South Africans don’t give much thought to FW de Klerk these days. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, his fellow Nobel peace laureate, the last apartheid president is more highly regarded outside his own country than in it.
But some South Africans were taken aback to see De Klerk putting himself forward in a Guardian article on 10 March as an advocate of protecting women from violence and asserting that “holding perpetrators accountable, irrespective of how long ago the crime was committed, is essential to stamping out impunity and preventing future atrocities”.
This from a man who promoted a system that wrecked the lives of millions of black women and who has consistently denied responsibility for gross human rights violations, despite damning findings to the contrary by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
De Klerk, whose foundation revealed on Friday that he is being treated for mesothelioma, has spent decades nurturing the popular view around the globe of a courageous leader who released Nelson Mandela from prison and negotiated a peaceful transition to democracy. Key to this version of history is De Klerk’s generalised apologies for the pain inflicted by apartheid without accepting personal responsibility.
South Africans, who lived through the complexity of those years, are less prone to buy into that narrow framing of history. Many remain sceptical of De Klerk’s claims to regret apartheid, not least because he continues to diminish its depravity. Only last year, he was forced to backtrack after claiming that apartheid was not a crime against humanity – even though the UN has long said it was – because he claimed it caused relatively few deaths and was not on a level with genocide. A few years earlier he argued that racial segregation was well intentioned, if unworkable.
But De Klerk, who turned 85 a few days ago, is facing renewed scrutiny over his record amid growing pressure for him and other apartheid-era leaders to finally face justice.
Howard Varney, a lawyer and investigator who drew up the questions put to De Klerk at the TRC hearings, scoffed at his call for “holding perpetrators accountable”.
“Those words are just dripping with irony because they apply to him more than most South Africans. He has yet to face up to the past and acknowledge that past. He played his role in trying to suppress the past and promote impunity for those involved in very serious crimes, including crimes against women,” said Varney. “So when he says that impunity is not acceptable, it has to start with people like him. It has to start with people at the top.”
A former TRC commissioner, Yasmin Sooka, criticised De Klerk because he has “consistently refused to accept any responsibility for the gross human rights violations committed under his watch, or the crime of apartheid”.
“De Klerk has been allowed for far too long to maintain the narrative of denial,” she said.
At TRC hearings in the late 1990s, the former South African leader acknowledged that torture, murder, rape and other crimes were committed against anti-apartheid activists. But he blamed them on rogue operations without official approval. Varney describes De Klerk’s submission to the TRC as “sickening”
“He tries to have it both ways,” Varney said. “He admits lots of illegal detentions, torture and killings took place. But he says it was nothing to do with the people at the top.”
Minutes from meetings of the powerful apartheid-era State Security Council (SSC) show that cabinet ministers and security officials used phrases such as “shortening the list of politically sensitive individuals by means other than detention” in discussing how to deal with anti-apartheid activists. De Klerk, who sat on the SSC, claimed those words had no sinister intent and were misinterpreted by the security forces as instructions to kill.
In 1984, a military commander, General Joffel van der Westhuizen, sent a request to the SSC to “remove permanently from society as a matter of urgency” Matthew Goniwe, a black teacher in the Eastern Cape described by security forces as “at the forefront of a revolutionary attack against the state”.
The minister of black education, Barend du Plessis, spoke in favour, using an Afrikaans word verwyder, or remove, which a judge later concluded amounted to a “death warrant”. The meeting approved the decision. De Klerk attended as internal affairs minister.
Goniwe and three other men, who became known as the Cradock Four, were stopped at a roadblock by Security Branch police officers and beaten, strangled with telephone wire, stabbed and shot to death.
In 1999, De Klerk told the Guardian that the meeting had merely decided to move Goniwe to another teaching post away from the town of Cradock. Sceptics scoffed at the idea the security council spent its time discussing where to deploy black teachers. They also noted that Van der Westhuizen thought it appropriate to seek approval for political killings from the SSC.
De Klerk refused to answer questions about these cases at the TRC, banged the table and then accused the commissioners of bias against him before storming out. The commission concluded that members of the SSC at the very least set the agenda for security force hit squads.
“The commission’s view is that they must have foreseen that security police and South African Defence Force operatives would interpret expressions such as ‘take out’, ‘wipe out’, ‘eradicate’ and ‘eliminate’ as meaning ‘kill’,” the TRC concluded. “The commission rejects attempts by politicians to phrase instructions in a way that causes their subordinates to take responsibility for acts of which the politicians are the intellectual authors.”
De Klerk was also party to the establishment of a covert paramilitary force, trained and equipped by the army, responsible for violence unleashed against anti-apartheid activists from the mid-1980s.
“Those years, particularly the years from the release of Nelson Mandela all the way through to elections in April 1994, were the bloodiest years of South Africa’s modern history,” said Varney.
The TRC said De Klerk falsely claimed not to have been told about the 1988 bombing of the South African Council of Churches headquarters in Johannesburg, a centre of anti-apartheid activity, even though he was at a meeting when the then president, PW Botha, congratulated the minister of law and order for the attack.
