A brush with history

I have been shamelessly pulling strings!  There’s a distinguished speakers series, which comes under the umbrella of The Cambridge Speakers Series, and it is hosted by universities in different American cities: St, Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  The Baltimore Speakers Series is hosted by Stevenson University.  So far, the line up this year has been New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman; best-selling author, Elizabeth Gilbert; Frank Abignale (the con man in the movie, “Catch Me if You Can”); political commentator, Peggy Noonan; and FW de Klerk. 

I was still living in South Africa when de Klerk became President in 1989 and systematically set the wheels in motion to end Apartheid and free Nelson Mandela.  Not many people realize that he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela because of their joint accomplishment of bringing about a peaceful democracy in South Africa.  Against the backdrop of what is happening in the Arab world right now, it is only too easy to imagine how it could have been a very different outcome in South Africa – something we were acutely aware of at the time.

When I saw that FW de Klerk was one of the speakers on the series, I thought how wonderful it would be to go and hear him.   I contacted someone I know who is the Vice President of Development at the Baltimore Speakers’ Series to ask if she could possibly arrange tickets for me to hear the lecture at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.  Not only did she arrange that, but she also included us in the invitation to a private dinner with FW de Klerk beforehand.  It took my living in America to have the opportunity to meet him!

The dinner was at the Intercontinental Harbor Court downtown, and when we walked in I saw him immediately, surrounded by a group of people.  He’s in his 70’s now, about 5’9″, and quite trim.  When we were introduced to him, I tried out my rusty Afrikaans and said, “Aangename kennis, meneer” to which he responded with some pleasure, and explained to the group that we were speaking in our mother tongue. ( This is not actually true in my case, but it was a pleasure to be included in his observation.)  We talked briefly about our various provenances and then we left him to speak with other guests while we mingled a bit.  Before we sat down to dinner, we had the opportunity to have our photograph taken with him so, who knows, there might even be a record of the event.

There were probably about 30 guests at the dinner, and we all sat at one long table, with de Klerk seated in the centre.  First we all introduced ourselves and gave our affiliation.  There were some who had visited South Africa, and one man who had been a US Ambassador in 1967, but I was the only South African apart from de Klerk.  There were quite a few attorneys (including DB) and quite a few people from the media (including me) and he joked that he no longer needed to be wary of the press since he was now retired and could say what he liked. 

The way they organize these events is that it’s an open table, so everyone can take part in the conversation over dinner.  This gave us the chance to ask him questions and all share in the answers.  An African-American woman who had visited South Africa spoke of her emotional response to the trip and the chance to meet Nelson Mandela, and then the President of Stevenson University asked de Klerk to speak about his relationship with Mandela.  He has never lost his marked Afrikaans accent, and is a marvellously articulate and passionate speaker.  He talked with great respect of Mandela; their very first meeting and the feeling they shared that each could “do business” with the other, of Mandela’s lack of bitterness, and of his saying, when de Klerk told him he was going to be released from his 27 year incarceration on February 11th 1990, that it was too soon!  de Klerk told us he said to Mandela that they would negotiate about many things, but that this was non-negotiable.  Mandela was released on that day.  de Klerk was asked how he had come to the decision to dismantle Apartheid.  There is a story that de Klerk had been dandling his grandson on his knee, and that he’d had something of an epiphany as he wondered about the boy’s future.  Clearly that story is apocryphal because he said it had been a gradual process and had actually begun during his predecessor’s presidency; that there had been a growing sense that it was morally indefensible and wrong (I got so choked up at this point!), and the only remaining question for him was how to go about changing  it.  Another person asked if he believed that the American Civil Rights Movement had an impact on South Africa (in his opinion it gave hope to the disenfranchised but hardened the conservatives, so perhaps even delayed the process in South Africa), and another asked what role sanctions had played (they did play a part but also detrimentally affected the very people they were designed to help, the underprivileged).   I asked him what the biggest surprises had been for him in the post-Apartheid era, and he talked about the long lines of joyous people casting votes for the first time.  (He also told a funny story about a man wanting to cast a vote in an outlying area, and the voting official asking him who he was voting for.  The man said he was voting for de Klerk, and the official told him this was only a polling station for Nelson Mandela!)  He talked also about the Rugby World Cup, the FIFA World Cup, and other positive elements of the past seventeen years.  On that happy note, the dinner wrapped up, and he was whisked away to the hall.

There was a big crowd at the Meyerhoff, and there was a stillness and alertness in the hall, which was heartening.  In his formal speech he gave the backdrop to the entrenchment of Apartheid, including the British Imperialist role, and then he talked about the elements that are needed to ensure that negotiations will be successful. These include timing, and he talked about how the collapse of the Berlin Wall had helped the process in South Africa.  He spoke of forming small committees that could be sent off to work through thorny issues to help take the emotionalism out of the immediate negotiations.  And he talked about the importance of absolute honesty and forthrightness, that there could be no hidden agendas.  Also, how there had to be compromise; no one side should feel like a victor or the other a loser.  Since his retirement, de Klerk has travelled all over the world giving behind the scenes advice to countries in conflict, so his experience and opinions are practical and pragmatic. 

After his speech there was a Q&A session, which covered a lot of similar ground to the discussion we had during our private dinner.  The question of violence came up.  He talked about crimes rates being unacceptably high, the AIDS pandemic and the failing intrastructurs like education.  Someone asked if he thought South Africa could go the way of Zimbabwe and his answer was an unequivocal, “No”.  He says not only would the White population not allow it, but the constitution wouldn’t allow it.  He believes that the constitution is on a par with the constitution of the United States.  It was refreshing how open and direct he was, with none of the obfuscating political correctness that our politicians tend to have here, subjected as they are to minute media scrutiny every second they open their mouths.  At the end, de Klerk got a standing ovation, which he acknowledged with a quiet humility. 

Towards the end of the private dinner, a woman had spoken about the fate of these two great men, Mandela and de Klerk, coming together to achieve the peaceful transition of power.  He downplayed that quite humbly, but did say, both then and during his speech, that it takes leadership to see the window of opportunity and dive through it to execute change.  South Africa was lucky to have two such leaders.

4 thoughts on “A brush with history

  1. I can’t believe it. How amazing that you met former President de Klerk. I am of course very envious.

    Not sure if you noticed, but the image doesn’t seem to have come out. Could be my computer.

    Oh what a gorgeous story.

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  2. JUST amazing! As you say, you had to be in the US to get to meet him and what a priviledge, honour and excitement it must’ve been. Part of our roots, hearing about the other side to things by the “forgotten” partner to the events in SA. Lovely recap for us all to read, thanks so much!! A xx

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  3. What a fantastic report – I always thought it sad that de Klerk was side lined when he had beeen so brave to step outside his comfort zone. So glad you could fly the flag for us old expats!
    Pam B

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