Ex-President Quits Party Post in S. AfricaBy Lynne Duke
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27 1997; Page A21
Frederik W. de Klerk, the last president under South Africa's system of white-minority rule, quit his party's leadership and his seat in Parliament today, saying he wants to free the National Party from its "unjustified" links to a "guilt-laden" past.
De Klerk -- who rose through the ranks of the system of racial separation that his party established in 1948, and then dismantled it -- has steadfastly denied any personal knowledge of or complicity in the murderous abuses that characterized apartheid, despite evidence indicating otherwise. But today he said he could not deny that the perception of guilt that surrounds the National Party has hampered its attempts to become a broadly accepted political force in the new era of black-majority rule.
"Regardless of how unjustified this perception might be -- and it is unjustified -- it remains a problem for our party," de Klerk said in a Cape Town announcement. "With my retirement, I wish to open a door for the National Party to provide further proof of its dynamic break with the past, with a view to best enabling it to play its full role in the realignment process."
"The last remaining high-profile link with the old [National Party] and its so-called baggage withdraws himself from the active party-political scene," de Klerk declared.
But de Klerk may be sacrificing himself too late to preserve the party, analysts said today. His announcement prompted immediate predictions from across the political spectrum that the party that created apartheid would never, as currently constituted, find a place for itself in the post-apartheid political order.
Some analysts said de Klerk, 61, should have quit politics long ago, when he could still ride the wave of the international accolades he won for negotiating himself out of power as part of the abolition of the apartheid system.
De Klerk was named party leader and president in 1989 and in the following year began the process of dismantling apartheid. His government released political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and legalized the African National Congress and other black liberation groups, and then embarked on a four-year negotiating process that eventually gave South Africa majority rule for the first time.
In 1993, de Klerk shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. In 1994, the nation's first all-races elections were held, lifting Mandela to the presidency in a unity government that included de Klerk as a deputy president. De Klerk and the National Party quit the cabinet last year and became South Africa's principal opposition party.
"When he involved himself in politics beyond 1994, that simply diminished the contribution he made," said political analyst Khehla Shubane of Johannesburg's Center for Policy Studies.
When the party took up the role of parliamentary opposition -- removing itself from the tide of reform de Klerk had helped to create but never articulating any new reason for being -- de Klerk and the Nationalists were plunged into indecision about their place in the new South Africa, "like walking upstairs and downstairs at the same time," Shubane said.
The party, in which Afrikaner descendants of 17th-century Dutch and French settlers predominate, has been struggling ever since to break from its racist past and refashion itself for the democratic era. It has been torn between its retrograde and progressive wings -- the former seeking stauncher advocacy of white minority interests, the latter seeking greater inclusiveness in the party.
Mandela, who had many stormy moments with de Klerk during their period as co-champions of reform, tipped his hat to de Klerk today in a doubled-edged statement. "Whatever mistakes he may have made, and it is possible that he has made very fundamental mistakes as many of us have done, I hope that South Africa will not forget the role he has played," Mandela said.
But leaders of right-wing parties representing Afrikaner self-determination heaped the same kind of abuse on de Klerk as they have since he negotiated the Afrikaner people out of power. Conservative Party leader Ferdi Hartzenberg said in a statement that de Klerk's departure "can only be to the advantage of the Afrikaner."
De Klerk said today that he had wanted to leave the party sooner. But a few months ago, the party was in crisis because of the defection of one of its leading lights. Roelf Meyer, the party's lead constitutional and strategic negotiator during the transition to democracy, quit the party after hard-liners attacked his efforts to lead a reform process to which de Klerk assigned him. The large number of defections caused by Meyer's resignation created pressure for de Klerk to stay to help shore up the organization.
Contrary to de Klerk's repeated insistence in recent months that the party had made itself "new" and was becoming a reform-minded, non-racial grouping, "most of the people who wanted to reform the Nats are out," noted Tom Lodge, a political scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Fanus Schoeman, de Klerk's chief of staff, said de Klerk wanted to leave before yet another anticipated crisis -- his September court showdown with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he has sued.
De Klerk has accused the commission of treating him with bias by publicly questioning his assertion that he was not officially aware of the state-sanctioned murders and other abuses committed under apartheid. But the truth commission reportedly has filed papers in court claiming to show that de Klerk was present at a cabinet-level meeting in the late 1980s at which a decision was made to "neutralize/eliminate" leaders seen as enemies of the apartheid state, meaning figures within or sympathetic to the now-ruling ANC.
De Klerk has said repeatedly, however, that he does not need amnesty because he did nothing wrong. But he has defended certain aspects of apartheid, particularly its grand vision of separate racial development.
De Klerk's resignation will be effective next month, when a successor is to be selected. In retirement, de Klerk will write his memoirs.
A recent opinion poll showed the National Party's support has dropped from the 20 percent of the vote it received in 1994 to 12 percent today. Whether the party can pull itself out of that nose dive will depend on the kind of leadership it finds, and whether that leadership can reach out to the black majority, analysts say.
The leading figure seen as a likely successor to de Klerk is Hernus Kriel, an apartheid-era law and order minister who now is premier of Western Cape Province, the only province where the Nationalists won a majority in the 1994 elections.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company