Tania Bryer speaks to former South African President F.W. de Klerk about his life and legacy; the 2010 World Cup; and the future of South Africa.
Tania Bryer (TB): Former President FW de Klerk thank you so much for joining me today.
F.W. de Klerk (FW): Great pleasure
TB: Thank you. You set up your FW de Klerk foundation in 1999 and the global leadership foundation in 2004, what was it in your own experiences that lead you to set up these foundations?
FW: I set up the FW de Klerk foundation because I felt and I still feel a residual responsibility to play a helpful role ensuring that the vision encapsulated in our negotiated constitution will become full reality, and that vision in essence is, that we want to be non-racial state in which there will be no form of discrimination on any basis whatsoever, not on race, not on ethnicity, not on religion, not on gender: A state in which the rule of law will be supreme and in which the values and the principles which are the foundation of that constitution will be available. So therefore, I committed myself to ensure that the institution is upheld, simultaneously South Africa is really a laboratory for the rest of the world, we have 11 official languages and another part of the focus of the FW de Klerk foundation is to promote peace in multicultural societies and it is from that goal that the global leadership foundation emanated because that in a sense has become the international side of what originally the FW de Klerk foundation set out to do.
TB: You yourself grew up in a deeply conservative environment where apartheid or separate development was not only expected but deeply engrained in the communities, what was it like?
FW: Well I've landed in trouble saying this before so I want to be careful how I formulate it, and precede it by saying, I and my fellow leaders in the national party came to the conclusion that apartheid was wrong, that in the end it was morally indefensible and I apologise on more than one occasion for the pain and the suffering that apartheid has caused. But as a young man, my parents, my father served as a minister under 3 consecutive prime ministers, we believed at that stage that we could bring justice to all in South Africa along the nation state route. In the end it failed to bring justice and resulted in injustice and it is for that that I have apologised and I don't want to justify it at all.
TB: But as young boy sir growing up in that environment as we spoke about, did you question it, did you understand it, did you question why the black South Africans were treated so differently?
FW: I think all of us, also me included as a young boy, did not deeply question the system itself, I was taught, my father had a little farm which we went on weekends and holidays to treat adult blacks with the greatest of respect, I was not taught to hate black people, it was not part of our set-up to say you are superior because you are white. That was not how I was brought up, but we didn't question how, in the end, could full political rights be extended also to black South Africans. There was this idealistic approach they can have their rights on their own, the philosophy was based on separatism, whereas what happened in South Africa, it started under predecessors leadership PW Botha, it culminated under my leadership, we exchanged this approach of separateness and embraced new vision of inclusivity, of togetherness, and that was the major transition which took place within the national party up to and even before 1990.
TB: Well of course in 1989, sir, you became President of South Africa; you were leader of the national party, what kind of political environment did you inherit and at what moment did you decide to change that?
FW: What I inherited was a well organised government, a very good civil service, the strongest military force in sub-Sahara Africa, an independent judiciary. What I inherited wasn't bad but the constitutional situation was unacceptable because all the major powers centred in the hands of white South Africans, coloured and Indian South Africans where brought into a Tricameral system but because of numbers in the final analysis, the balance of power rests, rested with the whites. The question was how to extend full political rights to blacks, but at the same time how to prevent South Africa going the same way that so many other states in Africa had gone, where democracy did not really take hold and where there were 80 coups within 20 years, that type of thing. So what I inherited was already a vision for fundamental change, already a new vision of embracing the concept of inclusivity of having admitted to ourselves that the only way forward is that all South Africans should have a vote of equal value and that all forms of discrimination should be scraped from the statute. But I inherited the major black political force being banned, not being able to participate because of the banning, their leaders in, either in exile or in jail, so that was the challenge, the main challenge for me to prepare the ground for meaningful negotiations, between leaders representing strong constituencies and an inclusive negotiation process which would bring in also the leaders of the banned organisations. And this brought me, and my team, to put together a package which I announced on the 2nd February 1990 which removed all the obstacles to meaningful negotiations, it unbanned all organisations, the ANC, the SACP even the armed wing of the ANC, it embraced releasing of all political prisoners not only of Mr Mandela lifting the state of emergency, suspending the death penalty, we removed every excuse the ANC could offer to not come to the negotiation table, I would not have been able to do that let me immediately add, if the Berlin wall did not come down, I was helped by that the threat of expansionist USSR communism fell away. And when we say that window of opportunity it helped us to jump through it by accelerating the process and by moving ahead if it did not come down I would have had to move more step by step.
