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Late former president FW De Klerk’s global stature eclipsed his role in apartheid era murders

FILE – Late former president FW De Klerk’s global stature eclipsed his role in apartheid era murders, says the writer. De Klerk is pictured with late former president Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1993 in Oslo after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prizes.

FILE – Late former president FW De Klerk’s global stature eclipsed his role in apartheid era murders, says the writer. De Klerk is pictured with late former president Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1993 in Oslo after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prizes.

Published Nov 14, 2021


Johannesburg – Late former president Frederik Willem De Klerk was lauded on the global stage for his role in the transition to democracy, culminating in him being a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize alongside former President Nelson Mandela in 1993.

The accolades he received worldwide for being a “visionary” who made the necessary compromises to realise majority rule, led to his almost hero status abroad in the narrative about the South African transition.

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But in all the noise what has been largely ignored is the role De Klerk played on the State Security Council (SSC). De Klerk’s legacy is not only as Madiba’s peace partner, but also as one of the handful of senior officials who sat on the SSC which gave the orders to have anti-apartheid activists “permanently removed” or “neutralised”.

De Klerk failed to make a full disclosure of the role of the SSC during the Truth and Reconciliation commission (TRC), and the families of the victims who were killed by the apartheid state on the orders of the SSC, view his legacy in a negative light.

De Klerk’s final message to South Africans before he passed away was one of remorse for the “unacceptability” of apartheid, and the damage it did to “black, coloured and Indian” South Africans.

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He admitted that in his younger years he defended apartheid and “separate development” but claimed to have later had a conversion in which he realised that apartheid was wrong and led to the hurt and indignity of black South Africans.

He did, however, stop short of admitting that apartheid was a crime against humanity, and he also never admitted his own role in presiding over state sanctioned killings as a key member of the SSC. The SSC operated beyond public scrutiny, and eclipsed cabinet as the key locus of power and authority in matters relating to security.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela said: “Despite his seemingly progressive actions, Mr de Klerk was by no means the great emancipator. He was a gradualist, a careful pragmatist. He did not make any of his reforms with the intention of putting himself out of power. He made them for precisely the opposite reason: to ensure power for the Afrikaner in a new dispensation.

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In 2007, former Vlakplaas Commander Eugene de Kock said that de Klerk’s hands were “soaked in blood,” and accused him of approving gross violations of human rights.

De Klerk acknowledged that there was a strategy to murder prominent anti-apartheid activists, but said it was carried out by rogue elements within the security forces, and he was “horrified when he found out years later.”

But Howard Varney, a former TRC investigator, and highly regarded human rights lawyer has said, “It’s untenable that a cabinet minister who sat in the SSC meetings from 1985 to 1989 claims he was unaware that gross human rights violations were being committed on an ongoing basis.

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Minutes of a SSC meeting attended by de Klerk on March 19, 1984, made a call for the removal of anti-apartheid activists Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata. They were subsequently detained during 1984 and murdered the following year.

He also attended the SSC meeting on June 10, 1985, less than three days after the “permanent removal” recommendation was made to the Secretariat of the SSC. At this meeting Vlok called for the JMCs (joint management committees) to be given the necessary orders or delegations to act on their own initiative.

Just over two weeks later the Cradock Four were murdered in an official police operation. The minutes of the SSC meeting show the word applied to Goniwe is the Afrikaans word “verwyder” which means “remove, get rid of, eliminate.” Two days after the meeting, a security policeman visited Cradock where Goniwe lived to decide how best to kill him.

Brigadier Jan Hattingh ‘Jack’ Cronje, former Divisional Commander of the Northern Transvaal SB had testified: “If it should be claimed therefore by anyone that the State Security Council was not aware of the actions of the security forces and the security police or of any specific incidents, this would not be true.”

At no point did any SSC member object to the systematic killing of anti-apartheid activists, seek an independent inquiry into the ongoing murders, or issue any clarifications regarding its directives and specifically order the halting of such illegal operations.

De Klerk goes to the grave without answering for his role in these apartheid era crimes. He was also party to the establishment of a covert paramilitary force, trained and equipped by the army, that was responsible for much of the violence unleashed against anti-apartheid activists in the mid-1980s.

In de Klerk’s last few months as president, he ordered the shredding of tons of documents and tapes that exposed the chain of command in covert operations.

Instead of owning up to his own culpability, as was expected of others who testified at the TRC, de Klerk declined to apply for amnesty, and distanced himself from the kill orders which were regularly handed down by the SSC, on which he sat. This is part of the legacy of de Klerk that few in the international community want to mention or address, but it is still a very real part of the historical record.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Independent Media Group’s Foreign Editor.


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