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FW de Klerk’s gamble

By Theodore Lewis

 FW de Klerk was Nelson Mandela’s Joe Frazier. Each needed the other. There was Mandela, locked up on the bleak Robben Island prison, doing his time, breaking stone, and de Klerk the president of South Africa, with all of the power at his command, power derived from the warped logic of apartheid, having come to the realisation that the salvation of the country depended on him giving Mandela a shot at the title. 

Apartheid had become unsustainable due to unrelenting  global pressure against the regime, and the challenge for the president was how to dismount safely from the back of this tiger. The solution was to dismantle apartheid, but this was a regime premised on brutality on native blacks. Reprisals would be inevitable, and the Afrikaners  could have hell to pay. There was only one hope here —Mandela. Using his power as president, de Klerk sent for Mandela for a meeting. 

Moments after Mandela’s death was announced Christiane Amanpour of CNN asked De Klerk about that meeting with Mandela.  And he remembered it with reverence. Mandela was unbowed after 27 years in prison. He was analytic, De Klerk recalls. His bearing aristocratic, as befitting the son of a Zulu chieftain. Indeed, De Klerk said in a 2010 interview that “When I first met Mandela … he spent a long time expressing his admiration for the Boer generals (ancestors of the Afrikaners)  and how ingenious they were during the Anglo-Boer War. We did not discuss the fundamental problems or our political philosophies at all.” This is Mandela floating like a butterfly. De Klerk said he then told Mandela that he would be flown to Johannesburg and released there on February 11, 1990. Mandela’s surprising reaction to this was that this release was too soon!  He needed some more time for preparation!

History had brought strange bed fellows together, the patrician racial supremacist who had read the times and to whom it fell to plan the safe retreat of the Afrikaner colonisers, and the freedom fighter whose basic instinct was that of the humanist, and who saw that hot-blooded revenge would undo decades worth of struggle for the basic right of the African to walk freely on African earth. 

 Nelson Mandela’s ingenious battle-plan, once it became clear to him that apartheid had run out of steam, was compromise. It is with apartheid in its death throes that his genius crystallised. There was a time for fighting and a time for healing. He co-opted the help of his great colleague, another giant in the struggle, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and together they gave to the world an African device, Truth and Reconciliation. Those on either side of the struggle who had committed atrocities were to come before the relatives of victims, confess their wrongdoing, and ask for forgiveness. White police officers and soldiers, and black freedom fighters were to participate in this remarkable invention.


Throughout  the great battle of Africans for the right to be free of colonial tyranny in its various forms, we in the Caribbean have been more than sympathetic bystanders. George Padmore and CLR James were great intellectual contributors to the struggles of the independence movement of the 1960s. 

Our artistes, notably Valentino (“Stay Up Zimbabwe”), Sparrow (“Isolate South Africa”), and Bob Marley (“Africans ah Liberate Zimbabwe”) put to song the feelings of our collective peoples about oppressive colonial regimes on the continent.  Sparrow’s opening lines “No games with them, no trade with them; For them there should be no tomorrow” were in keeping with a Caribbean stance—that South Africa should be isolated. 

The apartheid regime had survived this long because South African authorities had cast Mandela as a socialist, and western powers  such as Britain and the United States tacitly supported the apartheid regime under a general anti-communism reflex.  But the west came around, with Jimmy Carter, and then Bill Clinton,  providing American leadership that led to trade and arms embargoes. De Klerk was to say later that the prospect of South African planes having no place to land, and the country unable to sell its wine, were factors that led to his capitulation.


Unlike Muhammad Ali, whose image we prefer seeing in its youthful form, it is the image of the elderly Mandela that inspires us, and that will now be transported through the ages. This elderly Mandela, this statesman, President Mandela, with the smile that masks so much, is the image of preference—the greying man, with the serene demeanour, at ease with kings and queens and presidents,  a celebrity in his own right, the stop everyone wished to make on their journey to South Africa. 

Mandela had set out on a mission as a young man to overturn the oppression under which he was born. At his death, he had done this, and every newspaper of note on the planet would have said its farewell to him. We would all have seen, in our time, the life and times of one of the most remarkable men to ever have been born. And what irony to hear from FW de Klerk, who had run his leg as president of the apartheid state, now saying on the occasion of his death that the greatest legacy of Mandela was the unity he would have left behind, this unity of course being the hope of the  gamble of releasing him from Robben Island.

Today a giant tree hath fallen on this earth. 


• Theodore Lewis is emeritus 

professor, University of 

Minnesota

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