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FW de Klerk, pink peeling face bloated as if by cortisone, funereal smile stretched under dull eyes, his political ideas as obsolete as a typewriter, his opinion blighted by the ridicule of opponents – and his opponents are everywhere and everybody – his memory distorted by his misapprehensions and his reputation finally tarnished by extra-marital dalliance, will have what he has desired above all else: he will leave a legacy. “Legacy” in the mind of the career politician means “place in history.” And a place in history FW de Klerk will have and it will be that of a rare enough political bird, and though he represents a well-developed example of a certain category, he certainly is not without company in his corner of history. There future historians will find him with a coterie of some of history’s most flamboyant figures. Montezuma, the Aztec king, will be there, as will Rehoboam the grandson of ancient Israel’s great king David, as will France’s “Sun King” Louis XIV and Phillip II of Spain, a lineage of Renaissance popes and England’s “Farmer” George the Third.
What distinguishes these men; why are they in that particular corral of history? They were leaders sure, as were thousands of others, but they are remarkable for having devastated their countries and their people, not by one massive miscalculation, but in persisting in a course of action that was so foolish that historians are at a loss to explain the slow meltdown of mental processes.
Popular historian Barbara Tuchman (popular historians are the same as regular or “academic” historians except that they write readable prose) considers the effect in her pondering (as opposed to ponderous) work, The March of Folly. She beautifully describes the nature and mechanisms of folly, but concedes that she does not understand why the leaders in our list persisted in it. And persist in it, that they did.
Farmer George lost America forever for England, Louis expelled the Huguenots and thus impoverished his country and then vaingloriously waged unnecessary wars which bankrupted France and shoved the country over the precipice towards revolution, popes Sixtus IV to Clement VII through their perversions and arrogance triggered the Reformation which split the church and eventually led to it forever losing its pre-eminent position in the world, but only two of the leaders in the list – Montezuma and FW de Klerk – rushed from heights of enormous power to prostrate themselves – and their people – at the feet of a ruthless but weak and outmanoeuvred foe.
Montezuma was the mighty leader of the Aztecs, a people so ruthless they habitually sacrificed people in an effort to cajole some goodwill from their imaginary gods. They were safely ensconced in the natural fortresses of the high mountains and were a prosperous lot. There was no reason to even contemplate a radical change in position or fortune. They had every reason to feel safe behind the aggressive bulk of a standing army exceeding six hundred thousand men. Then, at the height of their power, one Hernán Cortés came calling. He’d sailed from the Old to the New World, not with an armada, but with a few dainty wooden ships containing 600 men, seventeen horses and 17 small cannons in all.
Cortés was a conquistador, a Spanish invader and fortune seeker. He was utterly ruthless, decisive and fearless. And outmanned. His enemy had the decisive advantage of 1,000 men under arms for every one of Cortés’s adventurers. Montezuma could have summoned his cooks to do his fighting and still overwhelmed Cortés and his avaricious band. This he did not do. What he in fact did was to meekly submit to the conquistador, thereby cracking the door to his country for the thin edge of the wedge. Soon he was deposed and his people subjugated under the unsympathetic heel of Catholic Spain.
This stunning capitulation still renders historians nonplussed. Tuchman has a tentative stab at an answer, but if she is not convincing it is because she is not convinced. She timidly ascribes Montezuma’s meltdown to the superstition of the Aztecs. “Their ‘gray’ faces, their ‘stone’ garments, their arrival at the coast in waterborne houses with white wings, their magic fire that burst from tubes to kill at a distance, their strange beasts that carried the leaders on their backs…” apparently was too much evidence for the idol-worshipping Montezuma who forthwith caved in. But who can tell?
If Tuchman cannot explain Montezuma’s brain freeze, she is in her own mind sure what constitutes folly. In her “inquiry” she defines it as “policy contrary to self-interest” and lists three requirements for a policy to receive full recognition as folly. She writes that “it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight.” “Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.” The third requirement is that “the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.”
Montezuma’s actions were decidedly contrary to his self-interest and that of his followers. He was ignominiously stoned to death and the Aztecs subjected under the iron heel of the avaricious conquistadors and eventually removed as a culture and distinct people from the face of the earth.
It can be argued that the demise of Montezuma and his people was inevitable. They were in the way of the ambitions of a restless and ruthless force. If Cortés did not wipe them out, some other trigger-happy European conqueror would have been all too happy – and capable – to perform the deed. Western expansion was an unstoppable force and the primitive Aztec hardly an unmoveable object.
Myth, superstition, obsolete defence equipment, political naiveté and the appearance of an unknown foe will all make good strands to weave a case in mitigation of Montezuma’s disastrous handling of his ultimate political crisis. But what to make of a leader who was not hobbled by any of these debilitations and yet unexpectedly, cravenly and completely caved in to a defeated enemy? And, since history is not merely a repository of interesting snippets, what can one learn from it and what should its influence be on our planning for the future? Tuchman’s examination of folly ends with the Vietnam war but one can only imagine the glee with which she would have picked through the debris of National Party policy to explain the unnecessary, completely self-defeating and irrevocable surrender of FW de Klerk to that comical “liberation movement,” the ANC.
