Earlier this month, the last apartheid president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, died aged 85.
His death has brought with it a storm of commentary about apartheid and the legacy it left behind, a legacy that continues to shape everyday life for South Africans. With FW de Klerk both having contributed to apartheid as well as having shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela for helping negotiate an end to the oppressive regime, his is a legacy that divides opinion.
Here, Global Citizen’s Contributing Editor Gugulethu Mhlungu reflects on what FW de Klerk’s death means in a country that’s still living with the deep inequalities and injustices left behind by the apartheid regime, whose horrors and abuses are a mere generation behind us, still very much within living memory.
South Africa’s last apartheid president, FW de Klerk, passed away on Nov. 11, and with his death came a reminder that the country still lives with deep wounds that have not had nearly enough time, resources, and collective responsibility to heal.
While FW de Klerk helped to usher in a democracy, he also successfully buried the large role he played in enabling the oppressive apartheid regime — a role that has in part been responsible for the continued experiences of injustice, poverty, and inequality in the country.
South Africa is a complicated place. That’s not to say there are countries that are uncomplicated, or that South Africa is more complicated than perhaps any other country — but as a young democracy, the country’s brutal and equally messy history is just less than a generation away.
South Africa’s average age is 27, according to 2020 population estimates, which means much of the population is as young, if not younger, than the country’s democracy (which came in 1994). In my own family I often think about how my mother, at 54, has spent exactly half of her life under apartheid and the other half under democracy. My grandmother (who is still alive) has spent more of her life under apartheid than under democracy. It’s that recent.
Many of us, even those of us who are still young, will remember the violence of the early 90s as it seemed as if the democratic elections, which ultimately led to Nelson Mandela’s presidency, were in peril. Young people who lived through the terror on the East Rand in Johannesburg and in KwaZulu-Natal, when the violence leading up to the 1994 elections, in which hundreds were killed, took place.
The families of those who lost their lives still face unanswered questions about what happened to loved ones because the democratic dispensation has failed to pursue justice. It is why the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) Missing Persons Task Team continues to find remains of people who were killed or pronounced missing by the apartheid regime.
Perhaps the perfect metaphor for how recent the past is, is the very obvious fact that the last president to have led the apartheid regime was only in his 80s and, until very recently, still alive. In many ways he served as a reminder that South Africa’s past remains incredibly close, and with it remains the hurt, the trauma, and the structural inequalities that continue to define South Africa today.
FW de Klerk’s legacy is a complicated one — he’s celebrated by some for helping usher in democracy, condemned by others for his own role in apartheid.
Journalist and anti-apartheid activist Terry Bell has highlighted, for example, how, in the dying days of apartheid, de Klerk oversaw the mass destruction of many tons of records of the atrocities of the regime — evidence, according to Bell, of the apartheid chain of command.
The impact of this mass destruction of archives and records meant that for many, FW de Klerk was the man who ensured on his way out, that we would never know whatever truth there was about the scale and nature of South Africa’s painful past, a history that South Africa’s citizens are still grappling with.
De Klerk was also a man who, until as recently as 2020, insisted that apartheid wasn’t a crime against humanity and refused to assist desperate family members seeking answers and closure regarding what happened to their loved ones under his, and other apartheid leaders’ command. Therefore, for many, he served as an awful reminder of one of the great difficulties of contemporary South Africa — which is the lack of acknowledgement of how truly abhorrent apartheid was.
For some, the fact that de Klerk and many others who were the hands and boots of the oppressive regime — such as the members of the Vlakplaas death squad, a team of hitmen responsible for several deaths under apartheid, who are rumoured to have received retirement payouts of over R17 million when the operation was shutdown in the early 90s — managed to live long lives, is demonstrative of how unfair much of post-apartheid life has been. There are hundreds of families for whom the past continues to be a festering wound that neither previous or current administrations seem interested in helping to heal.
Meanwhile, the past continues to cast a long shadow on the present. Levels of poverty and inequality today continue to follow the geography of apartheid, with Black women being the country’s most impoverished and vulnerable group.
A 2009 report by the country’s Commission for Gender Equality that looked at the issue of land reform among women noted: “The effects of apartheid have been structured by skewed gender relations, which have led to higher levels of impoverishment amongst Black women in South Africa. This denial of land rights to Black women was only a part of a broad legacy of centuries of land dispossession through racially discriminatory laws.”
South Africa is among the most unequal countries in the world. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) it would take nine generations for a child born into a low-income family in South Africa to reach the country’s mean income. In fact, wealth inequality in South Africa hasn’t changed since the end of apartheid, according to reports from earlier this year.
It is not by accident that South Africans who are Black and Coloured [the recognised term for people of mixed-race in South Africa] continue to have the highest levels of poverty. Meanwhile, 10% of the nation owns up to 90% of its wealth — with 60% of Black South Africans living in poverty, compared to just 1% of white South Africans.
In these and many other profound ways the architecture of apartheid continues to shape where and how people live and how they die in South Africa.
Following de Klerk’s death, amid a tumult of opposing views being shared online, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation issued a statement that got to the heart of what many South Africans were saying and feeling.
The Tutu Foundation statement described it as “sad” that de Klerk “missed the many chances he had to fully reconcile with all South Africans by acknowledging the full extent of the damage caused by apartheid”, highlighting “that damage is with us today.”
It further said that de Klerk’s adult life could be broken down into three phases: the first as a “faithful disciple of the apartheid ideology”’; in the second he “brokered a deal that changed the course of history and brought democracy to South Africa”; in the third, he went on to become an apartheid apologist on the global speaking circuit.
De Klerk's legacy should not only lie in the role he had in ushering in a democracy. When we look to his legacy, and the legacy of the regime he was a part of, however, we don’t need to look to the past — we can still see it in the continued lived experiences of inequality and poverty in South Africa, and that should never be forgotten.