Former President FW De Klerk with James Fernie

Farwell Former President FW De Klerk – A Personal Note from James Fernie

This post is not related to the work of Uthando, but I thought that some of our clients would find it interesting. A big part of our “tour” is informing visitors about the history of South Africa. I feel deeply privileged to have had a front row seat, and sometimes I was actually on the stage, through some of the most historical events in South African history. The photos attached in this story are from my political scrap books that I kept throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the last and most violent gasp of apartheid. – James Fernie

The last white President of South Africa passed away on the 11th of November 2021 after a brief battle with cancer. Following the death of “FW”, social media was alight with diverging messages of hate, love or indifference. After reading some of the vitriolic messages, I was inspired to put pen to paper, to add my voice, reflecting my thoughts based on the circumstances of having met the former president on 3 occasions; 1989, 1994 and 2018. I hope that you find my perspective interesting and informative.

The first time I met FW De Klerk I was an angry and militant 17 year old opponent of apartheid. I attended his first ever public meeting as leader of the National Party (NP) which was held in my home town of East London on the 26th of April 1989. There had been so much corruption within the NP in that area and in the two homelands of the Ciskei and Transkei, the electorate was 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 for their racist policies. 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 Nelson Mandela and unbanning of the ANC. They opposed one man one vote and I absolutely hated everything they stood for : racism, bigotry, oppression, seperation, exclusion. I worked day and night for the Democratic Party in the 1989 election, which saw a shift amongst white voters towards a more progressive agenda.

Former President FW De Klerk

The newspaper article describing the disastrous first public meeting held by FW after his election at leader of the National Party

5 months after the election on 2 February 1990, FW did everything that he had specifically said he wouldn’t do as leader of the government. He released Mandela and unbanned the ANC unconditionally, and commenced on a genuine negotiation process leading to a new constitutional democracy in South Africa with a view of universal franchise for all. The transition between 1990 to 1994 was an intensely difficult time for SA, and many thousands of people would die from political violence during this time.

Former President FW De Klerk

National Party advert in the 1989 “whites-only” general election specifically campaigning against universal franchise and unbanning Mandela and the ANC

The 2nd time I met FW was during the 1994 election when I was a member of the student council at university. The first democratic election was an absolutely spectacular time to be a South African. The dawning of democracy was at hand. I attended a cheese and wine with FW after an election rally at the university. He spoke about democracy and the vision for a new South Africa, but considering his history and his track record, it was hard to accept his sincerity. I proudly and boldly told him that I would NOT vote for him or the NP in the upcoming liberation election. I will never forget his gracious smile and calm joke that I must be a DP (Democratic Party) guy. He took my comments on his chin with charm and humour.

The last time I met FW was in 2018 at a Ubuntu Breakfast where he was the guest speaker. His speech was truly breathtaking in its wisdom, vision, idealism, compassion, 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 interfaced with FW De Klerk.

Democracy in SA has not translated into economic emancipation for the majority of citizens. Especially young people are angry because they still feel excluded and trapped in a cycle of poverty, 2nd 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.

Though I absolutely despised FW when I was a young man, my last memory of him is one of warmth, 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.

Photos below are from my political scrap books that I kept through the 1980’s. The last and most violent gasp of apartheid.

Photos attached are from my political scrap books that I kept throughout the 1980’s, the last and most violent gasp of apartheid….

Former President FW De Klerk with James Fernie

Listening to FW De Klerk’s speech and meeting him in 2018 was a great honour and privilege

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