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Lest you forget: a reminder to FW de Klerk on the inhumanity of apartheid

The last president of the apartheid era in SA died on Thursday. In 2020, Jacques Pauw argued that De Klerk would have found South Africans incredibly forgiving had he been able to admit his own shortcomings and complicity in a crime against humanity

23 February 2020 - 00:00 By JACQUES PAUW
FW de Klerk should meditate on the fact he was often told the truth about his regime.
FW de Klerk should meditate on the fact he was often told the truth about his regime.
Image: Adrian Steirn/www.21Icons.com via Getty Images

Former state president FW de Klerk died at his home in Cape Town on Thursday at the age of 85. 

His foundation said in a statement: "It is with the deepest sadness that the FW de Klerk Foundation must announce that former president FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer."

Below is a piece penned by Jacques Pauw in 2020. 

There are four words that former president FW de Klerk can never say: 

“I did not know.”

“I did not know that apartheid was a crime against humanity.”

He said it to reporters in February and he said it in a press release issued by his foundation after the furore at the state of the nation address last week. Although he was forced to withdraw this, he still believes it.  He often says that he did not know that his security forces were complicit in horrendous human rights abuses.

He shouldn’t say that either.

Because I told him, just two months after he took the highest office in September 1989, that his death squads were killing anti-apartheid activists.

And after the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990, his homicidal bands of state-sanctioned killers continued to roam the land, stoking so-called “black-on-black” violence, dishing out guns to warlords and plotting massacres in the townships.

 I was at the time a journalist at the Afrikaans anti-apartheid newspaper Vrye Weekblad. We exposed Vlakplaas and the bloody trail of its commanders, Dirk Coetzee and Eugene de Kock, in November 1989.

After the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela, we continued to provide evidence of the complicity of De Klerk’s security forces in sabotaging the peace process to prevent black majority rule.

But we were not the only ones. Other newspapers like the Mail & Guardian and New Nation were at the forefront of exposing the malfeasance of his security forces. 

But there were many more voices that warned De Klerk to rein in some of his generals and colonels. 

The president-in-waiting, Mandela, told him.

The then secretary-general of the ANC and its chief negotiator, Cyril Ramaphosa, told him.

Then ANC chair Thabo Mbeki told him.

Politicians like Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and Helen Suzman told him. 

UDF leaders Albertina Sisulu, Popo Molefe, Trevor Manuel and Mosiuoa  Lekota told him.

A host of nongovernmental organisations, such as Lawyers for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Black Sash, told him about a hidden hand stoking the violence that engulfed the country from north to south and from east to west.

The South African Council of Churches and prominent members of the clergy, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Reverend Frank Chikane and Beyers Naudé, told him. 

Who did De Klerk think blew off the hands of human rights activist Father Michael Lapsley with a letter bomb in Zimbabwe shortly after the release of Mandela in February 1990?

And who did he think committed the military-style raid in Botswana in April 1990 in which four members of a family, including two deaf children, were massacred?

And who did he think killed human rights attorney Bheki Mlangeni a year after the unbanning of the ANC when he activated a  sophisticated letter bomb  concealed in a Walkman cassette player?

Many ANC members and officials were murdered after returning to SA in the early  1990s. Among them were Sicelo Msomi, Dr Henry Luthuli, Michael Meetywa, Johannes Sweet Sambo, Mbuso Shabalala and Charles Ndaba.

None of these incidents were solved. In the case of Luthuli, the investigating officer arrested a Vlakplaas policeman. He was taken off the case and died in mysterious circumstances. The Vlakplaas member was never charged.

In March 1992, police ambushed a minibus carrying five passengers on the outskirts of Nelspruit in the then Eastern Transvaal. One of them, Tiso Leballo, was Winnie Mandela’s former driver.

The police fired a rain of high-velocity bullets into the minivan, killing all those inside it. They then chucked AK-47 assault rifles and hand grenades into the minibus before dousing it with petrol and setting it alight.

News reports said that a special police unit investigating the flood of illegal guns in the country had killed armed bank robbers in a firefight. They identified the commander of the policemen as Col Eugene de Kock.

Three years after Vrye Weekblad had exposed De Kock as a state assassin of gargantuan proportions, the man they called Prime Evil was still on the beat.

Why was he never stopped during De Klerk’s four-and-a-half-year reign as president?

If you believe De Klerk, it was only after the arrest of De Kock in May 1994 and subsequent evidence before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)  that he was confronted with comprehensive evidence that his security forces were complicit in widespread human rights abuses. 

