De Klerk's death sparks debate over his role in apartheid

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FILE - Former South African President F.W. de Klerk arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria, South Africa, May 25, 2019. South Africa is engrossed in debate over the legacy of apartheid's last president, de Klerk, who died at 85 and is to be buried Sunday, Nov 21, 2021. Some people want to remember de Klerk as the liberator of Nelson Mandela, but others say he was responsible for racist murders. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

JOHANNESBURG – Liberator of Nelson Mandela? Or a leader responsible for racist murders? South Africa is engrossed in debate over the legacy of apartheid's last president, F.W. de Klerk, who died last week at 85 and is to be buried Sunday.

The controversy following de Klerk to the grave comes 27 years after the official end of the brutal regime that oppressed the country’s Black majority for generations. Stoking the furor is a video that he released posthumously in which he said he was sorry.

“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," said de Klerk, an apparition emaciated by mesothelioma cancer who nonetheless chose his words carefully.

Some South Africans were moved by de Klerk's final appearance, but many were critical, saying he avoided acknowledging that apartheid was a crime against humanity in which he was complicit.

“It's the last of a series of half-baked apologies,” the Rev. Michael Lapsley told The Associated Press. “It’s good that he apologizes for the pain and hurt, but there’s no reckoning. There’s no accountability. There’s no accepting of responsibility for what happened under his watch.”

An Anglican priest and anti-apartheid activist, Lapsley was hit by a parcel bomb that blew off his hands and blinded him in one eye in 1990, months after de Klerk freed Nelson Mandela and began negotiations that eventually dismantled apartheid.

“De Klerk’s rule was one of the most violent periods of our history,” Lapsley said.

As the chairman of the State Security Council, de Klerk was present at meetings where violence against anti-apartheid leaders was ordered, right up to the 1994 elections that brought to power Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, according to Lapsley and others who have studied minutes of the council’s meetings.

He hopes de Klerk's death “will lead to a lot of soul-searching by us as a nation about what kind of nation we want to be. We have to deal with the psychological, emotional and spiritual issues which are part of the grim legacy of apartheid."

Lapsley, who founded the Institute for the Healing of Memories to help mend the wounds of apartheid, said another problem that de Klerk contributed to is economic inequality.

“Apartheid, like slavery before it, was always about profit,” Lapsley said. “Apartheid was always about political oppression and economic exploitation. We have slayed one monster, but we leave the other one very much intact.”

Referring to studies that show South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries, Lapsley said, “If we remain the most unequal society on Earth, our grandchildren will not live in peace.”

South Africa resisted the historic wave of democracy that ended colonial-era minority rule across much of Africa in the 1960s. Mozambique, Angola and Portugal's other African colonies became independent in 1975. White-minority-ruled Rhodesia fought a war against Black nationalists, becoming majority-ruled Zimbabwe in 1980.

Apartheid, imposed in 1948, denied the vote and basic rights to South Africa's Black majority and other people of color. Resistance grew for decades, and by the 1980s the country had built up a large military and security apparatus to battle uprisings in the townships where Blacks were confined.

The South African military also fought in neighboring countries, including Angola and what became independent Namibia. South African forces raided Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique.

By the time de Klerk came to power in late 1989, South Africa was internationally isolated, convulsed by domestic violence and battling a contracting economy. The country was on a precipice from which de Klerk pulled it back by releasing Mandela and beginning negotiations.

For working together to end apartheid, de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Some in South Africa feel that de Klerk should be remembered for averting catastrophe.

South Africa “lost a father who served the country with distinction,” said Chief Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela. He said many may not agree with his views, but he felt that de Klerk should be honored as an elder statesman.

Others, however, celebrated de Klerk's death. The Black People’s National Crisis Committee slaughtered a sheep in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township to hail his passing.

“De Klerk, who denied that the legislated separate development, exploitation, torture and murder of Black people was a crime against humanity, dies with no honor, and with the dark cloud of having maimed and traumatized families across our nation," said the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party which vowed to disrupt any state funeral.

South Africa is flying its flags at half-staff for four days to honor de Klerk but is not having a state burial. De Klerk is to be buried in a private family ceremony amid tight security as there have been threats to disrupt it.

“De Klerk died a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, an accolade that can never be taken away from him,” wrote Mondli Makhanya, editor of the City Press newspaper. “But a man of peace he was not. He was a member of the State Security Council, a body that authorized the killings and brutalization of thousands of South Africans and citizens of neighboring countries. In short, he was a killer.”

A more forgiving approach toward de Klerk is urged by South African academic Adam Habib.

“In a single act, he did more for humanity than most people do in a lifetime. And in his last message, he did again apologize for apartheid, this time without any qualifications,” wrote Habib, director of SOAS University of London, who said that de Klerk's leadership saved South Africa from years of violence and turmoil.

"So let’s remember for the moment the de Klerk who released Mandela and unbanned political parties. We don’t have to forget the victims of apartheid, we don’t have to ignore them, but it is only human for us to remember the kinder side of de Klerk."