Why would the BBC care what FW de Klerk thinks?

Reporting on President Jacob Zuma’s landslide re-election as leader of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) on Tuesday, the BBC sought the opinion of former apartheid ruler F. W. de Klerk. De Klerk “… told the BBC that a significant proportion of the South African population were unhappy with Mr Zuma.” It then quotes the former dictator as saying “If the head of state loses the respect, I think that person loses the capacity to govern effectively. I think it would be in the best interest of South Africa if there can be a change of leadership in the ANC.” Who cares what de Klerk thinks about Zuma?

Does he represent any constituency in South Africa? Does he have any moral authority to comment on the democratic process within the ANC itself and South Africa as a whole? Did his National Party tolerate Africans expressing their opinions about politics to the international media during the apartheid era? What chutzpah!

Unlike Zuma, de Klerk never stood for office in a democratic election. Unlike Zuma, de Klerk never received the mandate of the overwhelming majority of South Africans. Unlike Zuma, de Klerk was never subject to any popular verdict of his leadership via a follow-up election. De Klerk owes his position as a former head of state to a totalitarian, racist system that through violence guaranteed rights and protections to a minority at the expense of an exploited and oppressed majority.

Why does the BBC think de Klerk’s so-called analysis is worthy? In the dominant liberal historical discourse–which a global news organization like the BBC unfortunately has fallen prey to–De Klerk is usually portrayed as a brave figure: that he had extended a hand to the ANC, negotiated the end of Apartheid, and that he was rightly was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Nelson Mandela). The facts were, however, that de Klerk had no choice but to sit down with South Africa’s liberation leaders; that the South African army was decisively defeated by the Cubans in Angola; that sanctions against his nation were crippling the economy; that the popular struggle against apartheid could not be crushed by force; and that right before he left for Oslo to receive the Nobel in 1993, de Klerk okayed a raid by a state-sanctioned death squad that killed five children in the then Transkei—hardly if ever enter into this historic revisionism.

What do South Africans think of de Klerk? Do they value his opinion? In particular, do they care what he has to say about their elected President? The short answer is de Klerk is irrelevant to South Africans today.

The BBC would have been better suited to interview Thabo Mbeki or Nelson Mandela, since they have had experience of governing a democracy in South Africa. Or they could have asked one of Zuma’s former cabinet ministers or a senior civil servant. Whatever you make of Zuma (and at AIAC we don’t all endorse Zuma’s performance as president), both Mandela and Mbeki have repeatedly demonstrated their unreserved support of Zuma. Perhaps that is why the BBC has to call up an apartheid-era ruler for a quote?

But this is not the first time the BBC chose to go with de Klerk. In August the BBC’s Africa desk scheduled a “debate on reconciliation” in South Africa. While it’s their prerogative to do so, it wasn’t clear at the time why they chose to do so. In a post announcing the debate, the BBC decided to use de Klerk as an analyst of sorts (along with someone from the equally problematic South African Institute of Race Relations). This was soon after de Klerk told Christiane Amanpour on CNN that Apartheid had been beneficial to its black victims. Like now, we took the BBC to task on Twitter. You can read that exchange here.

Comments

comments

Dennis Laumann

Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis.

10 Comments
  1. Really stupid article – of course it’s interesting to hear what this former leading figure has to say nowadays. Even if he was on the losing side, even if most people are only vaguely aware that he’s still alive, & even if you don’t agree with him.

  2. Who??? FW de Klerk is as relevent as Ian Smith in Zimbabwe. Why BBC even thiught about considering this relic of The Past as a viable candidate to proffer sny olinion of relevence is beyond me ….

  3. You are joking – Mandela is unfortunately unable to make any comment and Mbeki is according to the Democratic ANC only fit to be forced from Office. The rest of your piece is simple political rhetoric it’s value outweighed by its impact on global warming.

  4. When it comes to current politics, then De Klerk is actually not relevant.

    To treat him as if he had some kind of expertise or as if he was an opinion leader in current South African politics is not only false (based on his actual non-relevance), but also disrespectful towards a democratic South African society.

    If the BBC wants to talk to him, then I guess they should ask him about what he knew about Vlakplaas and other apartheid death squads, which were still actively murdering political opponents during De Klerks term in office.

  5. “fomer dictator” Excuse me? FW de Klerk happens to be the last president of the infamous if not illegitimate apartheid regime who unbanned the ANC amongst others and facilitated the democratic process in SA at great personal risk and loss. For that he recveived the Nobel Peace prize, remember?

  6. de Klerk is as relevant to South Africa now as Mikhail Gorbachev to Russia now (perhaps more so, since his foundation actively fights for South African’s constitutional rights). And as several people pointed out, de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year as Nelson Mandela.
    “De Klerk owes his position as a former head of state to a totalitarian, racist ….”
    Apartheid South Africa was not “totalitarian”, the Soviet Union (among others) was.

    “Unlike Zuma, de Klerk never received the mandate of the overwhelming majority of South Africans. Unlike Zuma, de Klerk was never subject to any popular verdict of his leadership via a follow-up election. ”

    Replace de Klerk with an even older Nobel Peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Is not the quoted sentence patently false? Incidentally Tutu would make many of the criticisms of Zuma as de Klerk did.

  7. All of these apologists for the white supremacist de Klerk. How soon people forget. And let us not forget that war mongers have won the “peace prize” before. If he was a Black African leader then he would be in from of the Hague (unfortunately, the court came into being after he left office).

  8. I have only one request. Please can somebody supply me with tangible PROOF that Madiba ever endorsed that incompetent and corrupt idiot Zuma for President! Please don’t give me the instance where they shared a podium together as we know how that was orchestrated and the only words Madiba said was that the ANC is his home and that’s where he will remain.
    Further to this, I thank the powers that be for De Klerk and the balls he had to implement the changes he did, as I had been fighting the system from my mid teens (I had sacrificed two years of my life in prison for refusing to do my military service) and was hoping that, at last, the fight was over but, alas, that was not to be. Now I find myself fighting against incompetence and corruption on a grander scale than ever seen before in my beloved country. My fellow countrymen are worse off than ever before (except of course those corrupt officials in government and their BEE partners) and although they are to blame due to their voting, it must be borne in mind that they are illiterate (and kept so by the ANC) and their heads filled with BS before every election.
    A question to all those who have commented above; what did you do for South Africa today?
    I suggest you get off your cushy chairs and out of your comfortable homes and go help build a school in a rural area, or better still, go deliver water to rural communities so that the children do not have to cross busy highways pushing wheel-barrows loaded with three 25 litre containers of water. i see this everyday just outside Polokwane. 19 years and still the government cannot supply this basic need! ANC = All the Nation’s Crooks.

  9. De Klerk ended Apartheid, decriminalised the ANC and released Mandela from prison. In modern times he was far more important for the abolition of apartheid than Mandela, who was no more than an icon and a freedom fighter of a past age at them time, and a figurehead with which to rebuild the country.
    This man may have supported apartheid earlier in his career, but he had peer pressure and no way of succeeding within the South African politics of the day without taking that political stance. Literally as soon as Botha stepped down, as soon as De Klerk took power he denounced aparteid.
    Bad people can change and become heroes, people can quietly wait for their chance in politics and then strike for the good. You don’t just need to forgive De Klerk, you need to thank him. And as he did more for the abolition of apartheid than most of the people who took all the credit for it, you need to respect the way he avoided taking all of the responsibility and quietly stepped aside and let the Mandelas take the limelight.

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