I am a product of the apartheid era.
I grew up in a house where politics and especially apartheid was never discussed as a subject per se, because it was simply the normal way of life. Among the majority of the Afrikaners apartheid was essentially a cultural preference, the way they preferred to live, separated from the influences of the other cultures in South Africa. They attended their own schools, lived in their own neighborhoods, ate their own kind of food, celebrated traditional days important to them, spoke their own language and listened to their own music. Not that the rest of the world was ignored. World history, literature, sciences and geography, albeit with a European slant, were extensively taught at school. As a nation the Afrikaners, with their brave pioneering heritage and great aspirations for its children, were comfortable in their own cultural lair. Rightly or wrongly! They never thought their way of life or the politics of the country would ever change. Why should it? Unfortunately the practice of race segregation introduced by European overseers evolved into a cultural and political tool which had no chance of long term success in a changing world.
The ripples from Sharpville
I was born at the start of the 1960s in South Africa, at the height of the “grand” apartheid era, 18 days before the Sharpeville massacre. On March 21, 1960 between 5,000 and 10,000 black South Africans, as called upon by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), demonstrated against passbook laws in the small township of Sharpeville, thirty-five miles south of Johannesburg. They basically came to the police station to force the police to arrest them for refusing to carry the dreaded passbook, a dompas. A police force of 75, later reinforced to 300 was greatly outnumbered and although no one gave any order to shoot, someone did, the police panicked and opened fire, and when the shooting eventually quieted down, 69 people were dead and 181 wounded, a government produced number, although some claimed up to 400 died or were wounded.
That single day and that single event would be a turning point for South Africa and apartheid, because that is the day the world started to take notice of the policy of apartheid and the United Nations started to intervene in South African affairs. Foreign nations started to pull capital from South Africa. The Johannesburg stock exchange plummeted over the next two years and for the first time white South Africans started to emigrate in fear of a possible civil war. At the same time black South Africans started to leave the country for very different reasons. It would also start the process of South Africa exiting the British Commonwealth and lead to its declaration as a republic on 31 May 1961 and sever its constitutional ties with the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The end of 155 years of English rule.
Sharpville was not the start of the struggle for equality, but it was the catalyst for the African National Congress (ANC) and the PAC to start a 30-year armed struggle against the government of South Africa. At the same time though, the political atmosphere was ripe for polarization and black demand for political recognition and equality grew stronger, especially in light of the awakening of black consciousness throughout Africa during the 1960s. The world was changing and the Age of Colonialism in Africa was standing on its last feet in front of an open grave.
Police inspecting passbooks
In December 2010, while on vacation in South Africa, a family member gave me the book, Die Laaste Trek, ‘n Nuwe Begin (The Last Trek, a New Beginning) by F.W. de Klerk, ex-President of the Republic of South Africa. I had the best of intentions to read it, but never got around to it. During November 2013 while looking for something new and different to read, I was tired of novels and travelogues, I came upon the book again in my library and thought, why not. I have always wondered what happened during those years of negotiations at CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) when all political and cultural groups in South Africa met to determine South Africa’s future. And I have quietly wondered, once or twice, why we never had that second referendum after the completion of constitutional negotiations to approve a new constitution, as was promised by the government all along. Then there were the issues of the “non-negotiable” requirements of power-sharing (the Swiss Model) and the “entrenched protection of minority rights and cultures”. What happened that those issues were simply negotiated away or were they never really viable principles at all?
Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela in different moods during the negotiations at CODESA.
While reading de Klerk’s autobiography, Nelson Mandela, the man who struggled for many years against apartheid and who was jailed for 27 years for acts of terrorism and crimes against the state, but who later succeeded de Klerk as President, died on December 5, 2013. Although I had no initial thoughts to read Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, his death, while reading de Klerk’s book and things that de Klerk mentioned in his book, tickled my interest and I decided to buy and read Mandela’s book too to get a balanced perspective of what transpired behind the scenes in South Africa during 1990 to 1994. Although I lived through those stormy years in South Africa and actually voted in the referendum of 1992 to empower the National Party government to continue its negotiations with the African National Congress, I have to acknowledge I then only knew the side of the story that was consistent with my upbringing.
Mr. de Klerk the day after the 1992 referendum.
Together de Klerk and Mandela achieved a rare feat in world politics when they brought about systematic change through “relative” peaceful means instead of a bloody revolution or civil war. From within the legislative structures of a nation de Klerk dismantled all apartheid laws and convinced his fellow politicians and in general the Afrikaner nation that the time for change had arrived. On the other hand, Mandela had to convince a youth oriented, radical and militarized ANC, hell-bent on continuing its guerrilla warfare, that the only way forward to a peaceful and bloodless future was through negotiations instead of a continued armed struggle.