Even if De Klerk was not the most culpable of the apartheid-era politicians, the TRC said he was “an accessory to the commission of gross human rights violations” and that he “contributed to creating a culture of impunity within which gross human rights violations were committed”.
Only one member of the apartheid government, the former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok, who was responsible for the South African Council of Churches bombing, has repented and admitted his crimes. He was reported to have implicated De Klerk in sealed submissions to prosecutors. In 2014, Vlok called for others to come forward and apologise for their actions.
So how has De Klerk managed to sidestep accountability for so long and maintain his reputation around the world? In part by mischaracterising the TRC’s report to claim that it cleared him. That outrages Sooka, the former truth commissioner.
“Both De Klerk and his foundation have continued to suggest that the TRC effectively exonerated him. This is patently false,” she said. “The TRC examined the responsibility of De Klerk and his colleagues through the lens of domestic criminal law, concluding that, at the very least, the SSC’s members were ‘politically and morally accountable for the deaths that occurred’”.
De Klerk has also benefited from what might be regarded as an unholy alliance between the former regime and the ruling African National Congress. The TRC was empowered to offer amnesty from prosecution to those who confessed their crimes and told the truth. Its hearings provided an important venue for South Africans to voice their suffering and discover the fate of murdered and disappeared loved ones as a step towards healing the nation.
Surveys by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation found that two-thirds of South Africans thought the TRC’s hearings were a good foundation for reconciliation. But only a third said the government had done enough to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses.
That is in part because successive post-apartheid governments have had no appetite for going after political and security chiefs of the defunct white regime for fear that ANC officials would also be open to prosecution for some of the liberation movement’s crimes, including bombings of civilians and torture.
Sooka and others are trying to change that. Among those she would like to see finally held to account is De Klerk for lying to the TRC and “for having command and superior responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by the apartheid state”.
“Given his senior role in the SSC, there are reasonable grounds to believe that, based on the TRC’s findings and the doctrine of superior responsibility, De Klerk has a case to answer under international criminal law for acts committed pursuant to the SSC’s orders that constitute crimes against humanity, and domestically, as these international crimes remain prosecutable under South African law today,” she said.
Among those demanding accountability at last are relatives of the Cradock Four. Lukhanyo Calata, the son of one of the murdered men, has accused the ANC of political interference to subvert an investigation and prosecution of those responsible, including De Klerk.
Calata has also sought to hold De Klerk accountable on the world stage. Last year, the American Bar Association was forced to withdraw an invitation to South Africa’s former president to give an address on minority rights, social change and racism after Calata accused De Klerk of complicity in his father’s killing and questioned why the association thought the white former leader of the apartheid government was the right person to speak about racial justice.
The FW de Klerk Foundation described the cancellation of the speech as “symptomatic of a growing threat to liberal values everywhere”.
Chris McGreal was based in Johannesburg for the Guardian during the transition from apartheid
The European Parliament has lent political weight to an EU citizens’ petition to end farming of caged animals and force-feeding of ducks and geese to make fois gras pâté, putting pressure on the European Commission to table legislation. Forced-feeding was “cruel and unnecessary” and cages so small animals cannot stand or turn around were of “grave concern” MEPs said Thursday. Over 90 percent of EU-farmed rabbits are kept in cages.
The Australian prime minister held a meeting with the US president on the sidelines of the G7 summit in England, where the two agreed to work closely on “challenges” in the Indo-Pacific region, among other things.
Scott Morrison was hoping for a one-on-one meeting with US President Joe Biden at the G7 summit in the UK, however, event host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson frustrated his plans by crashing their tête-à-tête.
The Australian prime minister was invited to this year’s G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall and was set to meet Biden in a bilateral setting.
When Morrison was asked why the supposed private meeting suddenly included a third party, the prime minister said “it was an opportunity that presented because we’re all here and so it was mutual”.
“We were particularly keen to have the discussion with both parties”, he added.
So legit question: where is the Australian flag? Johnson and Biden represented by their flags but not Morrison? Was this unplanned? Is it just out of shot? Did he forget to bring it? pic.twitter.com/b3ZiCFtlVI
The incident has prompted great speculation as to why Morrison was unable to secure a bilateral meeting with the US president.
“This seemed to me like it was Boris Johnson stepping in what seemed like it might be a little awkward meeting, given Morrison’s full-on support for [former US President Donald] Trump”, Nikki Sava, a former adviser to ex-Australian Prime Minister John Howard, told ABC’s Insiders.
Many others ventured that Johnson’s decision to make the meeting trilateral was motivated by a willingness to make discussions about climate change productive.
Labour’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Penny Wong called the prime minister’s inability to secure a face-to-face meeting with Biden “disappointing”, and suggested Morrison’s “stubborn refusal” to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 was damaging the country’s reputation on the world stage.
“Mr Morrison’s stubborn refusal to sign up to net zero emissions has left him isolated and left Australia isolated”, she said on Sunday.
Ex-Liberal opposition leader John Hewson, in turn, alleged Biden might “not be prepared to extend Morrison the privilege [of a one-on-one] given his indefensible irresponsibility and stubbornness on climate”.
