Dirty slates wiped clean: FW de Klerk recast as Buddha-like SA icon
After takeoff, the SAA pilot turned off the seat belt sign and I immediately pulled up the clip I’d downloaded from the “21 South African icons” project, featuring FW de Klerk as one of the icons.
I’d missed that episode when it aired. Early in the three-minute clip, I was assailed by the words: “FW de Klerk led the dismantling of apartheid, changing the future of the nation.”
Thank you, R550 million SAA bailout, for the barf bag in the seat back pocket of 44H, because it got worse from there.
There was the obligatory self-praise: “I succeeded in taking the majority of whites with me. The fact that I succeeded in convincing them (whites) to take the courageous route which we’ve taken was, for me, my inspiration.”
Except for pre-naughties R&B divas, who else can pull off saying, without flinching, that they inspire themselves? FW. That’s who.
Then, dressed in a suit and tie, apartheid’s last president squatted on a rock with the Franschhoek mountains as the backdrop and posed for a photo.
He rolled up his pants to expose his bony shins and bare feet, pressed the fingers in each hand together and pointed them skyward, and posed in an attempted lotus position with strained serenity etched into his face.
Adrian Steirn, the guy behind the camera (and project), says he wanted to show a side of De Klerk no one had seen before.
The portrait turned out to be a De Klerk we’ve seen many times. Backed by corporate sponsorships and marketing companies, Steirn just ushered the myth-making forward a quantum leap by taking the fictional image of De Klerk as
a man of peace and justice – an image we’re being harangued into accepting – and multiplied it by a factor of a thousand.
The result was almost as ridiculous as the unstaged photo doing the rounds on social media of people holding hands in a prayer circle around the statue of Nelson Mandela on Sandton Square. Almost.
Before his sudden late-80s “enlightenment”, De Klerk supported racially segregated universities and was in charge of education policy at a time when the state spent 10 times more on white children than on black children, dooming future generations of black children to unequal education.
During the negotiations to end apartheid, he used political equality as a carrot and the threat of war as a stick, with no regard for morality, to ensure that whites lost none of their ill-gotten gains from creating and exploiting cheap black labour.
De Klerk refused to cooperate with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and went to court to stop the commission from publishing findings that he was an accessory after the fact to the Khotso House bombing.
And he insists to this day that apartheid was an innocuous, two-state solution that went wrong only in implementation. What outrageous nonsense.
Yet he was recast by Steirn as a Buddha-like South African icon – and no one was surprised.
This got me thinking about the litany of amnesties doled out. They must be worth something for us to keep offering them. We’ve had amnesties for apartheid, tax and immigration. There’ll be another for debt soon. The criteria, it seems, is that when a problem becomes systemic, deep-seated, widespread and near calamitous, full disclosure and a forward-looking approach become tempting, pragmatic ways out of the quagmire.
After the amnesty, with the slate washed clean and reforms enacted, society moves on and individuals marked by past actions are free to reinvent themselves as sagely mystics, advocates for peace and constitutional rights, or whatever implausible quest they like.
Fine. Pragmatism can be appealing, but it should at least be consistent, because it really is time to think seriously about offering an amnesty for political corruption in exchange for full disclosure, accompanied by setting up a robust independent anticorruption body and passing airtight reforms on party funding, lobbying, doing business with the state, name-dropping and conflicts of interest.
I know of another president in an untenable position who might like the idea that he and his cronies could get the credit for ending the long tail of corruption without having to pay for it.
Maybe he can trade being Number 1 for being Icon Number 22. For his portrait, I suggest he stand in an eagle pose in front of his homestead, with his empty pockets turned inside out.
» Molefe is a writer and media commentator