South Africa’s Po­lit­i­cal Bag­gage

A di­vi­sive de­bate about hon­our­ing Africa’s last white ruler, for­mer Pres­i­dent F.W. de Klerk, by nam­ing the Cape Town Boule­vard af­ter him has forced the rain­bow na­tion to con­front its racist past, writes JAMES N. KAR­IUKI

Diplomat East Africa - - Table of Contents - Kar­iuki is a Kenyan Pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions (emer­i­tus) and re­sides in South Africa

Since the last days of last year, South Africa has been gripped by the is­sue of whether or not to name one of Cape Town’s ma­jor streets af­ter Fred­er­ick de Klerk. To or­di­nary South Africans, street name changes are no big is­sue; many do not even no­tice them un­til they come to a newly changed street name and have to fig­ure out their own where­abouts. In short, street name changes are usu­ally a mere in­con­ve­nience and a nui­sance.

Why is it then that, sud­denly, plans to change the name of the Ta­ble Moun­tain Boule­vard to F.W. de Klerk Boule­vard in Cape Town (Mother City) have be­come such a ma­jor and con­tro­ver­sial is­sue of na­tional pro­por­tions? In­deed, the mat­ter is now so huge that is has cap­tured and di­vided the na­tion racially and po­lit­i­cally.

F.W. de Klerk was the last of seven pres­i­dents of apartheid South Africa. He was an in­te­gral part of that so­cio-po­lit­i­cal or­der, prom­i­nent enough to have held sev­eral of its Cabi­net po­si­tions. When apartheid fi­nally started to show signs of crack­ing, how­ever, de Klerk was as­tute enough to en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that change was in­evitable and he en­ter­tained the idea of har­ness­ing that change, while there still was time. His method of choice was

The nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues that in the late 1980s when de Klerk came

he to power, re­al­ized that his old or­der of apartheid was doomed

peace­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions rather than wait un­til vi­o­lence en­gulfed the coun­try.

South Africa did achieve that ne­go­ti­ated tran­si­tion to democ­racy peace­fully. Many ob­servers around the world, in­clud­ing the Nor­we­gian No­bel Peace Prize Com­mit­tee, were con­vinced that that was an achieve­ment enough to earn de Klerk the 1993 No­bel Peace Prize jointly with the strug­gle icon, Nel­son Man­dela. In a re­cent in­ter­view de Klerk him­self re­it­er­ated that he would like to be re­mem­bered as “… a politi­cian who helped to lead South Africa from the dead end apartheid to a non-racial, con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy.”

If the story had ended there, there would not be much dis­pute to­day over the re-nam­ing a Cape Town street af­ter de Klerk. But, as fate would have it, that is where the theme re­ally thick­ens, trig­ger­ing the ques­tion: to cross the line from the sta­tus quo to ne­go­ti­at­ing away apartheid, did de Klerk jump or was he pushed?

Put an­other way, was this a case of recog­nis­ing the moral bank­ruptcy of apartheid and be­ing sorry by a truly re­formed de Klerk or was it a mat­ter of de Klerk tak­ing ad­van­tage of an op­por­tu­nity? This is the essence of to­day’s public de- bate. Did it all come from a sense of guilt or a clever de­sign to avert dis­as­ter?

An­tag­o­nists in­sist that the for­mer pres­i­dent was a bona fide off­spring of apartheid, one of its prom­i­nent and loyal foot sol­diers, to the very end. He re­sorted to ne­go­ti­a­tions only when he saw the writ­ing on the wall, that the end of apartheid was in­evitable, with or with­out him. So, de Klerk em­braced the old jun­gle logic of ‘if you can­not beat them, join them?’ Was he an op­por­tunist or a re­former? Some would say a re­molded re­al­ist.

The nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues that in the late 1980s when de Klerk came to power, he re­al­ized that his old or­der of apartheid was doomed. Af­ter all, it was con­demned world­wide. In­ter­na­tional sanc­tions were largely in place and were bit­ing so deeply that South Africa’s econ­omy was al­ready slug­gish. A cor­don of an arms em­bargo was tightly in place and squeez­ing tighter.

And in 1987-88 the apartheid war ma­chine had suf­fered hu­mil­i­at­ing mil­i­tary de­feats at the hands of Cuban-An­golan mil­i­tary forces in Cuito Cua­navale in south­ern An­gola. Those un­wel­come de­feats made the mil­i­tary op­tion ques­tion­able at best for the South Af- ri­can white regime. Fi­nally, so­cial un­rest and vi­o­lence had in­ten­si­fied in­side the coun­try, giv­ing sub­stance to the much dreaded rhetoric of ‘mak­ing South Africa un­govern­able.’ The Repub­lic was in­deed on the verge of im­plod­ing.

From the above logic, op­po­nents of the bid to re-name Ta­ble Moun­tain Boule­vard af­ter de Klerk in­sist that, on bal­ance, he was ul­ti­mately their op­pres­sor. Why should they hon­our him by en­dors­ing plans to change the name of a ma­jor street in Cape Town af­ter him? He was not their lib­er­a­tor! This is the same rea­son­ing ar­tic­u­lated pub­licly by the ANC, the rul­ing po­lit­i­cal party in South Africa, and COSATU, the huge black trade union.

