So, this is it. F.W. De Klerk, the final Apartheid-era President of South Africa, has passed away. To say that he’s got a complex and controversial legacy is an understatement beyond measure. On the one hand, he was the President who helped to finally end the horrible system of Apartheid for good and also helped South Africa become the only country in the world to completely give up its nuclear weapons. On the other hand, he was a person who for a very long time helped enable the system he was born into which favoured him as a white man to continue. This is made all the more complicated by his apology video, which he posted shortly before his death. Intended as his final message to the public, a frail, gaunt and melahcolic De Klerk apologised “without qualification” for his part in the Apartheid system both on a personal and political level.
I could take a proper, journalistic look at De Klerk. Indeed, if I was asked to write about De Klerk in a professional capacity, I would do. But this isn’t professional. This isn’t work. This is personal. Why is it personal? Because I am of South African heritage and mixed-race South African heritage at that. When you grow up as somebody who has that heritage, you become so very aware of what the system of Apartheid did to the people it oppressed. I’m also very well aware of the work De Klerk did on his side of the equation to help end Apartheid. That’s why, as of right now, I’m finding saying anything at all about De Klerk’s death quite difficult. De Klerk’s legacy really is one that’s too complicated to explain in something like a social media post. It’s too complicated to even explain in an editorial. It really is difficult for me to say what I feel about it beyond my immediate reaction.
What I will say, though, is that when I saw the notification about it on my phone this morning, I didn’t really feel anything. Maybe ‘anything’ is the wrong word here. ‘Anything’ was probably more like feeling so many complicated feelings that they all cancelled each other out. Everything, and yet nothing at all. Looking on Twitter, I’ve seen so many South Africans not even slightly grieving him. Some are even happy that he’s gone. I understand it. To many people, he really was the symbol of evil. But, that’s not how I felt. I just felt… nothing. I couldn’t be sad for a man who was an enabler of so many terrible things, especially in his younger days. At the same time, I couldn’t be happy that somebody’s died. De Klerk had a wife and family, like many of us. His family will be grieving his loss terribly. His children aren’t him, either. Just because their father was who he was doesn’t mean that they’ll be like him too.
It’s just all so, so difficult. But what I do know from his passing is that, just like with the news of Johnny Clegg’s passing (a man whose music and values I loved and respected dearly and always will) a couple of years ago, it made me realise how important my South African heritage is in this day and age. To quote one of Clegg’s songs, I am a scatterling of Africa. I wouldn’t have ever come into existence if it wasn’t for the incredible melting pot of a country that South Africa is. Although I’ve never been to Cape Town (the town my South African descendants called their home at the turn of the 20th century) and I am essentially a third or even fourth-generation immigrant, I owe a hell of a lot to that country. You sometimes don’t realise how much you do owe until something like this happens and how it makes you feel. De Klerk’s death was certainly one of those things.
If I have to give one concrete opinion about this whole thing, I hope that De Klerk isn’t given a state funeral. Even though he was an important part in the legal abolition of Apartheid, giving him a state funeral would be like sticking a middle finger up at all the people his government helped to oppress. He certainly will be remembered. But, perhaps, he shouldn’t be revered. I don’t really know what the best way to go about all this is. There are definitely people who know the answer better than I do. But I feel that we need to give full respect to the people his government oppressed and to give him a state funeral would just be a blatant violation of that.
If I have one wish for anyone who might be reading this, it’s that we make sure that the system De Klerk was once a part of can never happen again. It won’t be easy. It’ll take long, hard and constant work. Many of our societies are still feeling so many of the effects of institutionalised racism that, even in a post-racial society, the echoes of segregation still impact our daily lives. But, if we work together (and we must work together), we can make sure that discrimination and oppression of people because of the colour of their skin or their nationality or their gender or their sexuality remains a thing of the past.