No love lost by de Klerk, Mandela

SUN JOURNAL

Autobiography: Former South African leader F. W. de Klerk writes that he believes his successor deliberately insulted and humiliated him.

January 24, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The 1993 Nobel Peace Prize given to President Nelson Mandela and his predecessor, F. W. de Klerk, recognized a partnership that brought peace and democracy to a country blighted by apartheid.

But the smiles of the country's first black president and its previous white one as they received their joint honor in Stockholm belied a relationship that had soured.

They made their separate ways to Sweden for the award ceremony, and de Klerk observes: "Before my arrival, he had chosen once again to attack me in interviews he had given to the media. Apparently he was not pleased with the decision to include me in the award."

The tension between the two men had surfaced as they negotiated the new beginning for South Africa.

De Klerk became convinced that Mandela was intent on belittling and humiliating him whenever possible. What he calls "the final humiliation" came when Mandela personally checked out his assertion that the government accommodation de Klerk was offered after leaving the presidency needed refurbishment.

"Together we walked through the house, while the architect explained why a new fridge was needed here and repainting and redecoration there," writes de Klerk in his about-to-be-published autobiography, "The Last Trek: A New Beginning," excerpts of which have appeared in the press here.

From their initial 1989 meeting, when Mandela, then still a prisoner, was smuggled into de Klerk's Cape Town home, it was, at best, an uneasy rapport.

"During most of the meeting, each of us cautiously sized up the other," de Klerk writes.

For a while they maintained a strained cordiality, but it was not to last.

Trouble begins

In 1991, a year after Mandela's release from 27 years in prison, the white government and the black-led African National Congress started to negotiate the details of transition from minority to majority rule.

De Klerk, as president, was slated to bring the opening session of the negotiating conference to a close. He chided the ANC for not keeping promises it had made under an earlier accord.

A furious Mandela demanded the right of reply and then launched what de Klerk calls "one of the most vicious personal attacks on a political opponent that most of those present had ever heard."

Recalls de Klerk: "He accused me of being the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime and of being incapable of upholding moral standards."

As is his practice to this day, Mandela spoke at length, giving de Klerk time to control his urge to seize the microphone and launch into a counterattack.

The next day, in a gesture of reconciliation, Mandela crossed the conference floor and shook de Klerk's hand. But it was too late for the leader of the National Party.

"I accepted Mandela's gesture as gracefully as I could, but felt that there was no longer any possibility of our ever again having a close relationship.

"The fact is that Mandela's vicious and unwarranted attack created a rift between us that never again fully healed. The least generous interpretation that one can place on Mandela's behavior is that he willfully set out to humiliate me as part of a calculated political strategy to denigrate his main political appointment."

The relationship continued to sour as Mandela, in de Klerk's opinion, grew in self-confidence and started "to admonish us with long monologues full of recriminations." He accused de Klerk publicly of failing to control political violence, causing "deep disaffection and tension" between the two.

Day and night, says de Klerk, Mandela would call him by phone and accuse the government of complicity in violence.

After one particularly strong "tirade" from Mandela, de Klerk "slammed the telephone down in his ear." Mandela, he says, then became "more careful with his accusations and with the tone he adopted with me."

Writes de Klerk: "I still do not know whether his increasingly strident attacks on me were motivated by a genuine belief that I was somehow or other involved in violence, or was not doing enough to combat violence -- or whether they were aimed at breaking down the positive image that I then had among many black South Africans."

Mandela, he confides, was "more helpful" after the ANC became involved in the Transitional Executive Council, formed to give all parties a role in governance prior to the 1994 elections that brought the first democratically elected black majority government into power here.

Through his spokesman, Mandela has let it be known that he never sought to humiliate his predecessor, but rather had consistently acknowledged de Klerk's contribution to transforming this country into a democracy.

Rapprochement ahead?

Today, with the ANC-led government's first term drawing to a close and elections due in the first half of this year, Mandela, 80, is about to join de Klerk, 62, in retirement.

In addition, both remarried last year.

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