He might have been surprised; the rest of us were not. We had known it all along.

And we told him.

Three years after Vrye Weekblad had exposed De Kock as a state assassin of gargantuan proportions, the man they called Prime Evil was still on the beat


I once entered the hallowed halls of the De Klerk family farm outside Krugersdorp in the former Western Transvaal. It is long gone but in those years, the early  1980s, the farmstead was a monument to the role the De Klerk family played in the social engineering of SA during the 46 years of National Party rule. I remember the heavy wood, a whiff of polish permeating the air and a study adorned with photographs of the paterfamilias of the family and FW’s father, Jan de Klerk. 

Jan de Klerk was big, bold and notable —  unlike his youngest son, Frederik Willem, born 12 years before the National Party came to power in 1948. The elder De Klerk was a strict and outspoken segregationist who became a minister in the cabinet of the arch-conservative prime minister, JG Strijdom, in 1954.

Strijdom, who was FW de Klerk’s maternal uncle, introduced some of the harshest apartheid legislation and removed “coloureds” from the voting roll. His brother-in-law  Jan de Klerk  served in the cabinet for 12 years before becoming the president of the senate.

FW de Klerk, who set up a thriving lawyer’s firm in Vereeniging, was just 27 when he was invited to join the Broederbond, the secret Afrikaner brotherhood of males that promoted Calvinist values, cultural identity and political supremacy.

Many who look at FW de Klerk today see the liberator of Nelson Mandela and the dismantler of apartheid. What they don’t see is a man deeply complicit in the social, political and legal engineering of SA  into an apartheid nirvana for whites while at the same time condemning black people to a patchwork of impoverished land they called “homelands”.

He was brought up with apartheid’s dogma of separateness, its creed of racial superiority and its belief in biblical justification.

That is why it is so difficult for him to bluntly label apartheid as a crime against humanity. He has a mental block against condemning a system that nurtured him during his childhood and for most of his adult life.

He has a mental block against condemning a system that nurtured him during his childhood and for most of his adult life

He finds it impossible to see those who shared his convictions as having perpetrated criminal and unjust acts against their black compatriots.

De Klerk continues to say that the National Party leadership had good intentions when they embarked on a policy of “separate but equal” development.

What was apartheid’s intention when it set up separate, race-based health systems that resulted, according to the World Health Organisation, in an infant mortality rate of 12/1,000 for whites and 120/1,000 for blacks in 1980?

Its architects believed in an inferior potential of the African mind and discouraged the teaching of maths and sciences to black learners. They starved black education of funds and in the 1970s the government spent 10 times more on a white learner than a black learner.


Apartheid wrecked the lives of black people on every level. Has FW de Klerk ever looked at the photographs by  David Goldblatt of commuters from KwaNdebele —  an apartheid homeland 130km northeast of Pretoria —  who had to catch a bus between 2am and 3am every morning to be at their workplaces in the capital by 8am? 

They once lived on the outskirts of Pretoria but in 1979 were rounded up, pushed onto buses and trucks and dumped at 12 camps in KwaNdebele. It had little infrastructure and no industry.

At the end of the day they repeated the journey in the other direction and got home at 9pm or 10pm. The buses were jam-packed. Goldblatt photographed commuters wrapped in blankets in uncomfortable sleep. Some heads rest on shoulders, others are tilted back. Those awake stare into the nothingness gliding past.

The writer says FW de Klerk has a mental block against condemning a system that nurtured him during his childhood and for most of his adult life.
The writer says FW de Klerk has a mental block against condemning a system that nurtured him during his childhood and for most of his adult life.
Image: Sydney Seshibedi

It is incredible how blind those are who do not want to see.  As a member of parliament and cabinet minister, De Klerk regularly passed the barren land where District Six once housed a vibrant “coloured” community that lived a stone’s throw from their places of work.

In the 1970s, more than 60,000 residents were forcibly removed and their houses destroyed. They were dumped on a barren wasteland many kilometres away on the Cape Flats.

The human cost of apartheid is immeasurable. De Klerk and his compatriots have shattered lives and reduced them to nothingness. Legislation like the Group Areas Act and the Population Registration Act broke families apart. Children grew up without fathers, and wives without husbands. People withered away and perished of heartbreak.

Who can argue whether apartheid was a crime against humanity except those who perpetrated it.


