In South Africa the negotiations between F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela and the subsequent election of the latter as president had an unexpected and wholly unknown prelude. In 1969, I was teaching at South Africa’s University of Potchefstroom, the very center of Afrikaner conservative forces. I was the only non-Boer professor in a Boer environment, the only Catholic among Calvinists, in the heart of the Transvaal. One morning a call came from a colleague whom I had not met: the Reverend Willem de Klerk, just back from a study tour of England and the Netherlands, the two countries that have shaped the Afrikaners’ intellectual horizon. This de Klerk was the elder brother of that de Klerk who became president of his country (or of what remains of it). The reverend, in his 40’s at the time, wished to meet me. We met in his office at 2 pm and ended our conversation about five hours later—or rather we continued the following day via intrafacuity memos.
We disagreed from beginning to end. Willem de Klerk knew I was familiar with the local situation and perhaps wished to try out his theory on me. He favored a policy of racial integration and listed more or less the same reasons that Helen Sussman had given me some six years before: the racial tension was intolerable; facing a black majority, whites could not expect to hold on indefinitely to power; it was better to negotiate while power was in the white man’s hands so he did not slip into war like the French in Algeria, an event still recent at the time. To these arguments, Willem added the religious one: we are all God’s children.
It was not difficult to diagnose an acute case of puritanical bad conscience. I replied that a bad conscience may be a bad advisor in determining a nation’s policy and pointed at my interlocutor’s naiveté in expecting a peaceful solution instead of a multiple race war: first between black and black (Zulu and Xhosa, politically Inkatha and ANC), then between other races, finally with whites caught in the vortex of destruction. What should we do, then?—^he asked. A mixture of firmness and reforms, but keep at all times the initiative and the political power, I answered. This was the only “solution,” not only in view of the ethnic proportion of the total population but also in view of the penetration among Afrikaners of liberal Anglophile ideas. Maybe the reverend himself was unaware of the fact that his own ethnic group was ready to make the greatest concessions.
Indeed, a few days later the issue was brought home to me. On a visit to Senator de Klerk’s house (the father of Willem and Frederick), I met in the senator’s person the old-time, quasi-Roman, Boer farmer-gentleman: not a trace of the liberal persuasion found in his two sons, products of the new, urban South Africa. Had he lived, things may have turned out differently.
It was the Reverend Willem who was polarizing white attitudes into verligte (liberal) and verkrampte (conservative). No wonder his influence was decisive on his younger brother and the latter’s academic advisors. Not surprisingly, the gist of our debate was lost on my Potchefstroom colleague. True, the black majority was in dire need of widesweeping reforms, but it was equally true that a policy of abrupt concessions would (does) end in anarchy, similar to developments farther north, in Zaire, Uganda, Nigeria. In South Africa, a wellfunctioning regime has chosen to surrender, in preference to a gradual ascension of a black elite to power. The naive enthusiasm for “power-sharing” outlined in Willem de Klerk’s memoranda has opened on race war and misery. Elections may merely be a fig leaf for chaos.