On November 11, 2021, Apartheid South Africa’s last president, FW de Klerk died. The distorted history of South Africa peddled by mainstream media tells us that he freed Nelson Mandela from prison and other political activists; unbanned liberation movements and initiated South Africa’s “Road to Democracy” from the goodness of his heart. I read, with great disappointment, media headlines, both local and abroad, which referred to de Klerk as the “man who freed Nelson Mandela”. This popular narrative should be rejected as it portrays de Klerk as a man with a polarizing or “uneven legacy” as articulated by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

De Klerk did not have a polarizing legacy. He had one legacy. And that of apartheid president.

It was people like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – also dubbed ‘The Mother of the Nation’ – who was the ground force that kept black people together to fight and resist the segregationist government and its policies, and gave hope in times of despair; the philosophical teachings of Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe inspiring students, the working class, and the churches under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and, by extension, the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) to ensure that South Africa is ungovernable; longtime African National Congress (ANC) President, Oliver Tambo who mobilized the international community, through the application of Track II diplomacy to get the United Nations to declare apartheid in South Africa as “crime against humanity”; and the end of the Cold War, which meant that the National Party (NP) could no longer rely on western powers for support as the “threat of Communism” had relinquished. All these led to the isolation of a bankrupt SA by the international community to force de Klerk’s hand in giving in to the demands of the Africans: unconditional participation in the body politic of South Africa. It was inevitable. If it was not de Klerk, it was going to be someone else. What he did was no act of generosity. Apartheid was no longer sustainable and he had no choice.

It can be argued that by the time PW Botha stepped down to make way for his successor, de Klerk, the NP government in South Africa knew that its time was up and that in the not-so-distant future, there would be a “one man, one vote” as prophesied by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. And that de Klerk’s job was less to do with maintaining minority rule in South Africa and more to do with ensuring a pragmatic end to apartheid to protect the interests of “his people” in the “new” South Africa. That was his position within the NP and the attitude they carried to the negotiations – and if South Africa is anything to go by today (with black unemployment, inequality and ‘White Monopoly Capital’), he and the NP got what they wanted.

One of the many indictments on the internationally revered Nelson Mandela’s legacy was accepting a Noble Peace Prize with de Klerk, the same man who, by design or by default, colluded with a “third force” to go on a bloodbath in South Africa in the latter days of apartheid in an attempt to delay SA’s date with democracy. Evidently demonstrating that black South Africans forgave people who never asked for forgiveness and never saw anything wrong with apartheid. He was an un-noble man who committed crimes against humanity and destroyed the lives of black South Africans, a proud Afrikaner who, in the latter days of his life, said, “apartheid was not a crime against humanity”.

In the book, The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes, set in After Africa, were imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes is held accountable for his actions, Professor Adekeye Adebajo on Nelson Mandela linking his name to that of Rhodes through the establishment of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, as Patrice Lumumba, writes, “Mandela effectively rehabilitated a grotesque imperialist of the nineteenth century… Mr Mandela has surely taken the African concept of Ubuntu too far in rehabilitating an evil figure that Africans really should have condemned to the pit latrine of history”. And this is exactly what Madiba did when shared the Noble Peace Prize with De Klerk.

It is important to dispel the unfounded and baseless notion that the legacy of de Klerk is that of a peacemaker and co-liberator or polarized, as some have claimed. He was not! Neither was his legacy. His colleagues from the NP appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to testify and, indeed, acknowledge their roles in the gross human rights violations of the 1990s. De Klerk, contrastingly, failed to admit responsibility. He failed to see apartheid for what it really was: a crime against humanity.

His terrible legacy can never be whitewashed. The spatial injustice that continues to keep black people away from economic activity to enforce structural inequality is his legacy; the Boipatong Massacre that left 45 people dead, is his legacy; he sat on the apartheid’s Security Council that authorized the murder of the Cradock 4 activists; the bombing of the Khotso House, that is his legacy.

Proteas Cricket player, Quinton de Kock’s refusal to “take the knee” as a universal symbol of the fight against racism, is de Klerk’s legacy; the many skulls and bones that lie in unmarked graves, is De Klerk’s legacy.

Despite all his atrocities, he lived and died without being held accountable for all he did. The ANC-led government has done little to make sure those who had a hand in apartheid atrocities were held to account. And this is largely due to the negotiated settlement, one which has led to the social structure of SA remaining the same.

Regardless of whether the democratic government recognizes him or not, fact remains that De Klerk was a colossus of apartheid – which was an extension of colonialism, slavery and exploitation of Africans under the premise that without Whites, Africa and her people would only but dream of civilization – a view held by Helen Zille, who is the de facto leader of the Democratic Alliance – the prodigal son of the NP in democratic SA.

Giving de Klerk credit for SA’s democratic transition is tantamount to celebrating a kidnapper for setting his hostages free. It is not my intention to dehumanize de Klerk, that would be un-African of me, considering that we don’t speak ill of the dead, besides, his legacy speaks for itself. Mine was to simply state his legacy for what it truly was. – By Vusi Gumbi

Vusi Gumbi is a Master’s candidate in Politics at the University of Johannesburg and a Research Assistant at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation.