of blacks from their original homelands into the cities which resulted in economic interdependence, which resulted in job creation for them. So, I think the type of constructive engagement that we experienced from countries like England and Germany clearly had a more constructive influence than the influence of the countries who totally stood away from us, like the Scandinavian countries, and later on, the United States.

You speak very frankly in the book of the animosities between yourself and Nelson Mandela . . .

Can I just say, so far, with extracts that have been lifted out, that I also speak in the book of my regard for him, acknowledging his many, many good qualities and that he always found it possible to rise above our tensions and differences when it was necessary, and in the best interests of the process and the country.

Nevertheless, many Europeans and Americans would never have seen the – quite understandable – bitterness that you describe in him.

Can I reply by saying, whomever you interview, when you have to give an account, do you present it one-dimensionally, or does truth and honesty require of you as an author or a writer to give the full picture? I didn’t include that to grind any axes. I didn’t write the book to get at certain people. But there’s great interest in what really happened, and in the full picture, I tried to include enough to give a real tangible feel of what really happened. But I could have written four more books, not just on me and Mandela, but if I were to relate many more things. But I felt duty-bound to give a comprehensive account of what happened, and not to censor it to the extent of withholding facts which would create a proper perspective on everything.

When you and your wife went to Oslo to receive the joint Nobel Peace prize with Nelson Mandela, you were greeted with crowds shouting slogans like, “Kill the Boer” and raising their fists in the ANC salute.

Yes. That doesn’t mean the committee itself weren’t quite correct with us and so on, and I think that also comes out. I’m worried that people might think I’m accusing the organisers of the Nobel Peace Prize of being unkind to us – they weren’t, in any way whatsoever. But it was controversial. But I understand that against the background of the history of how young Scandinavians had been brought up about South Africa, and how deeply involved they were in the cause of the ANC. So it’s understandable, but it wasn’t nice. You know, I remember on the first visit to Denmark I think, the then leader of the Labour Party explained to me how in junior high school, they all had a main task focusing on apartheid and South Africa, I mean even in school, it was part of the curriculum to be anti- the powers that be in South Africa, and to support the cause of the ANC, so it’s very deeply ingrained in those societies.

Vincent Browne recently wrote in the Irish Times that the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is “the most serious international war on the African continent in almost 100 years”, claiming five times the number of lives lost in Yugoslavia since 1991. How much of a threat is this war to the rest of Africa, and indeed the world?

Well I think most importantly human interest should focus on what it is doing to the people in that country. Secondly, I think it holds very important dangers for immediate neighbours. I haven’t read the article you refer to, but to get the gist of it, to say the world can’t turn its back on Africa, I support that. I think there is too much marginalisation, as if Africa is far away. I think there should be greater concentration on the world powers that be, the G7, the European Union and the United States, in addressing the underlying problems of Africa. In this situation of continuous growing globalisation, Africa must become much more sharper into the planning focus of the leading countries of the world.

Where will South Africa be in 10 years’ time?

I believe in our capacity to deal with the very difficult problems that I list in the last chapters of my book, and to resolve them, provided that we do the right thing. And I want to be helpful, without ever becoming involved in party politics again. I’m going to establish a foundation, I’m thinking of calling it the Centre for Reconciliation, focusing on being a catalyst for making South Africa a winning country, in bringing socio-economic development to the very poor and those who have been disadvantage by apartheid in the past, and in setting up structures and action plans to try and recapture the wonderful goodwill we had shortly after the ’94 election, which unfortunately at the moment is under great pressure.

Finally, what was the high point of your political career?

There were many high points. It was obviously a high point to become the leader of your party, to be the head of government, the head of state. The referendum result was a great high point for me. And it was a high point for me to, at the end of the process, stand there as I described it in the book on the 10th of May, 1994, and to say that, with the shortcomings, within the time-frame that I have foreseen, I have succeeded in making the vision with which we started come true.

And the low point?

I have no complaints. All of us have our peaks and our valleys, but there isn’t a valley which I remember which haunts me.

FW de Klerk’s autobiography The Last Trek – A New Beginning is published by MacMillan.

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