frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
interviews

interview: F.W. de Klerk INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

He was South Africa's president from 1989-1994 and a co-recipient with Mandela of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
Can you remember when you first came across the name Mandela?

f.w. de klerkWell, obviously it was when he came into the news, when he was arrested, when the whole plot to arrange an uprising was uncovered, with the trials that followed. That was the first time that the name Mandela came to my knowledge. I was a very young lawyer then, just recently qualified from university.

... This was a trial about sabotage, overthrow of the government. Mandela was the head of the newly formed armed wing of the ANC. In 1961, they'd announced the existence of this policy by blowing up pylons and buildings ...

Ja, my attitude and those of my contemporaries within the National Party--National Party supporters, not active politicians--was that here we have something which was planned, which militated not only against the laws of South Africa, but which in any country, with or without apartheid, would have been punishable if people were found guilty, and within the framework of any civilized, well-developed legal system, would have been regarded as crimes in that sense of the word.

I got to know him as a very good listener, a man with a legal mind, taking into account all facts. Coming forth, generally speaking, with reasonable replies and reactions... Solution orientated. ...So he was a good negotiator. I also got to know him quite soon as an astute politician.
We viewed it as a normal process that the law should take its course. He was charged in an open court. He had full facilities of a highly qualified defense team. He had a fair trial within the framework of the law. At the same time, we felt it was also justified because already negotiations with many other black leaders [were] aimed at a peaceful resolution and aimed at, as we viewed it then, bringing full political rights to all blacks in South Africa. Fact is that prominent black leaders throughout the whole period, right up to the end, and maybe the most prominent amongst them, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, supported the peaceful route, and never supported the revolutionary route.

So you saw these people as dangerous.

Yes, as dangerous. It was clear that had they implemented their plans, that many innocent civilians would have died, and the essential task of any government is to maintain law and order, and protect the lives and property of its citizens.

As you came into government, you first became an MP and then joined the cabinet. Do you remember the first time Mandela might have come up in that context and why?

From a fairly early stage, I can't remember specific dates, it was clear that he, in any event, was nearing completion of what was, at that stage, regarded as a normal term of imprisonment for somebody who has been sentenced to life imprisonment, as the law then was. People were regularly released after 21 years, thereabouts. So the need for his release was discussed from time to time. There was for me, as a jurist, the need because it was only fair. There were also political angles. He had become, already then, an icon, and his continued imprisonment was one of the big emotional issues which resulted in the successful mobilization of those outside South Africa who wanted to totally isolate South Africa. His continued imprisonment was a central theme of the anti-South African activities throughout the world. My predecessor mainly dealt with this. I was not an intimate part of the planning and the thought processes, but from time to time as a cabinet member, reports were made and the two efforts of my predecessor to have him released conditionally were discussed at cabinet level.

There was the possibility of releasing into the Transkei, where he was born, where he grew up, and which from South Africa's point of view, was a totally independent state. He rejected that. There was the possibility of his being released conditionally, in the sense that he should sign certain undertakings and relinquish, as a person, a commitment to the armed struggle, which he refused to do. It was becoming clear that the failure of those two situations has led us to a point where we were almost at a dead-end. I was not part of the behind the scenes discussions, and I was not briefed about it in the beginning of that process. When I became leader of the party, but not president, on the 2nd of February '89, I was immediately fully briefed by Mr. Kobie Coetsee, who was minister of justice, and from there onwards, I was fully part of the whole process. I knew about the meeting which he would have with P.W. Botha just before Botha's retirement. It had my approval, and from the beginning in my pre-planning, for my presidency, his release, coupled with the release of the other prisoners, was very high on the agenda. One of the first things I did after the election in September 1989, was to release a high profile group of former Robben Island prisoners.

... You say in your book that when Kobie Coetsee did tell you about these talks ... you weren't critical, but you were surprised ...

Well, I mean surprised in the sense that I haven't been informed, and inquisitive and surprised because such a high profile person would, from jail, be negotiating and asking myself to what extent did he have a mandate to do so.

That's an interesting theme, because it was a question that people on both sides were asking.

Ja, but if I remember correctly, according to the briefings I received, I was told that at a later stage, after initial discussions, some rules were relaxed and President Mandela was allowed to have interaction in order to obtain a mandate and in order to keep his power base informed about what he was doing. Obviously, I found that acceptable, because you cannot just deal with an individual without a mandate. It would have limited advantages, whereas could he properly mandated, it would have had much more major implications and it held much more promise.

... Before you become state president later that year, what, in your view, was the agenda from the government side of those talks? What was the government trying to achieve up till then?