TB: As you've just said in 1990 you made the historic decision to free Nelson Mandela, to un-ban the ANC and the rest of the exiled political parties, but at what moment for you, personally, did you know that you had to start the process to ending apartheid?
FW: Separate development, as we called it: one [sic] morning I got up and said it's wrong, it must be abolished, it was a process. But I came to this conclusion, in my mind, by the mid-1980s, '85-'86 and so did the rest of my party. We called the conference, I think it was in 1986 in which we said we must embrace this new vision to which I have referred of togetherness, of equal rights, of equality, of all forms of discrimination to go, and we got a mandate for it and the election which lead to me becoming President in September 89 was fought on a platform, we asked for a mandate for fundamental and far reaching reform, and we got that mandate with a reduced majority. So I was clear in my mind the day I became President of where I wanted to lead the country to.
TB: You have critics today sir that say you were pressurised that it was international sanctions, you talked about the Berlin wall coming down, that the pressure coming was so huge that you had to do it, it wasn't a moral decision, what do you say to them?
FW: We had successfully rode the waves of sanctions for decades, some sanctions did hurt more than others, yes it kept us on our toes, but at times sanctions delayed reforms. At times it had effect on the white electorate of moving into a corner and becoming withdrawn from the international community and saying, 'who the hell are they to tell us what to do. They don't live here,' and was misused as a political platform to whip up emotions by former leaders of the national party. In the end also sanctions hurt black South Africans much more than it hurt white South Africans, it never lead to a change at the ballot box, so sanctions was not the driving force, it played a role, but it was not the crucial role. Our reforms were conscious driven. Once we realised that separate development failed to bring justice it would have been immoral to carry on and say, 'but none the less to stay in power, we're going to continue with the policy which we have admitted to ourselves was morally indefensible.' So in my case, and I can testify also in the case of my fellow leaders in the national party, the main driving force behind what we did was our conscience.
TB: Can I ask you about that conscience sir and those of the fellow party leaders; at what point did you feel we cannot treat other human beings like this?
FW: I never felt that I wanted to treat black people because they're black as if they were inferior. I always believed, all of us have been created by God as equals. So, I did not have to remove from my heart, racial hatred, I was never in the negative sense a racist, but yes, the system was damaging black South Africans, it offered them less opportunity than those offered to whites, people were forcefully removed from where they live. There was a lot of manipulation in the process. They had to carry passes. They were put in jail for not having a pass it was wrong, wrong, morally unjustifiable. So once again not a specific moment, but even as a young lawyer I defended many black South Africans against apartheid laws and against transgressions of which they were accused.
TB: Do you think that you wanted to go into politics and were motivated by this will to change the system as it was? Was that a driving force behind your own, wanting to go into politics…?
FW: …Well I, from childhood I grew up in a political family, I thought I might end up in politics, I decided to study law, when I finished my legal studies my political ambitions came to the fore, my father then said to me it was the best advice I've ever been given, 'you must never think of becoming a professional politician, first go and make a success of the profession you've chosen, so that one day if you enter politics, and they ask you what are you? You should not say I am a politician you should say I'm a lawyer or I'm a doctor or I'm a farmer,' it was good advice and I only entered politics when I was 37 years old, but before I entered politics I was also community service orientated and always played in various types of organisations; tried to play a role as a responsible citizen, making a contribution towards a better world.
TB: What about your partnership with Nelson Mandela, it was described as being uncomfortable partners, but what was your personal relationship like with him?
