F.W. de Kerk: The Struggle for a Balance of Power in South Africa

F.W. de Klerk’s transformation of South Africa’s National Party was instrumental in freeing South Africa from the grip of apartheid.

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The self-described centralist had to undertake a very difficult balancing act between striving for consensus among the National Party’s (NP) right wingers and the African National Congress’s (ANC) freedom fighters.

Yet he was less successful in the equally difficult task of establishing his minority rule party as a strong and credible opposition party in a post-apartheid world.

The attempt to reconcile the competing interests of these two stalwarts of South African parties resulted in a compromise party.

It was de Klerk who played the largest role in forming the new Government of National Unity, within which he served as deputy president under President Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader he liberated from prison to be elected South Africa’s first black president under majority rule.

Yet while de Klerk served as the major architect of South Africa’s first multiparty, multiracial system, he also warned often of the dangers of a lack of a strong opposition. That, he feared, could lead to a one-party system, inevitably dominated by the black majority.

This tension between the desire to push reform in South Africa and establish a post-apartheid regime and the fear of creating a political system in which a disproportionate amount of power rests with the black majority, and de Klerk’s failure to reconcile it, proves to be a weakness in de Klerk’s political career and, ultimately, the undoing of the National Party in the new South Africa. While the party’s commitment to reform leads to the dismantling of much of the rules and practices that supported apartheid, the party’s ideals prove to still be dominated by the apartheid apparachiks which founded it.

It cannot be denied that it was de Klerk’s rules and commitment to a new South Africa that dismantled apartheid and paved the way for a new South Africa. And his agreeing to stay as Mandela’s deputy prime minister after the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, showed a deep commitment to the new South Africa and a smooth transition to the new Government of National Unity.

De Klerk knew that the move from minority to majority rule was inevitable. Yet, at the same time, he warned of the dangers of a “one person, one vote” system, fearing that it could lead to dominance of blacks over whites in South Africa.

Ottaway 58).

Instead, de Klerk sought to establish a system promoting a “balance of power” within South Africa’s political system.

However, in the formidable early years of apartheid’s dismantling, the concern over fear of black dominance may have overrode the balanced agenda, losing de Klerk and the National Party crucial support in the process.

Notably, rather than move quickly to abolish all remnants of apartheid, the National Party moved slowly. In doing so, de Klerk maintained the necessary support of his party to stay in power. But he also faced bitter rebukes and negotiations with the ANC and other parties such as the Inkatha Party and the escalation of armed struggle.

As a result, the National Party failed to win the confidence of the soon-to-be empowered black electorate.

The party was perceived as not committing itself wholly to reform and the repeal of apartheid.

Perhaps the National Party’s greatest misstep was its failure to immediately move to abolish two of the most contentious policies of the apartheid regime – the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act.

Although de Klerk began to promote his free elections upon his election as leader of the National Party in 1989, these acts were not abolished until 1991.

The Population Registration Act, enacted in 1950, was at the center of apartheid, which classified the South African population by race, and only whites were allowed to vote.

The Group Areas Act further segregated the population by designating areas in which people were segregated by race.

To many South Africans, it was a clear example of the National Party’s failure to follow through on its stated policy objectives. As long as the legal and policy framework of apartheid was still in place, the legitimacy of de Klerk’s reformation process was in question. The outside world also questioned their commitment to reform demonstrated by the continuation of economic sanctions.

Nelson Mandela was strongly behind the efforts to maintain economic sanctions on South Africa, and it became an important bargaining chip in his dealings with the National Party..

The political fallout of this cautious approach was significant. It made the already difficult task of convincing the newly expanded electorate that the architects of apartheid should be charged with dismantling the race-based system even harder, the same sysem which kept them in power for 50 years. The slow embrace of reform created the perception that the National Party was only half heartedly committed to the new South Africa.

The National Party had a short and crucial window in which to seal its image as reformers. And the ANC successfully seized and exploited this weakness.

From the time of Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 to his election of President of South Africa in 1984, majority rule support for the ANC only strengthened.

The National Party’s delays in enacting reform were as much about protecting minority rights as they were concerned with prolonging the dissolution of rules infringing upon majority rights.

From the initial rewriting of the constitution in 1990 to subsequent constitutional changes, the minority whites fought hard for protections.

De Klerk, himself, was the staunchest supporter, ensuring that safeguards against black dominance were written into the constitution. (Ottaway 81).

Another challenge of the National Party was to convince South Africa of its commitment to true reform when the party appeared to have not reformed internally.

The degree of real change inside the party at this point is debatable.

Although de Klerk was a new face to the leadership he had represented the party for many years. And he also heralded from a long line of Afrikaners with close ties to the apartheid regime.

De Klerk’s inner circle was comprised of self-professed reformers, but as David Ottaway describes the National Party it’s face had changed little, steered by “blue blood Africaners,” the majority of which had been in the party for many years and had served in the senior ranks of Botha’s government. (Ottaway 101).

Indeed, when de Klerk resigned in 1997, Mandela did not hesitate to comment on the inherent difficulties in building a new South Africa with the “captains of apartheid at the helm.”

What’s more, de Klerk’s attempts to distance himself from his party were often met with skeptism. His testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation, denying any knowledge of his party’s “reign of terror” and secret police squads during apartheid was considered disingenuous by many (de Kerk 81).

