FW De Klerk: The lies of Apartheid, murderous complicities and dirty tricks.

 In Civil Society, Politics, South Africa

I would like to say that FW De Klerk’s death left me cold, to borrow a phrase, but in truth, it was an emotional moment. I was enraged, frustrated and grumpy that he died without ever facing justice and irritated to hell by the opportunity for another outbreak of the myth of De Klerk the visionary peace maker who led us over the rainbow out of apartheid. People can change, but De Klerk’s recent so-called apology was self-serving in the absence of a truthful account of these murderous complicities during the dying days of apartheid.

In reality, De Klerk was directly responsible for massive violence, dirty tricks and thousands of deaths as the National Party (NP) struggled to keep the upper hand in a negotiations process that was intended to co-opt the liberation movement to save capitalism and restore the NP’s cosy relationship with it, which was then becoming strained.

These included open force by the state, such as the twenty people killed when police shot into a crowd of protestors during a stay-away soon after the release of the Rivonia trialists, as well as under-cover ‘dirty tricks’ such as the Boipatong massacre (where 45 people were killed in their homes by men who appeared to be Black, but some were white men who had painted their faces, according to eye witnesses) and the regime’s secret funding of the NP’s Black sweetheart at the time, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), who terrorised KZN and Gauteng throughout the negotiations, which allowed De Klerk to perpetuate the myth of Black on Black violence as an excuse for retaining control of the forces of repression (via well-equipped and mainly white police and army) until very late in the process. (See “South African major mass killings timeline 1900-2012,” http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/south-african-major-mass-killings-timeline-1900-2012.)  

De Klerk’s intention was never to relinquish power by negotiating. Rather, his vision was to complete the attempt to update apartheid which his predecessor, PW Botha, had failed to achieve. De Klerk was more a pragmatist than a visionary. He differed from Botha chiefly in having learned, from Botha’s experience, that the NP might not survive another sustained wave of uprisings such as the middle the to late 80s. De Klerk was not against stamping out that possibility with sustained repression, but he was aware of a number of other facts staring late apartheid in the face: one, big armies, police forces and four of every state department plus subsidising Bantustan governments needed big money; two, big business had shown itself more than willing to cough up big taxes for big armies and grand apartheid, but not if the regime lost control to the point where protests kept bubbling on inside the factories; and, three, global financial institutions were happy to accept a world where currencies were valued in apartheid gold (and therefore in miners’ sweat, tears, and literal blood), as long as Pretoria did not default on its quickly amassing debt. All of these were in big trouble by the time De Klerk’s faction ousted Botha’s securocrats in late 1989. 

The Botha regime had tried to pass the growing costs of apartheid on to black people, but instead, they sowed a hurricane.

Legal apartheid coalesced around promoting Afrikaner capital while formalising the system of cheap, ‘unskilled’, migrant labour, but by the 1970s, South African capital’s needs had developed. Mines still wanted migrants but manufacturing had grown from mining houses seeking opportunities to reinvest their giant profits, and manufacturers wanted ‘semi-skilled’ workers who were more stable and settled and who therefore could be given more training – and that required expanding the townships. However the apartheid regime had by then restricted its spending on housing for Black people, and it did not want to spend more on the townships now because it was already bankrupting itself on maintaining the most powerful army in the region, to patrol its borders against the liberation movements that had swept the rest of southern Africa.

The apartheid regime tried to adjust its laws to these changing needs by cementing a duality in the labour force. On one hand, it tightened up the exclusion from urban areas of Black South Africans who were not needed for manufacturing, consigning the majority to live in remote ‘Bantustans’ scattered across some of the worst lands in the country. The Bantustans were never able to develop independent economies and mostly remained financially dependent on Pretoria until their end. On the other hand, the regime allowed ‘insiders’ to become more permanent, and made a show of extending their democratic rights by allowing elections for ‘Black Local Authorities, whose real task was to legitimize rent increases and collect service charges to make the townships pay for themselves.

This is when things backfired: hundreds of tiny nodes of organising had persisted from the late 70s, and these modest networks were able to mobilise an explosion against rent increases which quickly expanded to resist myriad injuries of apartheid ranging from school fees to wages and working conditions. Botha’s grand plan to fund apartheid by making the proletariat pay twice – once through their labour and again for living costs – backfired splendidly. The prolonged grassroots uprising made apartheid costlier to the regime and big business than ever before.

The regime almost drowned the township movement in blood, but the workplace movement kept ticking along. The captains of industry began to lose faith in the NP, realising that a more stable economy might depend on a more legitimate government. The NP might still have gone the other way to ever increasing repression were it not for its financial crisis. When the regime defaulted on its international loan repayments in 1989, Washington began to pressure Pretoria to seek a negotiated settlement with the ANC, emboldened by the compromise settlement in Zambia and by the ease with which they manipulated the ‘velvet revolutions’ during the collapse of the USSR for their own benefit. And, finally, when Botha suffered a stroke, the movement immediately began to revive.

De Klerk’s vision, then, was simply to see the writing that was already on the wall and the emergency exit signs. For De Klerk, the decision to negotiate was no more or less than the recognition that the tricky business of devolving the cost of apartheid onto its victims might go more smoothly if the regime could embroil legitimate leaders. Therefore,

When I took over, my task was to flesh out what was already a fairly clear vision, but we needed broad support. We needed negotiation. The third phase – which coincided with my entering cabinet but was not started by me – was a shift towards reform. It focused on making separate development more acceptable while still believing it was just. But by the early 1980s we had ended up in a dead-end street in which a minority would continue to hold the reins of power and blacks, outside the homelands, really did not have any meaningful political rights. We had become too economically inter-dependent [my emphasis]. We had become an omelette that you could not unscramble. .[1] But De Klerk had no intention of relinquishing power to the ANC. Power sharing to save capitalism was as far as he could see, and the bloody, prolonged nature of the South African transition attests to that. And if things had been left to the ANC’s negotiators, that may have been as far as we got. It was only the repeated intervention of mass action from below that forced De Klerk, kicking and screaming, into a South Africa, eventually without the National Party. Ironically, that achieved a big part of what Botha and De Klerk could not: alongside the formal defeat of apartheid, a legitimation of the capitalist system that apartheid nurtured.

[1] Alex Duval Smith, “Why FW de Klerk Let Nelson Mandela out of Prison,” the Guardian, January 31, 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jan/31/nelson-mandela-de-klerk-apartheid.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

Stay in contact, send us a message.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search