FW: It went up and down. At times it was uncomfortable; at times it was warm and constructive. It ended up in real friendship, but at the beginning, right at the beginning, our first meeting we both wrote that afterwards in our respective autobiographies, we just sized each other up we did not discuss anything of real substance, and both of us wrote afterwards, we left and reported back to our constituencies; I think I can do business with this man. There was an immediate sort of mutual respect, maybe because, and I'm saying it without being arrogant, we were both good listeners and recognised the value of listening and not just trying to dominate a discussion. And that characterised our relationship afterwards, even when we clashed that we found ourselves able, although we are deep differences and sometimes he unfairly accused me of not being in charge, of properly in charge of the security forces, or, of knowing of some of their activities and looking away, and that I found very unfair and it hurt me and it also made me cross, but we could always rise above those tensions when they existed. When our negotiators came to us and said now we've hit a wall and now you the two leaders need to find a door in that wall, we always succeeded in doing so. Also in the government of national unity we worked well together when I was for two years, one of two executive deputy presidents from 1994 to 1996, but at times again; there were tensions and clashes, maybe because we were leaders of two opposing parties. After our retirement, both of us, we really became friends visiting each other at home, having lunches and dinners. He attended my 70th birthday party and insisted on proposing a toast and spoke most gracefully about my role; giving me credit for the role that I played and saying that if I didn't play that role South Africa would not have succeeded in becoming a peaceful country.
TB: Let me just go back to the allocations that you said he put against you about the security forces that you thought were unfair because interestingly enough in the film 'The Other Man' which is made about you, those allegations still exist that you were President of South Africa that there was a lot of police violence particularly from the C1 held lead by the notorious Eugene de Kock, what do you say to those allegations? And when you just said that Mandela also accused you and you felt hurt by those?
FW: I say to that, that what those elements in the security forces did after I became President was contrary to everything I stood for, was contrary to all the announcements I made was contrary to what we were being, what we were negotiating, and when those allegations came I first appointed the Wiehahn Commission it failed to get to the bottom of the truth, I then appointed the Goldstone commission, I empowered judge Goldstone with everything he needed, and when he uncovered a can of worms and opened it, I firmly acted against I think 28 former officers and leading figures in the security forces, I called, as one of the first things I did after I became President the top 400 police officers from across the country together and I did the same with the defence force and said you will no longer play a role in political situations. You are there to protect the lives and property of people to maintain law and order, but you will no longer be used for party political purposes or for governmental purposes in manipulating things behind the scenes and in undercover work, so it's nonsense to say that I did not do everything which can be responsibly required of me to uncover what these elements were doing against government policy, my government's policy and to uncover also who were involved. In my time as President when people were found to have been guilty of crimes, political crimes if I could call it that way, in the security forces they were charged in open court and they were sentenced to long terms in jail.
TB: But as President of South Africa at that time when it was happening, do you regret not knowing?
FW: Of course, I regret not knowing, in the sense that had I known more I could have maybe acted earlier, but I didn't know, I didn't not know because I wanted to not know. I wanted to get to the truth but surely one needs evidence. You can't on rumours go overboard and I always asked Mr Mandela please bring me evidence, I'll act on evidence, and when they didn't bring me evidence I appointed the Goldstone Commission to get the evidence, so I don't feel guilty about not knowing I tried at all times my best to know.
TB: Of course you won the Nobel peace prize with Nelson Mandela in 2003 and he gained a lot of credit and acclaim for his role, probably more so than yourself, do you think that was fair?
FW: It doesn't bother me at all. I accepted that prize, really on behalf of all the people who supported me throughout the process. Who gave me the mandate the 69 comma 9 per cent of the white electorate who voted 'yes' go ahead with the reforms in the referendum of March 1992, and I never felt jealous or peeved because of the way Mr. Mandela was treated, I never regarded myself as being in competition with him and I still don't.
TB: Of course in 1994 when you had the democratic elections that saw him come to power which you had instigated triggered the end of your presidency, and did you feel the end of your political career then?
