S. Africa's De Klerk: Courage and Flexibility

SELDOM in history have two men needed each other as much as African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and President Frederik W.de Klerk. ``Their destinies have become completely intertwined,'' said Rommel Roberts, a South African of mixed race who heads the black leadership program of the Cape Town-based Quaker Peace Center.

At his first international news conference following his release, Mr. Mandela praised Mr. De Klerk as a ``man of integrity'' but added that the ANC could not plan its future strategy on the qualities of one man.

``We want more evidence that he can carry the [ruling] National Party with him,'' said Mandela.

Mandela could just as well have been saying the same about himself.

He, too, must show that he can unify the divided black community if genuine compromise is to be reached in South Africa.

Whereas Mandela must guide the spiraling aspirations of black South Africans, De Klerk must quell the fears and anxieties of whites.

Unlike Mandela - who has history and the moral high ground on his side - De Klerk has had to shift to project himself as a proponent of a broader South African nationalism that transcends racial differences.

In the six months since he was elected the country's president, he has had to renounce the authoritarian ways of his predecessors, concede the moral indefensibility of apartheid, and embark on a risk-laden course of dialogue and negotiation with leaders of the restive black majority.

Those black leaders who have met De Klerk during the past year have praised his ability to listen and communicate and admit when he is wrong.

Even before De Klerk's far-reaching announcements on legalizing political opposition, Mandela told visiting black businessman Richard Maponya that he regarded De Klerk as ``the most serious and honest of South Africa's white leaders.''

Mandela also praised De Klerk for ``positive and meaningful moves.''

A white business executive who recently met Mandela said an ``excellent chemistry'' had been established between him and De Klerk.

De Klerk has impressed his adversaries with his sincerity, sensitivity, and a flexibility that critics say they have not found in his predecessors.

His colleagues have been impressed by his easy style, self-confidence, and ability to win the confidence of others.

``He is a good listener and an excellent communicator, and argues with logic and precision,'' said an aide.

``He can handle - and even thrives - on stress, and acts with courage once he takes a decision.''

But before De Klerk's sudden emergence as a leader, he was regarded as verkramp (unenlightened), a man of conservative instincts.

He is a fourth-generation politician from a famous political family.

De Klerk nearly broke the family mold in 1972, when he was offered a senior academic post in law but turned it down to enter politics.

His father, Sen. Jan de Klerk, impressed on him that politics was a ``calling'' rather than a job.

The late Senator De Klerk was one of the founders of the National Party and its apartheid policies.

One factor that distinguishes De Klerk from his predecessors is that he does not belong to the dominant Dutch Reformed Church, which has been referred to as the ``National Party at prayer'' because of the close link that has emerged between its theology and politics.

De Klerk belongs to a tiny offshoot - the Reformed Church (Doppers) - which advocates a more flexible relationship between theology and politics, and has produced some top liberal thinkers.

``Where De Klerk's greatness comes in, is that he has had to give a clear direction, facing massive black aspirations on the one hand, and mounting white fear and anxiety on the other,'' says Mr. Roberts.

``He has had to make himself vulnerable to all the risks of the future. This is a true test of leadership,'' he adds.

``A leader's vision must emerge from the people and reflect their aspirations. This makes a leader truly accountable.''

De Klerk excelled within his community as a student, and later as a leader within the legal profession, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the ruling National Party to become its leader in Transvaal province in 1982.

Although branded as rigidly conservative by his critics, he seldom sang the praises of apartheid during his 18 years in Parliament where he proved to be one of the most agile and consistent debaters.

``In spite of his image as rigid dogmatist, I believe he is first and foremost a man looking for compromises and conciliation,'' wrote Willem De Klerk, his brother and an Afrikaner dissident who takes more after his nonconformist mother than his rigidly establishment father.

``But he is also a man who believes passionately in certain principles,'' said brother Willem.

De Klerk insists that his political change of heart was a process that stretched over six years and that his principles have not changed.

``Everything we are doing, we are doing to counter revolution,'' he said in a recent interview on state-run television.

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