Inauguration of Mr. Mandela as President - April 1994.
Apartheid was nothing new
Apartheid is today mainly associated with the white people of South Africa, and more specifically the Afrikaner group, and the “purified” National Party that came to rule this part of the world in 1948 and would do so uninterrupted until 1994. But apartheid is really an old product of the Dutch and the English overlords who banned or punished (in most cases) racial integration since 1652 when the Dutch established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. And they were assisted by the French Huguenots, the Germans, and to a lesser extent the Italians, the Portuguese, the Polish, the Jews, the Swiss and several other smaller groups of Europeans that migrated to South Africa through the 300 years preceding 1948. As the white citizens of South Africa who could have influenced the European overlords to some extent, and later, as the voters for legislators and government, they, the white citizens, all had a part in kneading, molding and keeping separate cultural development alive seeing that it was never previously eradicated nor were any laws changed to allow non-white people to vote for the general assembly or to participate in government. Of course it was not called apartheid before 1948, but in practice it was.
Mr. Mandela destroying his passbook in 1952.
Take the sensitive case of the passbook that blacks were required to carry. During the first 150 years after 1652, the Dutch ruled and as mentioned above any form of black and white integration was resisted and punished. The British took control of the Cape in 1806 and in 1809 introduced the Hottentot Code, which required that all Khoikhoi and other free blacks carried passbooks stating where they lived and who their employers were. Persons without such passes could be forced into employment by white masters. With the emancipation of slavery in the British Empire imminent the pass laws were revoked in 1828. However, after the discovery of diamonds in the Northern Cape area in 1872, the town of Kimberley's white claimholders persuaded the British colonial administration to introduce a new set of pass laws to limit the mobility of black migrant workers, who frequently changed employers in a constant (and usually successful) attempt to bargain wages upward. This law would become the foundation of the later passbook laws that led to the Sharpville demonstration and the many general strikes about pass laws during the 1960s.
The last trek
To do a detail review of the books after so many years and a movie that was based on Mandela’s book is rather useless so I won’t, but I would like to touch on some aspects of both books.
I feel The Last Trek, a New Beginning is just a little too short for an autobiography, especially if it is about the life of such a prominent person that changed the direction of a whole nation. De Klerk’s summarized treatment of his earlier years up to his entry into Parliament, what influenced him those early years while he was a lawyer, and what caused him to change history could have been fleshed out a bit more. But then again maybe there wasn't more details to be fleshed out? It is obvious from the book and to some extent de Klerk agreed, that in principle he was not such a passionate reformer as some would think, but that change was forced upon him and the government and the white people of South Africa. And, strangely, he often gave his predecessor, Mr. P.W. Botha, whom he loathed, credit for initial reforms prior to 1989 when de Klerk became State President.
It is also obvious from the book that his initial “non-negotiable” requirements for power-sharing and protection for cultural minorities came to nothing. This was mainly due to a combination of the National Party and government negotiators being railroaded by the ANC negotiators inside the halls of CODESA, and even more effectively, the ANC-backed “rolling mass actions”, intimidation through strikes and other forms of violence, especially black-on-black violence, to make the country ungovernable, thus weakening the hand of the government negotiators. The issue of the second referendum to approve the negotiated constitution also came to nothing because of the ANC’s demand that a constitution can only be approved by a parliament elected by all the peoples of South Africa instead of by just a minority of the people.
In my view, the only true successes achieved by de Klerk and his team at the negotiation tables, and these are major achievements, were the relative peaceful handover of power (South Africa could easily have had a civil war which happened so often in other countries) and the continuation of a parliamentary system of government.
Overall, the book was an interesting read that focused mostly on the political events surrounding de Klerk through his political years, but fell short on a personal insight into the man. In his book The Last Afrikaner Leaders Hermann Giliomee quoted a speech de Klerk made on 21 January 1997 in London: "The decision to surrender the right to national sovereignty is certainly one of the most painful any leader can be asked to make. Most nations risk war and catastrophe rather than surrender this right. Yet this was the decision we had to make."
I would have liked to read more about the struggle inside this man as he came to the decision "to surrender the right to national sovereignty."
Exciting but long
I would have liked to read more about the struggle inside this man as he came to the decision "to surrender the right to national sovereignty."
Exciting but long
I found Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, both an exciting but also at times a boring and too long read. (600+ pages.) I really struggled though some passages of the book, especially the near minute-by-minute, detailed descriptions about life and communications inside prison, the blow-by-blow commentary on prison commanders, and even sections of the Ravonia trial just went on and on.