FW: No, I had a sense of accomplishment. I never had any doubts that ANC would win the election, my disappointment was that we didn't get the 32 to 33 and third per cent of the vote that we had hoped to get, we only got 20 comma something per cent, in actual fact I think we got 28 per cent because there were a lot of irregular votes and, but I had to decide do I challenge that yes or no, and once again in order to ensure that we move forward smoothly and without unnecessary delays and without creating bitterness, I nonetheless accepted the result as it was announced by the electoral commission. But never did I feel that now it's the end of my career. I carried on, I carried on as executive deputy president. It was a pity that I had to decide to take my party after two years out of the government of national unity. The reason for that was the ANC was trying to say we have our opportunity in cabinet to oppose things; we must defend all decisions outside even if we disagreed with it while we were talking about it in cabinet and I said well that cannot be, and that was one of the main reasons why I left the government of National Unity. There was another reason but it will take too long to explain also an important reason. So, I then became for one year the leader of the opposition, it was during that year that I decided to cut my political career short because I thought I wasn't a good leader of the opposition; in the sense I did not find fulfilment and my heart wasn't, in being negative, in just looking for the mistakes that the government make because quite often that is the role of the opposition leader, to find the weak spots and to be negative and aggressive. It's not my nature. So, I decided that if I can't do a good job of it let me hand over the role to somebody else and let me try and play a role from civil society viewpoint that lead me to form the FW de Klerk foundation.
TB: Of course in December 2013 Nelson Mandela passed away, how do you feel your vision together has been realised in the South Africa today?
FW: I think it's a yes and a no, it's a positive and a negative. On the positive side we have a good constitution, we have independent courts, we have a democracy, everybody has a vote of equal value, we've had successful transition from one administration to another administration, we're accepted again in the international community with warmth and welcome back, we have liberated ourselves from the shame of apartheid. So, South Africa from that viewpoint is in a good place. The negative side, so far, after 21 years since the 1994 election which made Nelson Mandela president, education has deteriorated it did not improve, and it's not me saying it, black leaders are saying. Actually the national planning commission is deeply concerned, appointed by the ANC about the bad state of affairs in education. Unemployment has risen dramatically. Corruption has taken over hand-over-hand, it has taken, it's taking place hand over hand. So we have tremendous challenges on the socio-economic front, we owe the youth of South Africa to improve the quality of education dramatically. We owe the youth of South Africa to follow well balanced economic policies which will engender investor confidence, which will result in more fixed investment, which will lead to the creation of more jobs. Another aspect which is deeply worrying is that important pillars of the constitution is under attack from the present regime in the ANC. The independence of the national prosecuting authority has been compromised. The institutions which by agreement we included to ensure a fair democracy like the public protector, like the human rights commission are being side lined more and more by the present ANC regime. Private property ownership is under attack, my Centre for Constitutional Rights in the FW de Klerk foundation is forming partnership with other civil society organisations to fight a new package of legislation which will undermine if it goes through, the protection which the constitution offer with regard to private property ownership. So there are many things wrong, which are out of step with what the late president Nelson Mandela and I envisaged and agreed upon in a solemn pact.
TB: You've talked about unemployment, education, corruption, the economy is struggling, the S&P has put it just above junk status, what can be done to turn South Africa around and do you think Zuma, President Zuma is the right person to do it? You have been openly critical of him.
FW: I don't like to play the man. I play the ball. But President Zuma's administration is doing things which are leading to this bad image, which is putting off prospective investors. A few things I think can immediately improve this situation. Firstly stop with unbalanced affirmative action. I'm all for affirmative action and black economic empowerment, but when it becomes unbalanced when it becomes deployment, deploying people on the basis of their race to positions for which they've not been trained. When appointments are made irrespective of merit and experience then it becomes unbalanced affirmative action so that would be a major step, get the electricity grid in order maybe really consider privatising elements of the electricity supply commissions, organisation of Eskom. Stop government interference in the economy to the extent which it is taking place, there is too much prescriptiveness, there is over regulation and the last thing on the economic side is the overprotection of unions, unbalanced labour legislation I think also needs to be revised and once again it is inherent in the recommendations of national planning commission of which Trevor Manuel was the chairman and Cyril Ramaphosa now deputy president of the country was the deputy chairman that labour legislation also needs to be revised.
