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A divided South Africa reacts to the death of last apartheid president

December 04, 2021
topics: Racism
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: South Africa
tags: Africa, apartheid, FW de Klerk

The death of the last leader of Apartheid South Africa on 11 November served to highlight the racial fault lines that reconciliation efforts are struggling to plaster over.

“Thank You God!” read a cryptic tweet by Julius Malema, the leader of South Africa’s radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) opposition party, immediately after re-tweeting an article on the death of Frederik Willem de Klerk (85), the last white president of South Africa (1989-1994). 

This tweet by Malema, who has always been honest and open about his disdain for de Klerk, angered some people who reported it to Twitter for investigation.

Malema represents the millions of black South Africans who refuse to be reconciled to their former white oppressors almost three decades after the end of Apartheid and the coming of majority rule.

State Funeral Opposed

To ordinary South Africans, de Klerk was not a former president of South Africa, but a former Apartheid president, to whom no honour of any type was due.

“It is sad that yet another Apartheid criminal died without having accounted for the crimes he helped to perpetrate against our humanity,” said Lukhanyo Calata, son of Fort Calata, one of the “Cradock Four” anti-Apartheid activists who were abducted and killed by security police in June 1985.

Malema’s EFF party later issued a statement in which it warned that it was going to violently oppose the granting of "a state funeral for a man who died without accounting for the blood on his hands." 

"To honour de Klerk with a state funeral would be to spit in the face of gallant liberation heroes who suffered in his hands and had their children murdered in his quest to stifle the freedom of black people. A state funeral for de Klerk would be an insult to the families of the Cradock Four, it would undermine the memory of the people of Boipatong, Mthata, Bhisho, the people of Vosloorus, and many communities who were maimed by his state-sponsored black-on-black violence," the statement reads in part. 

It was a threat taken seriously by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government - which is still smarting from July's violent protests - and, indeed, no state funeral was granted to de Klerk. His private funeral 21 November and subsequent cremation were both done in total secrecy and under tight security. 

Unrepentant Until Death

What made many black people particularly angry with de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, was his unrepentant attitude towards the crime that was Apartheid.

Throughout his life, de Klerk tenaciously clung to the view that Apartheid (separate development in Afrikaans language) was intended to address the complexity of South African diversity.

In his statement before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the late 1990s, he protested the international assignation of Apartheid as a crime against humanity in 1973. The TRC had been created to examine human rights abuses during the Apartheid era.

Posthumous Apology

Hours after his death, however, de Klerk’s foundation released a recorded video in which he apologised for the crimes committed against people of colour in South Africa.

“I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that Apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa,” de Klerk said in the video. “I do so not only in my capacity as the former leader of the National Party, but also as an individual.

"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, I realised that Apartheid was wrong. I realised that we had arrived at a place which was morally unjustifiable. My conversion, to which I refer, didn’t end with the admission to myself of the total unacceptability of Apartheid."

Posthumous Apology Rejected

However, not everyone detected sincerity in the posthumous apology, and many rejected it outright.

"De Klerk’s apology is nothing less than an insulting performance,” wrote Bukelani Mboniswa, a South African essayist and author.

"A pre-recorded performance of a narrow reflection; whose main objective is to permanently erase, in our collective memory, images of violence and death inflicted on black people by white people and their apartheid government. 

“White people have always understood themselves as deserving of absolution for the carnage and terror they perpetuated on black bodies, without having to climb the racial mountain of forgiveness. To be white in South Africa has always meant that you are constantly at the mercy of others, despite your undeniable sins; that you should be forgiven even in the absence of an apology.”

Reconciliation Efforts Spurned?

Shortly after end of Apartheid in South Africa, the TRC was set up to probe the atrocities of the Apartheid era. Its central purpose was to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of apartheid by the full disclosure of truth.

However, many prominent whites refused to co-operate with the commission, or - like de Klerk - either lied or feigned ignorance of some of the violations brought before it, raising questions about the commitment of these whites to the establishment of a truly non-racial South Africa.

With the final report of the TRC blaming the bulk of the atrocities on the Apartheid State, most blacks find it hard to forgive and reconcile with unrepentant whites. Orania, a whites-only town in South Africa, is a living monument built by some of these unrepentant elements. 

Churches Continue to Preach Forgiveness Reconciliation

However, the church is trying its best to fight racism by appealing to both sides to exercise restraint even in the face of repeated provocation.

"It’s very embarrassing to witness bold expressions of racism by groups as well as individuals in our society," Bishop Victor Phalana of the Diocese of Klerksdorp said earlier on Youth Day, a day set aside to remember the 1976 Soweto Uprising. "We need a genuine conversion of heart, a dialogue that will compel change, and the reform of our institutions, schools, universities and society." 

Bishop Phalana, who is also the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) Liaison Bishop for Justice and Peace, went on to highlight that structural inequalities existing in the country have not helped the situation.

“Our society is deeply divided on issues of land, affirmative action, and capital ownership," he said. "There are also inequalities in access to quality education and quality health services. Everyone within society should be part of the on-going conversion and dialogue to root out the sin of racism. We should address the causes, and the injustices racism produces in order for healing to happen."

Inequalities between whites and blacks are regarded as the biggest obstacle to racial harmony in South Africa. For example, whites who make up only nine percent of South Africa’s nearly 60 million population, own over 70 percent of the land, while blacks, who make up 80 percent of the population, own only four percent of the land. 

Ongoing legal fights over continued use of Afrikaans at some South African tertiary institutions are also evidence of simmering racial tensions within this so-called 'Rainbow Nation'.

The Pain Is Deep

Apostle Trevor Itumeleng Molefe, a senior pastor at Mercy Seat Family Fellowship in the Gauteng area of South Africa, told FairPlanet that there are many factors compounding the problem of racial disharmony in South Africa. 

“The problem with racism/apartheid in South Africa is that:

  1. Blacks are indeed still angry, knowingly and unknowingly. The pain is deep.
  2. To a certain extent, we are still experiencing it,
  3. Some white people are arrogantly unapologetic.
  4. The apartheid movies and documentaries on TV always take us back and in a way say, ‘do not forget what they did.' These make forgiveness difficult and anger to persist.”

He said the reaction to de Klerk was not surprising at all, but it remains their duty as church leaders to push parties towards conciliation.  

“With regards to the passing of Mr. F. W. de Klerk, people had to think of who he is. He is not just a white man, but [also] the man who led the country during Apartheid, so you can imagine the anger - and for some - the joy. However, as the Christian community we will forever preach forgiveness. The Bible instructs us to forgive seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:22). That’s a lifetime.” 

He said they are always teaching people on the importance of forgiving even in the absence of an apology.

"Whilst we preach forgiveness in the black community, I believe white people have got a role to play as well and that is to show that they are not like their ancestors and stop being racist and treating blacks like they are less human."

Image by Paul Weinberg.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
South Africa
The death of Frederik Willem de Klerk (85), the last white president of South Africa has been met with mixed reactions across the nation.
© Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Inequalities between whites and blacks are regarded as the biggest obstacle to racial harmony in South Africa.
© Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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