While there are clear similarities between the way in which Montezuma and De Klerk pursued “policies contrary to” their “self-interest,” there are also obvious differences. The Aztec had to deal with an unknown foe. De Klerk cannot possibly make use of this defence. His people, the Afrikaners, had been living among the Bantu for three and a half centuries. Nothing about the nature, history, customs and capabilities – and lack thereof – of black Africans was unknown to the National Party. Even the modern cant of the ANC, its Marxist and Afro-nationalist roots were well-known to the Nationalists. FW very well knew that the black people of South Africa were incurably envious of the very capable and successful whites, especially the Afrikaner.
Before the arrival of Cortés Montezuma had no data of the capabilities of a Western force and he could never be certain how an armed clash between Aztec and conquistador would turn out. De Klerk, by contrast, was well aware of the power of the armed forces under his control. The South African Defence Force had dispersed its foes during the Border War. It had severed SWAPO’s supply chain in Angola and devastated its bases and forced the terrorist organization to scurry to the negotiation table, leading to a tame Namibian independence. The “Boers” had seen off the communist threat, culminating in the severe mauling it handed the Cuban forces at Cuito Cuanavale before staring down Castro’s last charge to the border of Namibia. The South African security forces in the early nineties were a lean, tough, hell-for-leather outfit.
There is also the quality of opposition to bear in mind when comparing Motezuma’s folly with that of FW de Klerk. The Aztec king had every right to be taken aback by the sheer daring of Cortés and his merry men. A man who brazenly sails to the shores of a hostile and unknown country and then burns his ships to prevent a premature withdrawal, might very well know something the king does not. This valiant approach is not something to be found in the ANC playbook.
The ANC were the Keystone Kops of the revolutionary world. They bungled so many operations that they killed more of their own than of the enemy. Their leadership was corrupt and mostly in the pocket of the state. It is indicative that their most revered induna failed miserably under arms and was, by the mercy of the Afrikaner government, reshaping rocks on an island prison.
The South African government had to confront the two-faced sanctions of the world, yet the economy proved surprisingly robust, so much so that the very sanctions designed to smother it was forcing it to bloom in surprising areas. The South African armaments industry, for instance, was thriving. The ANC’s loss of its communist sponsor after the unravelling of the Iron Curtain also meant that new markets were opening up to South African products, while the country’s stranglehold on certain strategic minerals could be used to lever trade with other countries.
FW’s South Africa, then, was militarily strong, its people resourceful and hardworking, its economy stable, its foes vanquished and its agriculture so productive it could feed the region. For goodness sake, South Africa had six self-developed nuclear devices which represented the ultimate bargaining chip.
FW de Klerk had nothing to gain by a transition of government and everything to lose. The Afrikaner possessed the strength to retain everything and the ANC was too weak to force the president’s hand. And yet, in a mad rush, within a few months, in the face of furious warnings, FW de Klerk and his National Party completely surrendered as if they’d been whipped by an overwhelming foe.
It remains a modern political mystery. De Klerk is certainly not unintelligent. He was a deft political operator and by stealth, decisiveness and sometimes calumny disarmed the right-wing threat to his plans. He was a good communicator and a skilled debater. In an SABC TV debate, for instance, he easily outclassed a glum, muttering, somewhat confused Nelson Mandela. Why then the abrupt change of course, from an untouchable position to utter defeat? Barbara Tuchman’s “inquiry” only stretched to Vietnam, but with what glee would she have poked through the debris of the National Party’s ruinous folly!
Tuchman has a dim view of politicians. Right in the beginning of her book she ruminates about the nature of people in government. “Mankind,” she writes, “makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity… Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests?”
When Tuchman refers to “self-interest” she clearly sees the interest of the ruler and the interests of his people as the same. Yes, on the face of it De Klerk served his own interests very well, thank you. He was for a heady period touted by tout le monde – and still by some die-hard liberal ex-Nats – as the enlightened vanquisher of evil. He pocketed half a Nobel Prize, was financially sumptuously greased and even waltzed out of his marriage with the glamorous wife of a Greek friend on his arm. All in all FW was personally well served by his political folly. The lot of his people is an entirely different issue. They were stripped of their power and rendered at the mercy of a merciless people. They are subjected to discrimination and have to stare in horror from the sidelines as the fine country they built is ransacked and ruined by the cupidity and stupidity of inept rulers.
This hardly resonates with De Klerk. Having ingested too much of his own political snake oil, he still stubbornly believes that he did not only do the right but a noble and admired thing. That is why he still feels called upon to chide other African countries on their treatment of minorities – this from the man who stripped the powers of the most envied and therefore feared and hated minority in the world.
He may try and duck behind the ruse that his people are all the races in the country, but it will ultimately not serve him well. Only a small collection of people benefited from his folly. The rest – the overwhelming majority – of South Africans will reap misery from his actions. The economy is wrecked and the hoof beats of the grey horseman, famine, are already thudding through the dry crust of abandoned farms.
