De Klerk Reconsidered

Can people change? Can leaders radically change their countries’ policies? We all recognize the audacity of Richard Nixon in his opening to China. We also remember when Robert McNamara admitted years after the end of the Vietnam War that “We were wrong, very wrong.”

What causes leaders to change their minds and policies? The recent death of F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, is being filled with tributes for what he did to end apartheid in South Africa. In the country, his passing has sparked anew a sometime dormant debate about a formal apology from him over the long decades of apartheid wrongs.

Tributes to Nelson Mandela at his death in 2013 re-affirmed a universal recognition of his extraordinary personal qualities and leadership in liberating South Africa from the curse of apartheid. Narratives recounted how Mandela symbolized both a personal journey from 27 years in prison to his country’s presidency as well as how he became the non-violent leader of basic dignity for all, something internationally recognized and admired. No figure in modern history had been able to win the hearts and minds of so many people. His story is truly inspiring, much like that of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet, in retracing the story of Mandela and South Africa, little mention is usually made of De Klerk’s role in ending apartheid. For if Mandela’s personal journey and political leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) were crucial in dismantling formal apartheid in South Africa, it can be argued that De Klerk’s actions were at least instrumental in the country’s formal transformation.

(Although there has been change in South Africa, the essential political economy of the country remains one of ‘white wealth and black poverty.’ Much remains to be done to achieve more than a formal transformation.)

In a memorable speech at the opening of Parliament on February 2, 1990, the conservatively inclined Afrikaner President de Klerk surprisingly formally ended apartheid, unbanned the ANC and thirty-one other organizations, and announced the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of negotiations.

In a 2004 interview, De Klerk said: “[w]e reached the stage where we had to admit to ourselves that we had failed to bring justice to the majority of all South Africans…and that we had reached the point of no return. It was failure. We could either cling to power…with our military might, protecting an unjust society – or we could make a quantum leap and say we were wrong and make an apology…and take an initiative to really change things and to really bring about a just society…”

I had the privilege of chatting with De Klerk before I introduced him as a speaker at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The auditorium was far from packed. He did not have the charismatic image or reputation of a Nelson Mandela.

He was a large man, in many senses. I couldn’t resist asking him what had made him change his mind and policy. He looked me square in the eye and recounted how he genuinely recognized, at a certain point, that apartheid was unjust. “It just wasn’t right,” he said, This statement was from a man who had advanced his political career by defending the separation of Blacks and Afrikaners. In a video released by his foundation just after his death, De Klerk said: “Allow me in this last message to share with you the fact that since the early ’80s, my views changed completely. It was as if I had a conversion and in my heart of hearts realized that apartheid was wrong.”

(I had asked McNamara a similar question about what had changed his mind about the Vietnam War before a Pugwash conference dealing with science and world affairs in Geneva. His answer revolved around the insistence of his daughter and her friends that the Vietnam War was wrong. After several years, their insistence and with increased evidence, he said, he finally recognized that “we were wrong.” The I word was not used.)

Whether one accepts De Klerk’s lofty words about justice or one argues that he pragmatically accepted an inevitable reality, one has to recognize that De Klerk, who was a child of the National Party, radically changed his position and his country’s policy on the issue that mattered to the country most, race. Although uncharismatic, he has been called a “transformational leader.”

Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 “for the termination of the apartheid regime.” even though, at the time of their visit to Stockholm to receive the prize, the two leaders were not speaking to each other. But when Mandela became South Africa’s president, De Klerk became one of two Deputy Presidents: it is said that their relations during this period were cordial.

In Profiles in Courage, John Kennedy’s traced the biographies of eight United States Senators who courageously defied what they were expected to do. Each of the eight took a quantum leap, often to their political demise. The lesson of de Klerk shows that leaders can change and take quantum leaps. De Klerk’s transformation merits a profile in courage.

(McNamara’s change was too late to modify policy and falls far short of a genuine quantum leap or a profile in courage. He was out of office. Nevertheless, his statement that “We were wrong, very wrong,” does represent a radical change in positions, albeit much too late.)


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.