F W de Klerk’s views on ‘Conversations with Myself’ by Nelson Mandela
All autobiographies are contrived by their authors to present themselves as they would like to seen by subsequent generations. Collections of contemporary writings and notes are often more revealing because they were not written with the intention of creating this or that historic impression. For this reason I found Nelson Mandela’s recently published ‘Conversations with Myself’ more revealing of the man than his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” – and in many respects more moving as well.
The book is a relatively unstructured collection of extracts from Mandela’s correspondence, unpublished writings, interviews and items jotted down in his old Satour Calendars. The collection includes numerous reproductions from notebooks and correspondence in Mandela’s bold, rounded and confident handwriting – which changes little over the decades of resistance, imprisonment and, finally, vindication.
Early extracts point to the foundation of Nelson Mandela’s political persona in Xhosa traditional institutions:
“Western civilisation has not entirely rubbed off my African background and I have not forgotten the days of my childhood when we used to gather round community elders to listen to their wealth of wisdom and experience. That was the custom of our forefathers and the traditional school in which we were brought up.”
They also point to his subsequent political development – including his attitude to communism. In response to a question whether his attendance of communist party meetings did not make him sympathetic to communism, he replied
“No, no, no , no, no, no. … No it was interesting. I wouldn’t say it was liberating. And that is why I attacked the Communists, you see, when I became involved politically. And I didn’t think it was liberating. I thought Marxism was something that actually was subjecting us to a foreign ideology.”
The extracts clearly reveal that Mandela was one of the leading proponents for armed struggle – against the objections and traditions of the ANC leadership of the time:
The Chief Albert Luthuli, Yengwa and others opposed this (the armed struggle) very strongly. So we knew of course that we were going to get a position from the Chief, because he believed in non-violence as a principle, whereas we believed in it as a tactic…”
Although there can be no doubt regarding the frustrations experienced by young militant ANC members at that time, I believe that Mandela’s decision to opt for armed struggle was wrong both in principle and tactically. The armed struggle had limited military significance – but it did escalate the conflict to another level and inevitably resulted in greater bitterness, recrimination and loss of life on all sides.
Mandela’s decision also led inexorably to his own arrest and trial in which he and his co-defendants expected that they would be sentenced to death.
Mandela lived – but faced with equanimity and courage the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. His writings nevertheless reveal the anguish that he experienced in being separated from his family:
“I have often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own family to fight for opportunities for others. Can there be anything more important than looking after your mother approaching the age of 60, building her a dream house, giving her good food, nice clothing and all one’s love?”
Mandela eloquently expressed his thoughts when his son was killed in a car accident in 1969:
“The blow had been equally grievous to me. In addition to the fact that I had not seen him for at least sixty months, I was neither privileged to give him a wedding ceremony nor to lay him to rest when the fatal hour had struck….All these expectations have now been completely shattered for he was taken away at the early age of 24 and we will never see him again.”
In a letter to his wife Winnie in June, 1969, Mandela expresses his views on the indomitable spirit of the true revolutionary:
“Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation and even defeat.”
This was more than lip service. In December, 1984, he firmly rejected the prospect of early release when his close relative Kaiser Matanzima offered him refuge in the Transkei. Instead, he resigned himself to the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison:
“The ideals which we cherish, our fondest dreams and fervent hopes may not be realised in our lifetime. But that is besides the point. The knowledge that in your day you did your duty, and lived up to the expectations of your fellow men is in itself a rewarding experience and magnificent achievement.”
As we all know, Mandela’s courage and faith were eventually fully recognised in 1990 when he was released from prison to play a leading role in the negotiations for a non-racial constitutional democracy. During the negotiations, our relations were frequently placed under enormous strain by continuing faceless violence. Mandela did not hesitate to charge me with complicity in the violence – and I always wondered whether this was a reflection of his actual views – or whether he was simply playing to the political gallery. The extracts from his book indicate that he really thought that the government was, at the very least, doing nothing to stop the violence:
“My experience and that of my comrades in the ANC is that the De Klerk government shows no will at all, of wanting to adequately deal with this crucial problem.”
Mandela launched a vitriolic attack on me after the Boipatong massacre in which he claimed that the ‘unprovoked slaughter of innocent people’ was part of a government plan. The TRC’s Amnesty Committee subsequently found that IFP hostel dwellers had acted alone and that there had been no government involvement. Naturally, I never received an apology.
I find Mandela’s views on violence somewhat disingenuous. He must have known of the ANC’s own deep involvement in the mini civil war against the IFP which accounted for the greatest proportion of the deaths. He must also have understood the enormous risks that the ANC took in June 1992 when it decided to abandon the CODESA negotiations and sought instead to bring about the collapse of the government through rolling mass action – in what became known as the Leipzig Option. To his credit, it was Mandela who led his comrades back to the negotiating table after the Bisho massacre
Notwithstanding any criticism one might have, the man who emerges from ‘Conversations with Myself’ is, by any measure, a towering figure, not only in South African history but in the history of the twentieth century. He went on as President to play an exemplary role in uniting and reconciling South Africa’s deeply divided people.
About FW de Klerk
FW de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, is presently is the founder and chairman of FW de Klerk Foundation.
Frederik Willem (F W) de Klerk was born in Johannesburg on 18 March 1936. After graduating from the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education in 1958, he spent 12 years as an attorney in Vereeniging before taking the decision to enter active politics. In November 1972 he was elected as Member of Parliament for Vereeniging.
In 1978 Mr De Klerk was appointed to the Cabinet. During the following 11 years he was responsible for numerous portfolios including Mineral and Energy Affairs, Internal Affairs and National Education. He was elected leader of the National Party in the Transvaal in 1982. In July 1985 he became Chairman of the Minister’s Council in the House of Assembly and in December 1986 Leader of the House of Assembly.
After his election as State President in September 1989, he initiated and presided over the inclusive negotiations that led to the dismantling of “apartheid” and the adoption of South Africa’s first fully democratic constitution in December 1993. After South Africa’s first fully representative general election of 27 April 1994 Mr De Klerk became one of South Africa’s two Executive Deputy Presidents in which capacity he served until 1996 when his Party decided to withdraw from the Government of National Unity. He was Leader of the Official Opposition until his retirement from active party politics in 1997.
Today, Mr De Klerk continues to work actively on the promotion of harmonious relations in multi-communal societies, the future of Africa and South Africa and the challenges facing the world today. In 1999 he established the F W de Klerk Foundation, and in 2004, he brought together a number of respected former national leaders to join him as founding members of GLF Global Leadership Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aims to play a constructive role in the promotion of peace, democracy and development in countries across the world. In addition, he holds positions at the Prague Society for International Co-operation, the Assembly of the Parliament of Cultures and the think-tank Forum 2000 as well as serving on the advisory boards of the Peres Centre for Peace in Israel and the Global Panel in Germany.
Mr De Klerk has been awarded numerous honours, among them the Prix du Courage Internationale (1992) and, together with Mr Mandela, both the UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize (1992) and the Nobel Peace Prize (1993).
source: Website of the FW de Klerk Foundation