Greens leader Adam Bandt, for his part, thinks the only reason why Morrison was invited to the G7 summit is so the heads of states and governments can rebuke him over Australia’s perceived inaction on climate change.
“Climate is a critical issue at this G7. It is the only game in town. When they sit down to discuss climate, Scott Morrison will be sitting at the kids’ table and I think part of the reason he’s been invited to this summit is so the rest of the world can give Australia a dressing down on climate”, Bandt told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Morrison has since rejected those claims, arguing that climate change was not a point of discussion for the meeting and would instead be a topic of conversation at Monday’s G7 Plus sessions.
Following the trilateral meeting, Biden, Morrison, and Johnson issued in a joint statement, revealing they had “discussed a number of issues of mutual concern, including the Indo-Pacific region”.
Morrison later downplayed any suggestion of a diplomatic snub, describing it as “a meeting of great friends and allies who share a view on the world”.
“Australia has no greater friends than the United States and the United Kingdom. It was a great opportunity for my first meeting with the president. I’ve known Boris for many years, and there was a very easy understanding amongst the three of us”.
France and Germany, considered the traditional axis of the European Union, are hoping that the Spanish government will remain a firm ally despite statements by Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya about seeking to diversify ties within the 27-country bloc.
In the space of just a few months, Spain has gone from embracing a G-3 of sorts with France and Germany to considering new alliances. These could include cooperation with Poland and Hungary in the battle to preserve European cohesion funds.
It makes sense to complement alliances with other states, but there is no substantial reason to justify walking away from the Franco-German axis
Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute
Toward the end of former Foreign Minister Josep Borrell’s term in office, there were attempts at opening up to alternative alliances as Europe moved to a post-Brexit scenario. But it is González Laya’s first steps at the helm of the Foreign Ministry that have most clearly set the new tone.
Sources consulted by this newspaper played down this difference and instead highlighted Spain’s pro-European sentiment as a key to EU collaboration.
“It is normal for each country to seek out partners based on its own interests regarding a specific issue,” said a German diplomat. “This is not a big surprise, and you could also see it happening with Borrell. “The main thing, and there is no question about this, is that everyone should row in the same direction: for a Europe that is strong and shows solidarity.”
A French diplomatic source said that Spain remains a key player in the new European landscape that opened up when Britain left the club on January 31. “We cannot build a sovereign Europe without great involvement by Spain,” said this source. “France and Germany expect a lot from their main partners, particularly from Spain, in order to address Europe’s challenges.”
Everyone should row in the same direction: for a Europe that is strong and shows solidarity
Anonymous German diplomat
Since 1986, the year it joined the European club, Spain has stuck close to the French-German axis. “The only time we went our own way was in 2001, under [former Prime Minister] José María Aznar, and that was a strategic move prompted by the Iraq war,” notes Ignacio Molina, a senior analyst at Elcano Royal Institute. “It is not possible to distance yourself from the axis: [Hungarian PM Viktor] Orban can do it, the way that Aznar did, but everything in the EU goes through that core group.”
In early February, González Laya told this newspaper that she wished to cooperate with France and Germany on some policies, but not on all. “On other issues, the geometry will be a little bit different,” she said, citing a few countries from Eastern Europe that follow opposite policies from Spain on issues such as immigration or the rule of law. In spite of this, Spain could consider these countries allies on matters such as EU cohesion policy.
In her initial days in office, the new minister received Mediterranean colleagues first, notably Italy’s Luigi di Maio and Greece’s Nikos Dendias. But two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said there is no particular state strategy behind the move. Instead, it is González Laya’s own take on the role that Spain should play within a bloc that has just lost its second-biggest economy, triggering a political reshuffle on the continent.
The minister will appear before Congress for the first time this coming Thursday, when she will discuss the main lines of her work as head of Spanish diplomacy.
González Laya was asked to come Berlin by Germany’s foreign minister, the social-democrat Heiko Maas, in the welcome letter he sent her following her appointment. While these letters are part of the protocol, they do not always include an invitation. No date has been set yet for the meeting.
This week, a lower-level bilateral meeting between Spain and France is taking place in Madrid, where the Spanish Secretary of State for European Affairs, Juan González-Barba, will meet with his French counterpart, Amélie de Montchalin. These two officials will also meet with a Portuguese representative to discuss electricity connections between their countries.
The Elcano analyst trusts that González Laya’s early remarks will not result in a more distant relationship between Spain, France and Germany. “It makes sense to complement alliances with other states, but there is no substantial reason to justify walking away from the Franco-German axis,” said Ignacio Molina.
Spain and Italy
Since Arancha González Laya’s appointment as Spanish foreign minister, Italy has shown itself to be on a similar wavelength to Spain. Following the meeting between both foreign ministers, both countries are now working on a new bilateral meeting between their interior ministers, Fernando Grande-Marlaska of Spain and Luciana Lamorgese of Italy, said diplomatic sources.
Both countries share the common challenge of immigration in the Mediterranean region. Until recently, however, both countries had had their backs to each other on this issue, largely due to the closed-port policy pursued by former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini. A few days ago, Ministers Di Maio and González Laya also spoke about Venezuela, and pledged to seek solutions.