STELLENBOSCH, South Africa -- A student in this charming campus town in the heartland of lost white supremacy has just told former President F. W. de Klerk he is yesteryear's man.
"You had your chance, and you blew it," the student told the veteran politician, leader of the waning National Party and the country's last white president.
Facing his audience last week, de Klerk didn't miss a beat. "Yes. And we did something. We abolished apartheid and admitted the wrongs of the past."
With that he launched into a spirited defense of his party's record and a ferocious critique of the ruling African National Congress, led by President Nelson Mandela, the man with whom he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
De Klerk, who with Mandela dismantled apartheid, is no longer in an accommodating mood. He is out to organize the "total realignment" of the political opposition to at least stand up to -- if still unable to defeat -- the ruling ANC. The conciliation of the past has been replaced by confrontation.
De Klerk has lately taken several actions that have disturbed the political landscape.
He has refused to take responsibility for the security force atrocities of the apartheid era. At a five-hour hearing last month before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is offering amnesty in return for confession of political crimes, he maintained that he did not know what the death squads were doing when he was running the country's all-white government.
The commission chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said he was "devastated" and driven "close to tears" by de Klerk's refusal to take responsibility. Tutu recalled personally telling de Klerk the details of one massacre.
"There was an avalanche of information," he said at a news conference. "To say, 'I did not know' I find that hard to understand."
The press has been scornful, too. "The issue is not so much whether de Klerk knew of these abuses but whether he is big enough to take responsibility for them," stated an editorial in the Sunday Independent of Johannesburg. "His protestations of shock and his insistence that such acts were carried out by renegade elements of the security forces make him smaller and smaller."
'Lost a lot of confidence'
Even here on the campus of Stellenbosch University, his reputation has been dented.
"I lost a lot of confidence in him," said law student Stephan Cilliers, 19. "I am not going to vote for someone who doesn't know what's going on in this country."
In another controversial move, de Klerk fired one of his top lieutenants for recommending the prompt dissolution of the National Party to make way for a new opposition organization.
The lieutenant, Roelf Meyer, has quit the party to form his own group to challenge the ANC in the 1999 elections, when a successor to Mandela will be chosen.
The split dominated the political news for days. But de Klerk dismissed Meyer's defection as ill-timed and politically irrelevant, and it has done little to undermine the de Klerk mission.
De Klerk accepts that the National Party, which won 20 percent of the 1994 ballot against the ANC's 62 percent, carries too much historical baggage from the apartheid years for it to be a viable opposition party for the future. But he wants time to organize a new broad-based, multicultural alliance to overcome the current race-based format of South African politics.
His major problem: Few of the other existing opposition groups -- such as the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, which polled 9 percent in the 1994 election, or the Anglo-based Democratic Party, which won less than 2 percent -- have shown much interest in joining his planned alliance or offer much strength.
Now he has opened a campaign to defend his National Party and excoriate the Mandela government to any audience that will listen. Last week's stop at Stellenbosch in Cape Province, where South Africa's first white settlers landed more than three centuries ago, was the latest on a mission that has taken him across the country.
"It is a figment of the imagination that the National Party created apartheid," he asserted. "There was apartheid throughout Africa when we gained power in '48. There was apartheid throughout the world. Black Americans had to fight against apartheid in America.
"What we did was institutionalize something that was morally unjustifiable, and that added extra pain to the injury. We have said we are sorry about that."
The ANC, he told his young audience, is currently "reintroducing" apartheid through the government's affirmative action program to give blacks job preference and economic opportunity.
"If you are white or if you are brown, you are disqualified from a job. Is that apartheid or not?" demanded de Klerk.
The message strikes a chord with his young listeners, many of whom will soon be graduating and entering the job market.