TB: In light of what you're talking about corruption, in recent allegations of FIFA you were part of the delegation when South Africa won the world cup, what do you make of these allegations?
FW: I tend to believe that the decision to give a part of the money which would come to South Africa for development of what they call the Africans in the diaspora was genuine. It was part of President Mbeki's philosophy, he linked it to the renaissance of Africa and I tend to believe that was genuine and bona fide. I think where mistakes have been made, like the money wasn't followed to insure that it was used for the purpose for which it was given.
TB: Who can you hold responsible for that though sir?
FW: I would say the donors mainly in this case South Africa, but also FIFA itself. The money should have been followed. FIFA was aware that it was given for a specific purpose, South Africa government and SAFA the South African Federation for Football was aware it given for a specific purpose and good governance demands that you should then ensure that the money is used for the purpose which it was given.
TB: And in your role now with the FW de Klerk foundation protecting constitutional rights, who do you hold accountable for the corruption that you talk about in South Africa going on in the present day?
FW: Well the corruptors of course! Sometimes it's also the person paying the bribe and the person accepting the bribe, both of them are equally guilty of corruption. What bothers us most at the moment is the way in which the government pays lip service to fight corruption but, as the best example steadfastly – defence, the spending of 25 million dollars just for security of President Zuma's private home. If you compare what has been spent on Mbeki's home, on Mandela's home, the very little that was spent on my home for protection of former Presidents, then this is absolutely exorbitant and we have a report of the public protect having identified that there are certain items which are not security related at all for which the tax payer paid and President Zuma should repay part of it. They are side-lining her, they are ignoring her constitutional role and recently a minister announced that he has investigated it and President Zuma needn't pay a penny. While it has been found after thorough investigation that he and his family has been enriched with tax payer's money, on issues having nothing to do with security at all.
TB: Would you go so far then to say that President Zuma and his government, or him alone, are corrupt?
FW: I think they look away too often, when corruption takes place. There are examples of people having been removed from their position because they were guilty of corruption, 9 months later or 6 months later they're appointed to another senior post in another place. I think we need a register of people who have been accused and found guilty of corruption and they should never hold public office again anywhere in the country or the civil service.
TB: Is there anything else in your life that is left that you would like to achieve?
FW: I'm not ambitious; I'm turning 80 next year so ones horizon is no longer stretched out way ahead. I'm extremely happily married. I am happy in my family life, but I cannot see myself, as long as my body and my brain can do it, just simply fully retiring. It is my hope to continue with the good work we are doing in both these foundations. The FW de Klerk foundation and the Global Leadership Foundation, and I have no withdrawal symptoms in this regard.
TB: Sir you did experience tragedy within your own family life and your first wife was murdered in a terrible way, how did you get through that?
FW: Of course it was a terrible situation, one stands by your children, one takes hands as a family and one has to move ahead, so it was a deeply sad period but one has to put it behind.
TB: Did you feel it had any relation to you and the policies you were pushing forward?
FW: Not at all, by that time I was divorced from my former wife and remarried to wife Elita, so we were living apart and I don't think there was political motivation.
TB: And just looking back now at Nelson Mandela, what do you remember the most from him personally? What is something you will treasure?
FW: Well firstly I think his greatest legacy was his emphasis on his need for reconciliation. On a very personal level his sense of humour, I remember his real genuine warmth, he was a remarkable man.
TB: And what would you like your own legacy to be?
FW: I refrain whenever I'm asked that question from trying to give a meaningful answer because I don't want to write my own epitaph, therefore just say I hope I'll be remembered as somebody who made a difference to the good.