Were the President’s reforms a genuine push for racial equality, or just a bid to stay in power?
In 1993, Frederik Willem de Klerk, then President of South Africa, was jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize alongside Nelson Mandela, world-famous revolutionary and his soon successor, for their collective service in dismantling the much despised Apartheid regime which had kept their country racially segregated for over four decades. Whether his part in this was truly substantial enough to warrant such an honour is somewhat disputed.
Certainly, de Klerk was responsible for massive social reforms during his presidential tenure: in his first parliamentary speech he legalised opposition groups such as the African National Congress, the Pan-African Congress and the South African Communist Party, as well as releasing their high profile leaders. He also pledged towards improving the status of non-whites and achieving racial equality, even though this went against his natural beliefs.
The results of de Klerk’s decisions were extreme – by 1992, all of the laws regarded as stemming from the Apartheid system had been repealed and by 194 the country was ruled by a member of the majority race for the first time in its history.
Yet there is also a strong argument for the case that de Klerk was not a true egalitarian (for sure, he considered himself right wing even by Afrikaner standards) and that his reforms were merely a desperate reaction to the crises across South Africa: the country was torn by riots, strikes and protests. A civil war was a real possibility by the time of Botha’s resignation, and the National Party – which had governed the country since 1948 – was losing ground in the polls to the Conservative opposition. Also a pressing concern was hat the financial meltdown of 1985 has left lasting damage to the economy, and the thawing of the Cold War under Mikhail Gorbachev meant that Western powers were no longer incentivised to put up with South Africa’s deplorable policies for the sake of economic security – or, indeed, the avoidance of a potential communist takeover. Therefore, all of de Klerk’s reforms could be viewed simply as a cornered politician attempting to maintain his power.
This view, however, ignores the fact that His Excellency almost willingly gave up his power to Mandela by allowing blacks to vote in the 1994 election. Certainly, he made some attempts to stay within the political sphere, such as the power sharing agreement which allowed him to step down one rank instead of leaving the government altogether, but arguably that could have been for the sake of political stability. In any case, the idea had been the suggestion of a leading communist! To add to this, de Klerk actually pushed social reform far further than most people expected – rather than a few token concessions like those of Botha before him, de Klerk set about completely overthrowing the old system and embracing equality. He was far more respectful of Mandela than his predecessors had ever been and the two were able to make good use of discussion. I would say that his ability to commit to all of this despite being naturally inclined to preserve the ways of segregation actually shows he had more moral fibre and sensibility than most politicians then or now.
In any case, it should be remembered that the operative word in his prestigious award is “Peace”. Had de Klerk continued with Apartheid for much longer, there almost certainly would have been a civil war, if not a military intervention by other countries to effect political change, the repercussions of which could have been severe. The fact that F.W. used his position of power to take the necessary steps in avoiding this demonstrates that he indeed deserved the Nobel Prize.