The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • South Africa Report
  • Key Figures


    South Africa's De Klerk Runs a Race He Knows He Can't Win

    By Paul Taylor
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, April 17, 1994; Page A28

    SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA, APRIL 16 -- Behind him was a giant banner that read: "We made the change." In front of him was a racially mixed crowd of browns, blacks and whites. There wasn't a heckler in the hall, and President Frederik W. de Klerk was in high spirits.

    "I hope the television cameras will pan over this audience and show the country tonight what the new National Party looks like," he said, beaming from the stage of a giant exhibition hall.

    Today's rally was one of the few high spots along a bumpy campaign trail for the stoical de Klerk, who has been waging a dignified abdication for the past four months, disguised as a bid for reelection.

    The pretense has fooled no one, least of all de Klerk. But under the unforgiving code of the politician's craft, he cannot speak honestly of his predicament, at least not until after the election. So for now, he simply invokes a catchall phrase about the slings and arrows of a fortune that, to some degree, he brought on himself: "Cowboys don't cry."

    Four years ago, de Klerk stunned the world by releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, legalizing all black liberation groups and scrapping the system of institutionalized racism, known as apartheid, that his party had invented more than four decades earlier.

    At the time, he warned critics and admirers alike that no one should expect him to negotiate himself out of power. Then he did precisely that.

    Mandela is the heavy favorite to win South Africa's first-ever all-races election April 26-28, and de Klerk is likely to wind up as one of his two vice presidents -- but with no prescribed powers -- in a coalition government that will assume power next month.

    De Klerk's original vision back in 1990 was that he could negotiate a new political order that would give whites -- who make up 13 percent of the country's population but control its economy, its military establishment and its civil service -- some form of minority veto over black-majority rule.

    He proposed a variety of constitutional devices, from a rotating presidency to super-majorities for cabinet decision-making. One by one, all were cast aside, as Mandela's African National Congress turned out to be a far more dogged negotiating partner than de Klerk had envisioned.

    Rather than curse his miscalculation, the pragmatic de Klerk struck the best deal he could get, then took to the campaign trail and began selling it as the very thing he had in mind all along.

    He now campaigns as the father of South Africa's new Bill of Rights and constitutional court, telling audiences that they will provide guarantees against any tyranny of the majority.

    "We have cut the power of politicians down to size so they will never again be able to suppress the rights of individuals or groups, as they did in the past," he said today.

    It would seem a dangerous allusion for a man whose party created and ruthlessly enforced apartheid. But de Klerk wants the voters to vote for the "new National Party" -- the one that "made the change" and "wrung the neck of apartheid."

    "He is a deeply religious man," a longtime associate said. "He believes that he has cleansed his own soul and his party's, and he seems to think the whole country should forget the past and applaud the transformation. I'm not sure human nature works that way."

    De Klerk too cannot have many illusions about the way human nature works -- not after what he has been through in this campaign.

    When he has ventured into the unfamiliar turf of a black township -- as he has more during this campaign then he ever did during the four prior years of his presidency -- he has been heckled, jostled and, on one occasion, hit in the neck by a small stone.

    Mandela rhetorically pummels him from one end of the country to the other as a man who is "weak and indecisive" and who has "connived" in the killing of thousands of blacks.

    Conservative whites call him a traitor. Liberal whites consider it "pure breathtaking cheek," in the words of Democratic Party leader Zach de Beer, for de Klerk to claim credit for ending apartheid.

    For the most part, de Klerk has not lashed back. A skilled lawyer before he entered politics, de Klerk loves the rough and tumble of political argument. Yet there has been a strange flatness to his campaign. On Thursday night, during a televised debate with Mandela, the normally combative de Klerk allowed himself to be treated as a punching bag.

    One explanation is that -- as so often happens at the end of epochs -- he has run out of intellectual steam. Another is that he sees his role as the author and protector of a historic process of reform, and he knows that too much partisan bickering might endanger what is still a fragile work in progress. Another is that, like any clever underling, he doesn't want to get on the wrong side of the boss.

    So de Klerk counts his victories where he can find them. Today's multiracial crowd may have had to be bused in and lured to the exhibition hall by food packs and trinkets. But they came, and they cheered, and de Klerk seemed grateful.

    © Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar