By Sinethemba Sankara Bizela
The death of South Africa’s former President FW de Klerk has opened me up to one hammering question: What does his name mean to us, the Black youth residing behind what one historian calls ‘the iron curtain’ of the beautiful cities of this country?
I have failed to negotiate his name between fame and shame as the last President of apartheid who switched off the plug of such a horrible regime.
This is the man who, after being quiet for a long time, dropped a bomb that many social media commentators agitated about after the State of the Nation Address in 2020.
Apartheid was not a crime against humanity, said the former president. This angered mostly black people in the country to the point where some social media commentators said he should be chased out of the country.
De Klerk’s statement rhymes with DA federal council chairperson Helen Zille who, on Twitter a while ago, said: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc.”
The callousness in her appraisal of the very colonial modernity that certified the dispossession of the indigenes of South Africa and left them landless is evident in her statement.
It also speaks to her party’s claim on colour blindness against the backdrop of racialised poverty in the country. It is virtually impossible to think of unemployment, hunger, outdoor toilets, and shacks without having black people in your mind.
Both De Klerk and Zille are indifferent, if not in denial, of the dehumanisation of black people.
To say apartheid was not a crime against humanity means one thing: Black people, according to the world view that De Klerk represents, fall outside what it means to be human. There seems to be an existing element of disbelief and uncertainty to both white leaders about the pain of Black people due to colonialism. Zille’s statement reveals, on the one hand, nostalgia of White political power which delegitimises the victimhood of blacks.
On the other hand, De Klerk’s denialist statement is an evasive turn away from committing to what Achille Mbembe calls the “moral debt” that white South Africans are supposed to be settling: the sharing of wealth.
I understand De Klerk when he says apartheid was not a crime against humanity. And he is right only from the apartheid logic. Generally, Blacks were subhuman in the lexicon of a schizophrenic regime like apartheid.
De Klerk’s statement reveals his truest and honest beliefs and ultimately tells us that we did not usher into the democratic dispensation just because Botha was bad and De Klerk was good. Apartheid was economically untenable in the 1980s due to the sanctions unleashed by international solidarity, and he had to be the one to switch off the plugs.
Also, De Klerk himself, Tutu and Mandela did not get the Nobel Peace Prize because they were inherently good men or saints. They were compensated for their political compromise and their civil war postponement. So, to reprimand De Klerk for speaking his truth is to force him to speak a foreign language.
First and foremost, De Klerk had worked for the apartheid government since 1962. He knew the cultural logic of apartheid and its rituals intimately. By rituals, I’m referring to the institutionalised violence and acts of objectifying and dehumanising Black bodies.
Who are we then to contradict him and contest his views on a system that shaped his world, privileges and his identity?
Instead, we should embrace De Klerk and forgive him once again. His age says that the unconscious has taken over him.
And the beauty about the unconscious is that it harbours our truths, unchecked, uncensored by social codes and political correctness. By so doing, we are not embracing De Klerk, the man, but honesty and his victimhood as a young man indoctrinated in his youth to believe that black people are not humans.
Perhaps, De Klerk was consistent way before Codesa but circumstances forced him to adopt a new language, a language of political correctness and dishonesty – its pillar.
Perhaps as a nation, we are not necessarily mad at De Klerk and his racism but at ourselves for believing that the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of our political parties was an act of repentance on his side. Perhaps we are scolding this old man because his wounding words force us to look back at our history, the transition, with disdainful eyes.
Through De Klerk’s insistence that apartheid was not a crime against humanity, we are angry at ourselves that the negotiated settlement dribbled us economically, and that our social humiliation is just unbearable.
Or he just exposed the so-called political compromise, in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a political scam that perpetually deferred the decolonisation of South Africa.
What does his death symbolise in the aftermath of local government elections now that the ANC is slowly losing its dominance? Perhaps, nothing, if he is not finally resting in eternal peace after seeing that the ANC is losing metros that are economic hubs of the country, thereby reducing Black leadership to Bantustans. And if I were asked which way you are taking between heaven and hell, I would be afraid to answer for the fear is the latter.
Goodbye, De Klerk!
* Sinethemba Sankara Bizela, enrolled for a PhD in the English Department at Stellenbosch University), holds an MA in Post-colonial Studies (UWC).