There was no better way to end white domination

Dave Steward responds to RW Johnson's criticism of FW de Klerk's alleged failures in the negotiations


As Hermann Giliomee writes “the manner in which white domination was ended between 1990 and 1996 still fascinates both experts and the general public.” It is also relevant to the constitutional challenges that we face today. Accordingly, the debate that Giliomee’s autobiography has initiated – and participation in it by so acute an observer of our recent history as RW Johnson – is to be welcomed.

However, Giliomee and Johnson give too much weight to the view of Hernus Kriel that the NP had “no plan, no strategy, no bottom line…” To be kind, Hernus Kriel was never regarded as a political or intellectual heavyweight. If these were his views he certainly did not express them in the Cabinet at that time (I was Secretary of the Cabinet)– and subsequently was quite happy to enjoy the fruits of what he regarded as De Klerk’s negotiating failure from the comfort of Leeuwenhof, the Cape premier’s official residence.

Neither is it true that that De Klerk “thumped the table” every time Roelf Meyer brought the cabinet bad news about the negotiations before meekly accepting the ANC’s latest demands. De Klerk was never a “table thumper” and key negotiating decisions were not taken by Meyer – but by De Klerk and his senior colleagues.

In fact, De Klerk spelled out his broad negotiating goals in his speech of 2 February 1990. They included “a new democratic constitution; universal franchise; no domination; equality before an independent judiciary; the protection of minorities as well as of individual rights; freedom of religion; a sound economy based on proven economic principles and private enterprise; dynamic programmes directed at better education, health services, housing and social conditions for all.” They did not include a white minority veto over the decisions of a democratically elected government.

The constitution that De Klerk finally accepted created scope for the achievement of all these goals. De Klerk would have certainly rejected a settlement that did not make provision for the supremacy of the rule of law; an independent judiciary; recognition of the language and cultural rights of minorities; and a justiciable bill of rights. The sad reality that many of these goals are now being eroded is not De Klerk’s fault: indeed, he has dedicated the past 22 years to doing everything in his power to defend the constitution and the values that it represents.

Johnson is also mistaken when he unkindly compares De Klerk’s approach to that of Max Price when confronted by the RMF rabble. His government was not confronted by the irrational demands of a radical student minority burning pictures and flinging human excrement: he had to deal with the demands of the representatives of the overwhelming majority of the people of South Africa – supported by the international community - for freedom, dignity and equality. He had to balance these demands with the reasonable concerns of his own supporters – who included majorities in the white, coloured and Indian communities.

The result was not the unconditional surrender depicted by Johnson – but the adoption of what is regarded as one of the best constitutions in the world. That constitution has served us well since 1994 and still provides effective protection against unconstitutional government actions and legislation. The challenge is for all South Africans of goodwill to support that constitution as the best hope for future peace, freedom and prosperity.

In the final analysis it comes down to this: some people write about history. Others make it. And the management of fundamental change is perhaps the most difficult challenge that history presents.

I set out my views on Giliomee’s criticism of De Klerk at some length in an article that I wrote in February, 2014 – which Hermann Giliomee generously included verbatim in his autobiography. For those who may be interested, it may be found here.

Dave Steward is Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation.