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First Principles

What Americans Can Learn from F. W. de Klerk’s Great Betrayal of South Africa

Universal suffrage is not to be conflated with freedom. As Iraqis learned after their “liberation,” ink-stained fingers don’t inoculate against bloodstains—or rivers of blood.


- February 9th, 2020
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In what should serve as a lesson for Americans today, recall that 30 years ago on February 2, 1990, F. W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, turned the screws on his constituents, betraying the confidence we had placed in him.

I say “we,” because, prior to becoming president in 1989, De Klerk was my representative, in the greater Vereeniging region of Southern Transvaal, where I lived. (Our family subsequently moved to Cape Town.)

A constellation of circumstances had aligned to catapult De Klerk to a position of great power. A severe stroke forced the “The Crocodile,” President P. W. Botha, from power in 1989. Nothing in the background of his successor, De Klerk, indicated the revolutionary policies he would pursue.

In response to a 1992 referendum asking white voters if they favored De Klerk’s proposed reforms, we returned a resounding “yes.” Sixty-eight percent of respondents said “yes” to the proposed reforms of a man who sold his constituents out for a chance to frolic on the world stage with Nelson Mandela.

For it was in surrendering South Africa to the African National Congress that De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.

Why was De Klerk trusted to negotiate on behalf of a vulnerable racial minority? For good reason: he had made his views abundantly clear to constituents. “Negotiations would only be about power-sharing,” he promised. At the time, referendum respondents generally trusted De Klerk, who had specifically condemned crude majority rule. Such elections, in Africa, traditionally have amounted to “one man, one vote, one time.” Typically, such elections across Africa have followed a familiar pattern: Radical black nationalist movements take power everywhere, then elections cease. Or, if they take place, they’re rigged.

Among much else, De Klerk’s loyal constituents agreed to his scrapping of the ban on the Communist-sympathizing ANC. Freeing Nelson Mandela from incarceration was also viewed as long overdue as was acceding to Namibia’s independence, and junking nuclear weapons. Botha, before de Klerk, had by and large already dismantled the most egregious aspects of apartheid.

What De Klerk’s constituents were not prepared for was to be legislated into a permanent position of political subordination. President de Klerk, the man entrusted to stand up for crucial structural liberties, went along with the great centralizers. He caved to ANC demands, forgoing all checks and balances for South Africa’s Boer, British, and Zulu minorities.

By the time the average “yes” voter discerned the fact that De Klerk had no intention of maintaining this opposition when push came to shove, it was too late.

Thus, with De Klerk’s collaboration, and under the wing of the American eagle—in particular, U.S. negotiators like Herman Cohen, undersecretary of state for Africa—the Afrikaner, Anglo, and Zulu minorities were ordered to forgo minority veto power, meaningful power-sharing, and checks on power in the form of a second chamber in the legislature. Substantive devolution of authority to the regions of South Africa was also denied.

Yet somehow, a new generation of South Africans, Afrikaner and English, reveres F. W. de Klerk, even crediting the former South African president as a “reformer” who led “the country out of the political dead-end [in which] it found itself.”

“Today,” declares De Klerk adulator Pieter du Toit, “South Africa is a democracy, with rights-based guarantees.” The writer, editor of a large internet news site, is perfectly serious when he touts South Africa as a country that affords its citizens “rights-based guarantees.” For this reason, Du Toit should not be taken seriously.

Universal suffrage is not to be conflated with freedom. As Iraqis learned after their “liberation,” ink-stained fingers don’t inoculate against bloodstains, or, rather, rivers of blood.

As the democratic South Africa amply demonstrates, political rights and a paper constitution don’t secure the natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. 

A civilized society, ultimately, is one in which the individual can go about the business of life unmolested. If he can’t do that simple thing, of what value is the vote or a constitution? Extant societal structures that safeguard life and property can always be improved upon. But once these bulwarks against mob rule and mayhem disintegrate, as they have in South Africa, they’re seldom restored.

Far and away the most perplexing paragraph in Du Toit’s ode to De Klerk is his historical justification for De Klerk’s giving the shop to the ANC.

“When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989,” writes Du Toit, “along with a series of governments in the Eastern Bloc, [De Klerk] knew it was a matter of time before the Soviet Union fell, and with that the ANC’s biggest support base. De Klerk recognized the moment to move forward.”

Let me see if I grasp the logic of surrender without defeat.

The ANC’s biggest backer, the USSR, was on the verge of collapse. Therefore, goes the author’s logic, the time was ripe to surrender South Africa to the Soviet Union’s satellite, the ANC? This is worse than a non sequitur. It’s nonsense.

At the time De Klerk, pushed by American negotiators, gave away the store, the ANC heroes were a ragtag bunch of exiled has-been Communists, scattered all over Africa and Europe, whose main admirers were their Swedish groupies.

By contrast, someone who did have real power was Constand Viljoen, a military hero and former chief of the South African Defense Force. General Viljoen represented the hardliner Afrikaners and the security forces. Viljoen believed, correctly, that De Klerk had shirked his responsibilities to the electorate. He planned on leading a coalition that would have deposed the freelancing De Klerk and negotiated for an Afrikaner ethnic state.

Ditto Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland and leader of the Zulu people and their Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). His championship of self-determination had been denied.

Buthelezi was fed up to the back teeth with being sidelined. He and his Zulu impis (warriors) were every bit as fractious as Viljoen; every bit as willing to fight for their rightful corner of the African Eden.

For setting his sights on decentralized sovereignty in Zululand, the Zulu royal and his following (close on 20 percent of the South African population) were condemned as reactionaries by the West, whose interests De Klerk was, by now, championing.

Alas, the African gentleman Buthelezi and the Afrikaner general Viljoen were no match for the conniving Communists in the ANC and their knavish collaborator, F. W. de Klerk.

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