Theunis Christiaan de Klerk, an ancestor of former South African president F.W. De Klerk, was hanged by the British in 1815 for his role in the so-called Slagtersnek Rebellion. Another ancestor, Lourens de Klerk, was killed by the impis of Zulu king Dingaan in 1838, one of about 100 people to die in a brutal massacre.
The former president’s grandfather fought against the British in the Boer War, one of his uncles was J.G. Strijdom, South Africa’s fifth prime minister, and his father Johannes de Klerk, was a senator representing the apartheid National Party who served as a cabinet minister for fifteen years under three prime ministers.
One of his earliest memories, F.W. wrote in his biography, was sitting on his father’s shoulders during the emotional cornerstone laying ceremony for the Vootrekker Monument (arguably South Africa’s Wailing Wall) outside Pretoria in 1938. He was three at the time.
In Israeli terms, F.W. de Klerk, who died yesterday, was the equivalent of someone whose family arrived in Palestine before the waves of Zionist immigration, who lost a family member in the 1929 Palestinian riots (or perhaps those of 1936) and another during the 1948 war. Someone who fought with the Palmach and served his country in government, faithfully carrying out the ethno-centric policies that have led Israel to be characterized by many as a state practicing apartheid.
So far so similar.
Except that F.W., in a staggering reversal of his family history, Afrikaner collective memory and the tenets of faith that he had previously cherished, rejected apartheid in 1990, released Nelson Mandela from prison and went on to preside over South Africa’s first non-racial elections in 1994. He brought apartheid to an end.
No prominent Israeli, never mind one as blue-blooded as De Klerk was, has ever had the seriousness and gumption to challenge Israel’s ethno-religious certainties and bring an end to the country’s domination of its Palestinian population – a state of affairs that has now lasted longer than apartheid did in South Africa.
In a video released after his death, a gaunt and hoarse F.W. de Klerk addressed the South African nation for the last time:
“Since the early 80s, my views changed completely,” the former president said. “It was as if I had a conversion. And in my heart of hearts, I realized that apartheid was wrong. I realized that we had arrived at a place which was morally unjustifiable.”
“My conversion, to which I refer didn’t end with the admission to myself of the total unacceptability of apartheid. It motivated us in the National Party to take the initiatives we took from the time that I became leader of the National Party. And more specifically, during my presidency. We did not only admit the wrongness of apartheid, we took far-reaching measures to ensure negotiation and a new dispensation which could bring justice to all.”
“I, without qualification, apologize for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa. I do so not only in my capacity as the former leader of the National Party, but also as an individual.”
What are the chances of ever hearing that from a senior Israeli politician, past or current?
In his final years, De Klerk was regularly criticized for refusing to accept personal culpability for the crimes of apartheid and for what some considered a mealy-mouthed response to the UN characterization of apartheid as a crime against humanity.
That criticism may be valid, but, in my view, it is dwarfed by the enormity of what the man did. Virtually single-handedly at first, he dragged the Afrikaner nation – his own people and culture – away from the brink and into a future that few of us thought possible without copious bloodshed and destruction.
It is also said that he did what he did not out of moral qualms but out of a practical understanding that apartheid had gone as far as it could; that the pressures of a burgeoning black population, a limited white demographic and international opprobrium made its collapse inevitable.
I don’t believe that to be true. Certainly, I don’t detect any hint of moral equivocation in the video released after his death.
But even if there’s a degree of truth in it – even if De Klerk was primarily motivated by practical considerations – that only means that he was far-sighted enough to foresee the inevitable outcome of his apartheid policies and wise enough to make a U-turn. Unlike so many of his political peers around the world, F.W. was able to differentiate between ideology and reality and he had the inner strength to do what he believed to be right, while dragging his party with him.
It’s worth bearing in mind that apartheid collapsed because those who implemented it had run out of ideas. International sanctions, an economy in tatters and the low-key guerilla warfare of the ANC were all contributing factors, but the key to the fall of apartheid was that the Nationalist Party government, after 46 years in power, did not know what to do next. It had tried just about everything – short of ditching apartheid, of course – and it was stumped for answers.
That could be a stark message for Israelis, were they willing to listen. Torn between blatant apartheid and the prospect of a binational future, Israel, too, doesn’t know what to do. It, too, has run out of ideas. Whenever it’s at a loss for a response (which is often) it bombs Gaza. A knee-jerk reaction that has never made an iota of difference in the past.
There is not a single party in the country that can provide a coherent and attainable blueprint for the future, without descending into a fantasy world of wish-fulfillment or divine intervention.
Like South Africa in the Eighties, Israel is playing for time, hoping against hope that something – anything – will happen to rescue it from a morass of its own making.
South Africa was fortunate to have F.W. de Klerk, whose judiciousness and courage should be remembered on his passing. Does he have an Israeli counterpart? Is there anyone on the Israeli Right who is able to look into the murkiness promised by religious-Zionism and make a volte face?
I certainly hope so, though I wouldn’t bet on it.