De Klerk, then, has fooled so many people, worst of all himself. And it is just too tempting to avoid answering the most intriguing question of all: Why?
The few people who can definitively answer the question aren’t talking, so we are free to conjecture. While his precise motives are murky leaves on the bottom of the tea cup, we can be more certain of when he took the fateful and fatal decision to betray his people and surrender himself to the currents of folly. The FW de Klerk of October 1989 does not resemble the determined fool of February 1990. During that particular October he primly scolded his elder brother, Willem, for hobnobbing with the enemy, the ANC, during the infamous “Dakar Safari.” Not even four months later he released the brakes on the wagon of surrender by unbanning the ANC and setting their terrorist-in-chief, Nelson Mandela, free.
The elder De Klerk brother, in a biography he wrote on his kid brother, puzzles over this abrupt change of tack. He calls it an astonishing political conversion.
Who got hold of FW and what was said? Maybe one day all will be revealed. In the meantime it seems clear that the carrot jiggled in front of his nose is the one so very few party-political animals can resist – the possibility of a legacy.
For the modern party politician a legacy is a big deal.
Winston Churchill (in words quoted by FW de Klerk in his lecture to African leaders) damned democracy with faint praise. “Democracy,” he said, “is the worst form of government in the world – apart from all the others.”
This is somewhat bombastic for somebody who has not experienced a single day of pure democracy. The warped version of democracy so beloved by him and touted as the panacea for all political ills by the West is in fact little more than a popularity contest run by unscrupulous, self-serving people.
Ever since the invention of the political party the fortunes of the country has been embedded with the self-serving interests of a collection of vainglorious shysters. Cynics, yoked with the modern press, have gradually made the manipulation of voters and election results a finely tuned science.
This system inevitably produces a warped hierarchy of interests. For the modern-day politician the party comes first, followed by whichever partners helped it to beat the ballot box. The country and its people come a very distant third.
The very nature of political office in the party system necessarily produces a peculiar political animal. What kind of person exactly does it take to be enamoured by the prospect of rising through the ranks to gain political favour? A very determined individual, yes, one that is so focused on the success of campaign and career that he will sacrifice anything to attain it. In this strident selection process morality and integrity are drawbacks. Even when couched in terms of ends justifying means, the politician of necessity must first of all do what is best, not for his constituents, but his political career. This demands an intense focus on himself. Therefore the successful party politician is almost invariably self-obsessed. And narcissism is hardly the right stuff for a righteous ruler.
Running a country is heady stuff. The political self is so well served by the office. People come when he calls and go forth when he commands. The only shame, to the very few who obtain the position, is that it cannot last forever. Political leaders will gladly strike a deal with any devil to prolong the situation. The manful struggle to obtain political power does not compare in desperation with the fight to retain it. And that is why the “legacy” is of such all-consuming importance. It is often the only way to let the effect linger. To leave a proper legacy, however, the leader has to perform deeds of such heroism, courage and flamboyance that other people will find it necessary to preserve his memory.
Between October 1987 and 2 February 1990 FW de Klerk came to believe he had found the one thing, in his mind of such courage and dash, which would leave him touted for the ages to come. And so he delivered his people into the hands of their enemies.
Folly, remember, is an act contrary to self-interest and ultimately FW’s treachery undermined himself and his ultimate goal of leaving a treasured legacy. The only people who truly celebrate him as the national saviour he imagines himself to be are a few NP dinosaurs, his immediate family, FW himself and Dave Steward who runs the ex-president’s feeble attempt to manufacture the scaffolding of his own legacy, the FW de Klerk Foundation. The press consigned him to the status of an oddity. His main competitor, that old terrorist, Nelson Mandela, was swept away on tides of adulation. He usurped all the praise De Klerk expected to garner.
So he will leave a legacy. His tale will be part of the anthology that includes the history of Montezuma, the Renaissance popes, Louis XIV, Farmer George III and other incompetents. If ever a future leader carefully but with great determination follows a program of self-destruction – where the “self” is not just the ruler but his people – observers will grin knowingly and say: “Just like FW de Klerk.” His legacy then is having been a fool.
Oh, they will be talking about FW de Klerk for a while longer. There are lessons to be drawn from his career and actions. But not in the way he hoped for. FW de Klerk’s life has become a cautionary tale.
He was not the first leader to devastate his country through his own folly. And, more importantly, he will not be the last.
The current South African regime, that foul political party, the ANC, would do well to consider the tale of FW and his folly. They are marching to their own demise, deaf to the entreaties of caution. They know that history will cold-shoulder FW de Klerk but they are so cock-sure that it will treat them well. However, there is a rule of history: From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. Nowhere in history has so much been given as to the undeserving ANC. And when future historians peer through the smoke above the debris of a once magnificent country, their judgment of the ANC, starting with the failed terrorist and statesman Nelson Mandela, will be harsh.
And yet they will also see pockets of prosperity among the ruins. A betrayed people will be at work, rebuilding the country as their forefathers once did.
And that will be the legacy of the Afrikaner.
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