Black South Africans Ended Apartheid, Not F.W De Klerk

Newly election South African president Nelson Mandela held hands with former South African president F.W. de Klerk in Cape Town South Africa, in 1994

Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Black South Africans Ended Apartheid, Not F.W De Klerk

In light of the former apartheid president's death, international coverage has mistakenly portrayed De Klerk as the anti-apartheid genie of South Africa's dreams. Allow me to clear a few things up for you.

Why is "Don't speak ill of the dead" something we as a society subscribe to? Who's going to complain? The dead?

Last week, a rare form of cancer took down former South African apartheid president F.W De Klerk at age 85, and the reactions from South Africans (and the world) have been as controversial as the former politician's life.

The National Party's apartheid regime was a time in South Africa where your life, well-being, and identity were decided for you, and determined by the color of your skin. The NP (National Party) terrorized South Africa for close to 50 years, only "successfully" being taken down by a referendum in 1992 where white South Africans (only) were asked if they agreed with the government's plan to phase out the apartheid regime. We are forever grateful to the 69% that voted yes, while silently, innocently hoping that the 31% that voted no have seen their last days. After the "success" of the referendum, the late, great Nelson Mandela and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), took over the land after winning South Africa's first-ever democratic election, held in 1994. And the rest is (a painful, greedy, unthinkable) history.

Insert Mr. Frederik Willem De Klerk, the last president of South Africa's apartheid regime.

Freddie W. became the state leader of the National Party in 1989, taking over from late, openly racist, former President P.W Botha. This after having been essentially born into the National Party —his family were long-time supporters and members — and curating his own reputation and successful career, as he worked through the ranks of the pro-white, anti-Black political party. By the time De Klerk took over the NP, South Africa was ungovernable. Forty years after their conception, we finally learned how to get the government and not-so-liberal citizens to stop in their tracks and honestly read the room — absolute anarchy. However, through peaceful negotiations, Mandela was freed, racial discrimination was criminalized (allegedly) and a new South African constitution was created.

I was born into a two-year-old democracy in 1996, and grew up as a 'Born Free'. I was not born into the struggle but experienced the ramifications of putting a bandaid over a systemic, political, and social-sized bullet hole. At no point during my years of learning about apartheid in school was F.W De Klerk painted as the grand-master champ of ending it. Now that he's died, the media seems to be making attempts to upgrade his legacy.

Calls to forgive De Klerk and "liberate ourselves from the prison of bitterness", according to The Daily Maverick, fall short when you remember that he ordered the brutal murders of The Cradock 4 and refused to give their families peace of mind. The Globalist made sure to mention that, " De Klerk had the courage to take a bold decision with gigantic risks" and that they, "suspect that in the fullness of time, history will judge De Klerk favorably." The Globe and Mail's Riedwaan Ahmed said that De Klerk's final apology and farewell, "brought him to tears", as he decided that forgiving De Klerk was what Mandela would've wanted us all to do. While SA based publication The Sowetan echoed Ahmed's argument, further daring to conclude that De Klerk 'deserves' a state funeral as, "Tata Madiba, Nelson Mandela, taught us the gospel of reconciliation and forgiveness and it would, therefore, be a kind gesture from our president to bestow De Klerk with an honor of a state funeral."

F.W De Klerk was not an honorable leader, and he did not end apartheid — Black South Africans did. Black South African activists, to be more specific. The Sharpville Massacre, The Soweto Uprising (where Black students were murdered for protesting the racial discrimination in their schools), and the murders of Steve Biko, David Sibeko, Victoria Mxenge, Chris Hani and so many more deaths are the reasons why apartheid fell. Stop crediting that white man. Yes, De Klerk freed Nelson Mandela, but how many people were left behind? How many people were forced into exile, never to return to their families?

To commend F. W De Klerk for "putting an end" to apartheid in South Africa is inaccurate, disingenuine, and shows a very clear lack of awareness or knowledge of the damage that man and his colleagues bestowed on any South African to ever exist. The racial superiority gifted to his white South African counterparts (due to no real reconciliation or acknowledgment of what their great-grandparents, grandparents, and even parents did) is proof enough that De Klerk's influence still blows along the Port Elizabeth winds.

His incessant desire to refer to the apartheid era as "separate development", the lack of accountability or remorse shown in the immediate aftermath of the apartheid regime and everything he said and did up until his death makes it harder to focus on the good stuff. De Klerk apologized for apartheid on a few occasions but always mastered the art of not knowing when to shut up. In a 1990 interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, De Klerk said, "As much as [apartheid] trampled human rights, it remains morally indefensable. But, ethnic unities with one culture and one language can be happy and can fulfill their democratic aspiration in an owned state." This after Mandela was forced to share his noble peace prize with De Klerk, "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa."

International sanctions and pressure pushed De Klerk to end the regime — not his humanity and love of a "rainbow nation". In 2020, De Klerk finally admitted that he didn't see apartheid as that big of a deal. Or rather, in his words, "Not a legitimate crime against humanity." First of all, it was 2020 — read the room. Even if Freddie DK did genuinely believe that apartheid was the best thing to happen to South Africa, how does one lack the social insight, understanding, and ability to think cognitively so severely? Secondly, why were we still asking him if he thought apartheid was a bad time? On top of that, why was De Klerk allowed a platform at all after Mandela took over? Why he was allowed in the room with so many legitimate freedom fighters and changemakers will be forever symbolic of the pleasures life affords an even semi-intelligent white man.

In an undated video posted after his death, an older De Klerk vehemently apologized for his part in traumatizing, villainizing, and forever augmenting the racial/ethnic relationships that exist in South Africa. That was very nice of him to do, however, apologizing for crimes against humanity that you imposed over 20 years ago, while on your death bed is not an honorable thing to do. You do not leave a clean slate behind because you own up to your crimes at the nth hour. Apartheid "ended" 26 years ago. Where was this hindsight on the 1, 5, or 10 year anniversaries of democracy?

F.W De Klerk's death does not take away from that fact he was responsible for and benefitted from a system of racial oppression that generations of South Africans will have to deal with. I'm all for forgive and forget but to say that the apartheid government failed because De Klerk secretly loved Black people and was waiting for his chance to finally free us, would be illogical and disrespectful to the history of the country.

Bad people exist and the bad they did does not go away when they die.