De Klerk grew into a giant on road to redemption

James Fernie, Harfield Village

I had the fortune of meeting FW on three occasions, in 1989, 1994 and 2018.

The first time I was an angry and militant 17-year-old opponent of apartheid. I attended his first public meeting as the leader of the National Party which was held in my hometown of East London on April 26 1989. There had been so much corruption within the NP in that area and in the two homelands of the Ciskei and Transkei that people were fed up.

The public meeting was very poorly attended, and most of us present were shouting and heckling him while he tried to speak. Remember, FW had been on the conservative wing of the apartheid government; he was not a reformer, and I despised him and the NP.

In the September 1989 whites-only election, the NP under De Klerk campaigned on anti-terrorism, anti-communism fear-based tactics. They opposed the unconditional release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC. They opposed one man one vote, and I absolutely hated everything they stood for: racism, bigotry, oppression, separation, exclusion.

I worked day and night for the Democratic Party in the 1989 election, which saw a shift among white voters towards a more progressive agenda. Five months after the election, on February 2 1990, FW did everything that he campaigned that he wouldn’t do as leader of the government, and thus began a violent and blood-thirsty transition to democracy in which many thousands of people would die.

The second time I met FW was during the 1994 election when, as a member of the student council at university, I attended a cheese-and-wine with him after an election rally.

I proudly and boldly told him that I would not vote for him or the NP in the upcoming liberation election. I still despised him for what he and his party had perpetrated on the country for so many decades. He was very gracious, in fact, and took my comments on his chin.

The last time I met FW was in 2018 at a breakfast where he was the guest speaker. His speech was truly breathtaking in its wisdom, vision, idealism, compassion, and spirit of regret for the past. The man at the podium was 100% a different human being. I considered him at this point to be a man of integrity, courage and idealistic determination to right the wrongs of the past and envision a bright future based on law, equality and justice.

The wheel had truly come full circle from the first time I had met with FW de Klerk.

Democracy in SA has not translated into economic emancipation for the majority of citizens, and young people, especially, are angry because they still feel excluded and trapped in a cycle of poverty – second class citizens in the land of their birth.

Many are striking out with harsh and hateful words towards FW on social media after his passing. No doubt, this man was part and parcel of an evil regime that presided over decades of unimaginable suffering on so many levels for people of colour in South Africa. I can understand why people who are still living in dire poverty can be angry, but 27 years into democracy the discussion is now far more nuanced.

Personally, though I absolutely despised FW when I was a young man, my last memory of him is one of fondness, forgiveness and admiration for his journey of redemption.

We can only hope and pray that democracy brings with it the fruits of prosperity to all citizens of this great country. When this happens, FW de Klerk’s legacy will be cemented as the man who not only changed the course of history in SA but genuinely and sincerely changed his heart as well.

Forgiveness is one of the most profound pillars of a spiritual life. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future. We must find it in our hearts to forgive, and for each and every person in this country to build on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded us. FW de Klerk, in my humble opinion grew into a giant.