Con­versely, de Klerk’s sup­port­ers dis­miss the above logic on the grounds that, when he suc­ceeded P.W. Botha in 1989, he be­came a le­git­i­mate Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic of South Africa. He could have cho­sen to re­main de­fi­ant, like his pre­de­ces­sor, in de­fense of apartheid, de­spite ev­i­dence to its life ex­pectancy. That at­ti­tude on de Klerk’s part would have plunged South Africa into the abyss of a civil war that no­body wanted. To the ex­tent that he em­braced the view that there was no al­ter­na­tive to a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment, de Klerk did play a ma­jor role in peace­ful dis­man­tling of apartheid.

We are re­minded that the ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment ap­proach was not nec­es­sar­ily the easy route for De Klerk to take. Some mem­bers of his white con­stituency, specif­i­cally the ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive rightwing, were dead set against ne­go­ti­at­ing democ­racy with Nel­son Man­dela, the ANC, PAC or any other black or­ga­ni­za­tions. To that end, they were pre­pared to go to war.

Viewed from this an­gle, de Klerk did take omi­nous politi-

cal risks by re­sort­ing to ne­go­ti­a­tions. He even did what was then ‘un­think­able’ by re­leas­ing Nel­son Man­dela from pri­son. To be re­dun­dant, that is pre­cisely the back­ground against which de Klerk was awarded the 1993 No­bel Peace Prize. Is that con­tri­bu­tion worth nam­ing a Cape Town street af­ter him? Why are the vic­tims of apartheid be­ing so un­for­giv­ing? What is in a Cape Town street name any way?

The tragedy of de Klerk’s at­tach­ment to this sce­nario is that it em­braces deeply-felt sen­ti­ments, much larger than it­self and it is a smelly pack­age. De Klerk’s con­tri­bu­tion to the lib­er­a­tion of South Africa is and will al­ways re­main con­tentious. In­deed there are al­le­ga­tions that his regime con­nived at hu­man right abuses against Blacks to the very end of apartheid.

Ad­di­tion­ally the city of Cape Town it­self has had an un­com­fort­able re­la­tion­ship with the rest of coun­try dur­ing the postapartheid era, es­pe­cially with the rul­ing ANC. This is so mainly be­cause Cape Town is mainly white with the cus­tom­ary class/race de­lin­eations of wealth. And last, but not least, it is gov­erned by the Demo­cratic Al­liance (DA), the home base of for­mer apartheid diehards.

In­deed, Cape Town is the cap­i­tal of West­ern Cape, the only DA-run prov­ince. In terms of race re­la­tions, the prov­ince and the Mother City have had an ap­palling record in at­tend­ing to the needs of its black cit­i­zens. The pre­vail­ing per­cep­tion is that when it comes to Blacks, the views of the pow­ers-that-be are sim­ply ‘we do not care if we of­fend.’ Re­nam­ing Ta­ble Moun­tain Boule­vard af­ter F.W. de Klerk, in spite of the op­po­si­tion of the voice­less, is likely to dove­tail neatly into that im­age.

Yet, in terms of po­lit­i­cal slo­ga­neer­ing, the DA claims that West­ern Cape is the best gov­erned prov­ince in the coun­try. The ANC re­sponds that West­ern Cape and the Cape Town are still vic­tims of apartheid and re­quire to be lib­er­ated from that bondage. The name of de Klerk, for no fault of his own, seems to con­jure up all those less than pleas­ant images.

As the big­gest op­po­si­tion party in the coun­try, the DA has had an ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship with the rul­ing ANC. The two at times be­have like enemies rather than op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Yet, de­spite to­day’s po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing, long-term mis­takes may be made. Cur­rently, the DA fo­cuses on its con­sti­tu­tional rights to change its street names as it sees fit. But this should hardly be done at the ex­pense of sen­si­tiv­ity to the deeply-felt pas­sions of the marginal­ized seg­ments of the so­ci­ety. Such would en­hance a sense of alien­ation and anger al­ready there. And that is ex­actly what chang­ing the name of Ta­ble Moun­tain Boule­vard to F.W. de Klerk would do.

More im­me­di­ately, the DA faces the prob­lem of be­ing a mi­nor­ity party. For this rea­son, it longs for op­por­tu­ni­ties to pen­e­trate the poor non-white so­ci­ety that the ANC claims to be its domain. It is one of its ideals to do this prior the forth­com­ing 2016 lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tion. Be­ing in­sen­si­tive to the deep pas­sions of the marginal­ized con­stituency misses the point re­gard­ing the re­nam­ing of Ta­ble Moun­tain Boule­vard. It is po­lit­i­cally naïve for the DA to en­gage in an is­sue that divides South Africa racially and po­lit­i­cally. It puts it­self in a race it can­not win.

Fi­nally, ig­nor­ing the voices of the voice­less now is not the way for­ward be­cause it threat­ens South Africa’s democ­racy. Good gov­er­nance is im­plicit in democ­racy which in turn means more than just num­bers. It sug­gests lis­ten­ing ex­tra hard and re­spect­ing the mi­nor­ity’s views, to what the voice­less and marginal­ized, have to say. The si­lent mi­nor­ity of to­day may rep­re­sent the loud ma­jor­ity of to­mor­row

In­deed, Cape Town is the cap­i­tal of West­ern Cape, the only DA-run prov­ince. In terms of race

the re­la­tions, prov­ince and the Mother City have had an ap­palling record in at­tend­ing to the needs of its black cit­i­zens

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