March 31 1984. In Pretoria, the State Security Council   (SSC) met under the chairmanship of PW Botha. Political violence and unrest were spreading through the land.

The SSC can best be described as a secretive cabinet within a cabinet that dealt with the Total Onslaught ideology as perpetrated by the ANC and its “communist surrogates”. The SSC co-ordinated the government’s response in combating these forces of evil, which they called the Total National Strategy.

 Although De Klerk never held a security portfolio in the cabinet, the TRC found evidence that he participated in 90% of its meetings.

At that meeting, the SSC recommended that two black teachers and “agitators” in Cradock in the Eastern Cape, Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata, be “removed”. They were subsequently harassed, detained and tortured. 


Following their release, a top-secret military signal then ordered their “permanent removal from society”. In June 1985, security police abducted Goniwe, Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli — known as the Cradock Four — before killing them and burning their bodies.

The SSC discussed the setting up of special police and defence force units to act against revolutionaries, conduct raids into neighbouring states and form “anti-revolutionary groups” such as Inkatha.

And let us not forget that between 1979 and 1981 the SSC discussed the development of an offensive chemical and biological warfare programme. This led to Operation Coast, where apartheid scientists attempted to develop drugs that would only work on blacks.  

I believe that De Klerk’s biggest failure —  and shame — lies in his failure to stop what he terms “black-on-black” violence that engulfed the country after the unbanning of the ANC and during the negotiations process. 

He has never come to terms with the fact that it was his military and his police —  which we called the Third Force at the time — that stoked the violence in townships.

He said in his infamous post-Sona statement (which he has now withdrawn) that “some 23,000 people” died in South African political violence between 1960 and 1994 —  “of whom fewer than 5,000 were killed by the security forces”.

He said in a television interview the same week: “Many people died, yes. But more people died because of black-on-black violence than because of apartheid.”


These statements are disingenuous in the extreme. He ignores the bloody trail  of his security forces throughout the subcontinent. Not only did they engage in a war in Namibia and southern Angola, but the apartheid leaders have the blood of thousands upon thousands on their hands from raids into neighbouring states, and their military and political support for warlords like Jonas Savimbi and Afonso Dhlakama, the leaders of Unita in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique.

Let me give De Klerk an example of what happened under his presidential nose in the early 1990s. Just before Namibia’s independence in 1990, Eugene de Kock took 60t  of Eastern Bloc weapons — AK-47s, hand grenades, rocket launchers and land mines — from the then police counter-insurgency unit of Koevoet to Vlakplaas.

Many of the weapons were then taken to KwaZulu-Natal to arm Inkatha impis. De Kock and his men also supplied weapons to warlords like Themba Khoza, Inkatha’s leader in Gauteng. 

The TRC heard evidence that Khoza was closely aligned with De Kock and his men. Khoza did not only get weapons from Vlakplaas — its operatives assisted him in planning township massacres.


Top officers in De Klerk’s police and defence force used IFP impis as surrogate forces to weaken the ANC and demoralise its support base in the townships.

Khoza, who died in 2000 as he was about to stand trial on 19 charges, including gun-running and incitement to violence, has been linked to the deaths of 38 mourners at a night vigil in Sebokeng and the massacre of nearly 50 civilians in  Boipatong.

Many of the weapons supplied to Khoza found their way to the hostels from which impis launched attacks in the townships.  Around 14,000 people died in the township wars of the early 1990s. Around 70% were township residents targeted by IFP-supporting hostel dwellers.

So yes, Mr de Klerk, it was blacks killing blacks — while your security forces poured petrol on the flames. 

Having said all this, I have a grudging respect for FW de Klerk. He could have clung to power for longer and led SA down a path of destruction and civil war

Having said all this, I have a grudging respect for FW de Klerk. It is rare in politics that leaders relinquish power. He could have clung to power for longer and led SA down a path of destruction and civil war.

The “new” SA was always going to be the result of compromise and an imperfect deal. The ANC and the apartheid state coming together to find a solution to 300 years of inequality and political superiority were like the two tectonic plates that shifted to create the Great Rift Valley. It was going to leave fault lines and scars that would remain for a very long time.

The inequality continues to exist but at least we have a beautiful constitution, a mostly functional state, a working judiciary and incredible goodwill.

It is therefore sad that De Klerk’s role in dismantling apartheid is still questioned and that he gets abused in parliament.

All of this could have been avoided if only he had admitted his own shortcomings and his complicity in a crime against humanity.

He would have found South Africans to be incredibly forgiving people. 


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