Even when the National Party did abolish the Population Registration and Group Areas Acts, the delay in doing so raises the question of whether they did so of their own accord and the degree to which they were influenced by both internal and external pressure. Internally, South Africa’s government and law enforcers faced ongoing strife and armed uprisings.

The police response to violent conflicts was an ongoing source of contention between de Klerk and Mandela, who threatened to call off negotiations while the government was using force upon the black majority.

Externally, the country was still subject to international economic sanctions.

While it is apparent that de Klerk was committed to affecting change in South Africa, the influence of outside forces cannot be overlooked.

The economic fallout from the sanctions made the dismantling of apartheid inevitable, it is only the rate of change that was at issue. The issue of sanctions became a sticking point in constitutional negotiations, one which gave Mandela an advantage as de Klerk urged Mandela to call an end to international sanctions.

But Mandela was as slow to lift the sanctions as the National Party was to fully embrace reform. To Mandela, the two were intextricably linked.

De Klerk’s role in establishing a fair path to power for the black majority cannot be disputed. It is only later that his fear of black dominance causes him to reverse his commitment to parts of the reform process. To a degree, the real seal of approval of de Klerk by South Africa’s black majority would have had to come from Mandela. And despite their years of negotiation, compromise and power sharing, Mandela’s approval was never fully offered.

Certainly, his tense relationship with Mandela was maintained to the end, even as Mandela regretted de Klerk’s decision to leave the Government of National Unity in 1997. But Mandela never fully legitimized de Klerk, nor did de Klerk ever fully support Mandela. As de Klerk conveys it in his autobiography, he was dismayed to find Mandela attacking him in Oslo even as they were about o receive the Nobel Peace price together (de Klerk 42).

De Klerk immediately embraced a consultative approach, beginning to consult with Mandela about the pending political shift in South Africa while Mandela was still in prison.

He also released restrictions and opened up new avenues for new voices to participate in the political process. Specifically, he lifted the ban on opposition parties including the ANC, and removed restrictions on their access to the media.

Nevertheless, de Klerk faced great opposition from his newly empowered opposition.

And, over time, there are hints that de Klerk felt a degree of betrayal or bitterness due to the lack of ongoing support for his emboldened moves. This may be best illustrated in his partial withdrawal from his reform agenda.

But de Klerk’s own actions worked against him far more so than Mandela’s half-hearted approval.

As the 1994 elections drew closer, de Klerk’s fear of black power became even more pronounced and posed an even greater threat to his political stature.

According to Ottaway, de Klerk started to undermine his own reforms.

After several years of carrying out reforms, de Klerk changed direction, at times allowing his ministers, “full rein to undermine the reforms’ spirit, even their letter, through countermeasures” (Ottaway 251).

Ottaway further contends that de Klerk enacted reforms only to the extent necessary to have American and European sanctions lifted.

But it was not only the blacks and Mandela that de Klerk had to win over. De Klerk’s changing attitude towards reforms was strongly influenced by an increasingly disenfranchised white population.

Repeals of apartheid legislation had put whites on the defensive as blacks were free to move into their neighborhoods and began to assert themselves in local and national politics and outside of the traditional realm of tribal politics.

In addition to Afrikaners concerned about changes and their place in the post-apartheid world, de Klerk had to deal with an increasingly militant right wing.

While these groups were often derided or discredited in the Western press, particularly the more extreme neo-Nazi groups, they also held the support of many farmers, an influential voting block.

Thus, de Klerk faced losing more votes to the Conservatives, who were benefiting from the difficult compromises that de Klerk sought in order to appease Mandela and the ANC. Thus, De Klerk’s balancing act as he sought to negotiate a just and fair constitution on behalf of the minority ultimately resulted in his leaning more right than left.

Although this secured his political survival within the minority political system, it resulted in his failing to win over some of the majority vote that he always felt was possible.

Nevertheless, despite the high price the National Party paid for its slow embrace of reform, de Klerk continued to address the shortcomings of the South African political system and initiate reform.

In 1997, de Klerk announced his resignation and initiated the dismantling of the Government of National Unity, with the stated intent of re-establishing a strong minority ruled opposition party in South African politics.

The move was lamented by Mandela who felt the party was stronger unified. Yet de Klerk’s concern over a lack of strong opposition was legitimate. That fear is as relevant today as it was in 1999 with President Thabo Mbeki’s recent re-election, securing a two-thirds majority in parliament for the African National Congress (ANC).

And it was de Klerk’s opportunity to attempt to remake the National Party with the benefit of lessons learned from its earlier reform efforts.

Although the National Party’s transition to the post-apartheid world was flawed, it is hard to discount de Klerk’s pivotal role in not only eliminating apartheid but pushing for the continual reform of the South African political system to ensure a “balance of power.”

Although the weight of the National Party’s past cast a long shadow on its role in the new South Africa, its reform was ongoing. In hindsight, that reform took much longer than its architects imagined. And its failure to win the widespread support under the new South Africa it had once envisioned was party attributable to the fact that the party’s heart was not yet wholly behind its policies. But it cannot be disputed that de Klerk played an important role in moving that reform forward up until the time of his resignation. Indeed, de Klerk viewed his resignation in 1997 as part of the reformation process, as he stated, removing one of the last vestiges of apartheid from the party.


De Klerk, F.W. The Man in His Time. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1991.

De Klerk, F.W. The Last Trek – A New Beginning. New York: MacMillan, 1998.

Ottaway, David. Chained Together: Mandella, De Klerk and the Struggle to Remake South Africa. New York: Times Books, 1993.