However, I found his early history, education, life in Johannesburg studying and practicing law and the traditions of the Xhosa people captivating and informative. His ability to articulate his beliefs and the sheer determination of the man to achieve a better dispensation for all disadvantage people is certainly admirable. His patience with people, ability to listen to all viewpoints without judgment, stamina, and especially his mental, and emotional strength through the prison years were venerable.
The simplistic view that many people in the world have of South Africa and apartheid is that Mr. de Klerk was the demon while Mr. Mandela was the perfect picture of peace, love, and forgiveness. However, in my mind both had blood on their hands; De Klerk through his limited actions during his presidency to control the police and third forces within the police, even though he constantly claimed that he was unaware of who was trying to disrupt the country and what the caused was of the many black-on-black violent attacks, especially in the Kwazulu-Natal province. Today of course, we know that there was a secret force active within the police and responsible for coordinating some of these attacks. But Mandela also had blood on his hands through his leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, who was responsible for many acts of terrorism and death of innocent people and the fact that he at times took no or little definitive steps between 1992 and 1994 to restrain the ANC supporters from taking part in these black-on-black attacks.
Clockwise from top left: Arrest warrant for Mr. Mandela; Prisoners on Robben Island; Mandela paying a visit to his old cell; Mandela and Walter Sisulu.
The last thought I would like to highlight from the two autobiographies is the stormy relationship that existed between these two men. In de Klerk’s book there are several references to his frustrations with Mandela’s unwillingness or stubbornness at times to cooperate during the negotiations and Mandela’s verbal attacks on de Klerk in the media. De Klerk was especially frustrated that Mandela did not use his influence to stop the “rolling mass actions” of the United Democratic Front, which succeeded to some extend to make the country ungovernable and Mandela’s refusal to ask the world to lift economic sanctions against South Africa after 1992’s unbanning of the ANC, Mandela’s release from prison and the scrapping of all apartheid laws.
For his part Mandela accused de Klerk of being dishonest, arrogant and treating him like a fool. He also accused de Klerk of not being a true reformer and for wanting to negotiate a constitution that still reeked of apartheid, just under another disguise. (He was referring to the various blocking devices that the National Party wanted to have included in the constitution for the protection of minority groups.)
The point is both men knew that although they might not have liked one another, they needed each other to bring about change in South Africa. They had a sort of “uncomfortable affair” to bring about this necessary change to prevent a total financial meltdown and most probably a bloody civil war.
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
In closure, although it took me 3 years to pick up de Klerk’s book and although I never had any intention to read Mandela’s book, I now have to acknowledge that I enjoyed both books, that I am richer in knowledge and understanding and that I am pleased that I read both books. In some way it is also a kind of closure about some faint questions that still lingered out there about the political changes that took place in South Africa.
Left: The first meeting between President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in 1990 while Mr. Mandela was still in jail.
To quote the title of Eric Burdon’s book Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, (Eric was the iconic voice of the 1960’s band, The Animals, that gave us the legendary House of the Rising Sun), this article is in no way an apology for 300 years of separate "development" or a praising for the "good" apartheid brought for a specific or any cultural group in South Africa. However, apartheid, systematically institutionalized as in South Africa, was a degrading and undignified policy that prevented non-white peoples of South Africa to pursue their own dreams and ambitions within the realm of a civilly accepted society.
Nor is this article a condoning or disapproval of past or present South African governments. I think any country has from time to time good and bad governments that make good and bad decisions. No government is ever perfect.
Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk sharing a joke while Archbishop Tutu looks on.
Furthermore, apartheid was not just a case of a white minority that could vote and a black majority that couldn’t. That is a far too simplistic view and unfortunately that is the view maintained by many people that does not have a deep understanding of South Africa’s history. Those that lived and grew up in South Africa knows that apartheid laws tried to control every fiber of society in South Africa.
For some Afrikaners apartheid was all about politics and they saw it as a means to strengthen the position of the Afrikaners, to get rid of the British and to revive the dream of an independent republic like they had before the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). An Afrikaner country. Even in de Klerk’s book he mentioned the resentment Afrikaners had for the English while he grew up.
For some it was cultural, a case of Afrikaners rule by Afrikaners and no integration with other races. James A Michener in his saga about South Africa, The Covenant, described apartheid, as told to him by, I think, a white politician, as a multi-layer bowl of different colored Jell-O, the perfect picture of separate development of the various races, each in its own land. Interestingly, after 1994, Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu would coin a similar vision for the new South Africa. But instead of seeing the different bands of colors as separate development he saw unity of the different colors. He called it the rainbow nation.
Mr. de Klerk paying his last respect to an old foe and opponent and friend and partner after Mr.Mandela death.
Election 1994 TV debate