FW de Klerk: my part in his downfall

Next week is the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s triumphant walk to freedom through the gates of Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, after 27 years in jail. But today is the anniversary of the astonishing speech in which President FW de Klerk announced Mandela’s imminent release and the unbanning of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the South African Trades Union Congress.

De Klerk had succeeded the internationally-loathed PW Botha (the Big Crocodile) only five months earlier and, as has been written about by far better-placed people than me, took the pragmatic decision deliberately to end Apartheid. For his contribution in dismantling the old South Africa, De Klerk rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993.

De Klerk’s contribution to the new South Africa, though, following the first democratic elections and Mandela’s election as President, is less well-scrutinised. In 1994, he became one of two Deputy Presidents, alongside Thabo Mbeki, in a Government of National Unity (GNU), which also included the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Although the ANC had virtually a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the Interim Constitution provided for a cabinet seat for any party with at least 20 MPs. The aim was for the GNU to govern for all of South Africa and bind black, white and coloured, Afrikaner, Zulu, English, Suthu and Xhosa in working towards a new, non-racial South Africa.

But within three years De Klerk had taken the National Party out of the GNU and the NP became a party of opposition, rather than co-operation. On the one hand, this was a welcome move, since the ANC (like any governing majority party) needed rigorous challenge. But De Klerk then opted out entirely and resigned as leader.

I was, by this time, working as an adviser to the ANC in Parliament, helping with the political restructuring of the Whips Office, with building capacity and experience within the Parliamentary ANC, and with the Parliamentary authorities on reforming some of the rules and procedures of the post-Colonial institution itself.

A very great friend of mine, a white Afrikaner ANC MP, Jannie Momberg, was the Government Whip responsible for programming the business of the day, which he did with enthusiasm and not a little chaos. Jannie was a big character and a big man. He had been a Stellenbosch wine farmer turned NP politician, who then became a Democratic Party MP in the dying years of Apartheid and was one of the first sitting MPs to switch to the ANC once it was unbanned. He was also, among all of this, formerly the manager to the controversial barefoot runner, Zola Budd. An extraordinary and entertaining man.

Once De Klerk’s resignation was announced and a day set for his departure from Parliament, a time was arranged for the customary tributes to be paid. Jannie was determined to speak and asked me to help him to write his speech. Unlike other speakers, Jannie wanted to break with convention and tear De Klerk to pieces. “Are you sure?” I asked him. Oh, indeed he was. So, together, we wrote the most coruscating political speech I have had the joy to script, in which he first praised De Klerk for ending Apartheid and then ripped mercilessly into him for stopping at the border to the new South Africa and refusing to lead his people across. It was a corker!

Jannie went to see the Chief Whip, Max Sisulu (now the Speaker of Parliament) and showed him his speech. “Can I speak, Comrade Max?” he asked. Max Sisulu is not a man easily moved and is inscrutable. He carefully read the speech all the way through, before slowly looking up and staring hard at Jannie. Then, with the merest flicker of a smile in the corner of his mouth, he said: “Jannie, you shall speak directly after De Klerk.”

And so it was that as De Klerk sat down, Jannie took his place at the podium and began to speak, trembling initially, but then building pace and volume and anger; an unstoppable force. The grumble from National Party MPs became a roar, De Klerk went a furious red and still on went Jannie, blinkered, thundering his condemnation of a man who had done so much, but who could have done so much more to reconcile his people, Jannie’s people, to the new South Africa. At last he stopped. The ANC Members cheered and applauded. And I claimed my full stop in the footnote of FW de Klerk’s career.

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