A Letter to F. W. de Klerk
A man who divides opinions but was instrumental in advancing freedom
Last week, F. W. de Klerk, the former president of South Africa who freed Nelson Mandela, passed away. In his honor, I have decided to publish the letter below, which I wrote to him back in May when his health started to decline. I am aware that even today not everyone has a good outlook on him. Though I accept that many people continue to feel effects of the oppressive racial system that he initially supported, I believe that the vilification he’s been put through is unfair. People do change. There are more than a few reasons to believe that, while being a pragmatic politician, he was in fact a good man who did not simply cave to international pressure. Indeed, Mandela’s grandson Chief Mandla Mandela said that with de Klerk’s passing, South Africa lost a father who served the country with distinction. In these highly divisive times, and partly because he’s been so detested, I feel strongly that he deserves to be honored for his contribution to the causes of freedom and racial harmony in the world.
Dear Mr. de Klerk,
First, my best wishes to you on your journey to healing. I hope that you have many more years yet of good health, and I am sure that you will.
I am a longtime admirer of yours. My first experience learning about you was early in secondary school. I have always found inspiration in the story of South Africa which, in many respects, is the same as that of my country. The challenges you faced with bravery and success, your fellowship with Nelson Mandela and your country’s near-miraculous avoidance of war make the story of South Africa nothing short of remarkable.
There is, of course, a good deal of lingering racial tension within the country. Again, it calls to mind the events in my own nation. Segregation was ended sooner than Apartheid, yet we are seeing more race-based animosity here than we have in decades. I began to see how much race is still a source of division here after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. We now have movements such as Black Lives Matter which seek to remedy the injustices and disparities present in America but have flawed views about our society and how it should be made more equal for all. I personally have looked for ways in which those disparities could be addressed while pushing back against the excesses of today’s social movements.
It might be fair to say that this wave of creedal passion was bound to occur. As you said, peace does not fare well where poverty and deprivation reign. Whether right or wrong, the resentment of many people against certain aspects of our society is natural. This may not be the last time we see such anger fomented over race.
In such times, we need leaders such as you who can guide the people on the path towards reconciliation. Your story of ending Apartheid should remind us that the deepest rifts can still be bridged. I will always be grateful to you and your example of building peace in difficult circumstances.