Ex-president de Klerk teaches the inspiration of South Africa

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 6, 2010

South Africa's remarkable, resilient citizens have never failed to surprise or impress me over the past four decades. From the barbaric practices of apartheid to the heroism and wisdom of Nelson Mandela, they seem capable of anything, or perhaps of everything.

I confess to having been poleaxed anew by a recent appearance before a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs by F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president and the man who freed Mandela from prison in 1990 to begin the march to majority rule. In eloquent, passionate terms, de Klerk sought to part these successful investors from some of their cash to help the nonprofit organization he now leads in fighting "the suffering and poverty" of Africans across the continent.

I almost expected to feel the twirling in their graves of de Klerk's Afrikaner ancestors, who cursed the finding of gold on their land in 1867 because it would corrupt and endanger their nation and who imposed apartheid on South Africa in 1948. Their political heir had not only dismantled their artifice of prejudice but taken pride in turning power over to Mandela in 1994.

Since then, de Klerk has faded into the political background in his native land. When South Africa becomes the center of international attention again on June 11 -- this time by hosting soccer's World Cup, the globe's most watched sporting event -- the tributes will flow predominantly to Mandela, and deservedly so. Mandela is the most impressive of the scores of national leaders I have met and interviewed over the years and should be so honored.

But this is also a good moment to recall de Klerk's large contributions to South Africa's relative success and stability -- especially since they may offer important insights for contemporary American interests in nuclear nonproliferation, international sanctions and political polarization.

In several conversations and a speech earlier the same day at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, de Klerk, now a cheerful and active 74, talked in detail about what prompted him to free Mandela, destroy a nuclear arsenal of "six and one-half bombs" and establish his Global Leadership Foundation, which "provides confidential, discreet advice" to governments in Africa and elsewhere that face seemingly intractable economic or political conflicts.

De Klerk will not discuss which countries have asked for assistance from the group, which includes other former statesmen such as Michel Rocard of France and Britain's Chris Patten. But the presidents of Colombia and East Timor have publicly thanked the organization for helping them manage difficult transitions smaller than but similar to South Africa's transformation.

A series of unexpected events "opened a window, through which we jumped," de Klerk says of the set of interconnected, rapid decisions South Africa's government began to make in the mid-1980s. Looming surprisingly large in those events was a 1988 U.S.-brokered agreement that led to the withdrawal of Cuban and Soviet forces from Angola and the eventual independence of Namibia.

"This reassured the South African government that it could secure its interests through negotiations," something no previous government had believed, de Klerk continued. The fall of the Berlin Wall a year later and the collapse of the Soviet Union removed deeply held fears of a foreign invasion supported by Moscow and of the influence of the South African Communist Party over Mandela's African National Congress.

De Klerk minimized the effect of trade embargoes and most other sanctions on his decisions. "We had enough oil stored in empty mines to last us four years of total embargo," he told me, suggesting that South Africa had no trouble finding countries that broke the embargo. "We even exported oil. . . . What did concern us were financial sanctions and threats to impound our airliners."

He also conceded that the prospect of majority rule helped influence his 1989 order to dismantle South Africa's nuclear arsenal, which was halted while work was underway on a seventh primitive weapon. "But I was always opposed to developing these 'dirty bombs.' Who would you use them against?"

De Klerk did not elaborate, but the implosion of the Soviet Union ended any possibility of using the bombs to blackmail the West into intervening to halt an invasion, as South African military planners originally intended.

But the driving forces for change were internal and were accelerated in 1986 when Afrikaner hardliners broke away into a new party rather than accept modest concessions to the black majority that de Klerk's National Party was considering. In the last all-white election in 1987, he developed an action program that would eventually lead to the cataclysmic changes represented by Mandela's release and the simultaneous dismantling of apartheid and the nuclear arsenal. "We were liberated to become a reform party when the right became the ultra right," de Klerk said.

The differences and distances between the United States and South Africa are enormous. But I could not help but hear an echo of what could happen here as the Tea Party and other ideologues seek to pull mainstream Republicans to the far right. F.W. de Klerk's experience suggests that such swings open the space for enlightened moderation to spring to life and ultimately prevail.

The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. He was the Annenberg Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution in April and May.

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