DE KLERK—WHITE HOPE

By MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writer | Sunday, April 3, 1994

The scenes are stunning: blacks lustily cheering apartheid scion Frederik Willem de Klerk as he campaigns for re-election to the presidency of South Africa.

The happy candidate obliges by donning Zulu tribal hats, carrying spears and cowhide shields.

“I’m white,” he told one black audience, “but my heart pumps the same red blood as the red blood in the heart of every South African.”

De Klerk, 58, was born into a staunchly political Afrikaner family in the Transvaal. As his great-grandfather and his father, he represented the province in parliament. So, the deeply religious father of three caught most people by surprise when he began dismantling apartheid.

For 46 years, the Afrikaner-dominated National Party perpetuated the fiction that South Africa’s indigenous black majority did not belong.

The man who changed the party’s course was de Klerk, a chain-smoker who one commentator characterized in 1989 as “the George Bush of South African politics—the man with the perfect resume but no footprint.”

Six months after taking power from the ailing P.W. Botha in 1990, de Klerk lifted the ban on the African National Congress and released Nelson Mandela from prison. He then began negotiating a new constitution with him and other black representatives.

“A more conservative government might possibly keep the lid on the pot for another five years,” he told the London Times in March 1987. “But after that the pot will explode and blow us and our future in the air.”

Such pragmatism has not earned de Klerk the goodwill of all. The Africa Fund’s Michael Fleshman blames him for the estimated 15,000 political killings since the negotiations started.

“Yes, he has presided over a fundamental political transition in South Africa, but it isn’t because he woke up one morning and had an epiphany and suddenly became a progressive. He id it because he had to; he did it in order to protect white interests,” Fleshman said.

De Klerk did not deserve the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize that he shared with Mandela, Fleshman said.

Despite such criticism, de Klerk has not wavered in his quest to lead South Africa in the new order. He believes he can convince black South Africans that he is their Abraham Lincoln.

“In April, voters will face a clear choice,” de Klerk told an audience. “A choice between the new National Party and the old ANC. The new National Party which broke with the past and opened its heart and doors to all South Africans, or the old ANC which is trapped in the past and cannot grasp the future.”