The government was trying to end the conflict, the violent conflict. It must be remembered--and I have been part of the process--that already in '86, the government had accepted a new vision, had abandoned the policy of apartheid or separate development, and accepted a new vision of one united South Africa, with one person one vote, with all forms of discrimination to be scrapped from the statute book. We were already in the process of scrapping hundreds of apartheid laws. So what the ANC wanted, the government and the National Party had already decided in principle they should have, provided that we could negotiate a constitutional system, which would result in peaceful transition, and which would result in the effective protection of our many cultural minorities. In that sense of the word, therefore, it just made common sense for the government to say we have this new vision, it has brought something new into the conflict, and is also coupled with that the realization that this type of conflict really can be endless and can just escalate. That there isn't really a solution through the barrel of a gun or through military operations, or whatever, for this type of conflict. It is tragic that in the period after the National Party decided to actually accept this new vision, that it was then that the ANC stepped up their violent onslaught, and it was then that they also decided to target civilian targets ...

I assume that before you met him ... there must have been briefings and information available on Mandela... Do you remember anything about what your assessment was, based on the information you had available.

The briefings obviously came from people who were in close interaction with him then for some time. So the people behind the briefings were people like Kobie Coetsee, like Niel Barnard, like Willie Willemse, like Fanie van der Merwe. The picture they painted to me was a positive picture of a .man with integrity, of an impressive person, of a highly intelligent person. In that sense, it raised in me the expectations that I would be dealing with a leader of stature.

You could imagine another route, that the main means of bringing the parties together would have been with the internal political leaders, who were ANC aligned, or the external leaders. Were there particular benefits in it being Mandela rather than those people?

Well, Mandela's standing in the ANC was beyond argument. It was clear that also within the ANC he was regarded as a figure of great prominence, as a key person. In that sense of the word, I didn't play off in my mind Mandela vis-à-vis the United Democratic Front people. At all times, I believed that there was quite close interaction between the banned ANC and the front organizations active in South Africa in the trade union field, and in other civil organizations.

Let's go back to your speech, which was at the time when you set out your agenda, after having been elected. What was your goal in releasing Mandela?

Well, it fitted into a broader picture of the release of these prisoners, of taking an initiative to create an atmosphere which would be conducive towards negotiation, and from which could flow the end of what I really regarded as unnecessary continued conflict. Because of this policy change which the National Party has already made three years before that. So in a sense, the release of President Mandela we knew from a newsworthy point of view, from the point of view of world attention, was the crucial thing, but at all times, I looked at the broader picture of so many other important ANC people, who have also been in jail for very, very long periods, and in some instances, a similar period. Therefore, his release from a planning point of view, to get the maximum effect, was integrated in our plan with the earlier release of some other prisoners.

You say in your book a very interesting thing about your speech of February the 2nd, and that you had no illusion of why all the American main anchors and these people had all flown in ... Why do you think that was?

Well, I think they all expected me to announce the release the President Mandela. I made an ordinary typical speech, just sort of saying we are looking at certain things, and we'll be planning some things. It would have been regarded as another failed Rubicon speech. The expectancy was being built up. What they didn't expect was that we would put together a package in which the release of President Mandela, however important, would only be one of the important aspects and the unbanning of all the organizations, the absolute leveling of the playing field ... and for that reason, because I wanted to retain as much initiative as possible, in order to be able to manage the process, and to ensure that the process doesn't erupt into something unmanageable, which could seriously harm the country and all its people, I downplayed, actually, in my speech of the 2nd of February, the imminent release of President Mandela. Did not announce a date and only made that announcement quite a number of days afterwards.

Describe the first meeting a week later, when you met.

Well, no, I met him for the first time in December '89, quite some time before I made the speech. He was brought one evening to my office in Tuynhuys, which is his office today, and some ministers were present. I think Niel Barnard was there, General Willemse was there, Kobie Coetsee was there ... but after brief handshakes, they all withdrew and President Mandela and I had a one-on-one discussion. I did not then discuss in any detail his release. If I remember correctly, I did tell him that it is now under serious consideration, and there was some sort of a broad discussion on this. But mainly the purpose from my viewpoint was to get to know him, and ... to lay a foundation for future interaction and cooperation between us.

To make an assessment, I think he very much used the opportunity, if I interpret what he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom correctly, for the very same purpose. In the end I could write in my book, as he has done in his, that I went away from that meeting feeling that I was dealing with a man whose integrity I could trust, that I could do business with. I found him quite an impressive figure. He was taller than I expected. He had a aura of calmness and of authority around him. And I sort of liked him. Just on appearance and on first impressions.

Those things can be quite important.

Absolutely. Absolutely. I believe that first impressions are very important. Then he came to see me a second time after my speech of the 2nd of February 1990 ... I then informed him of our planned date for his release, and the details of the release. The proposal was that he would be released in Johannesburg. He then put up a very strong case why he would like to be released here. He also argued that he wouldn't like to be released on the date that we had in mind, and argued that more preparation was needed for his release. I consulted with my advisors, who were not in the room with us and decided to make a compromise to say, "Yes, we will release you at the Victor Verster. But we will release you on the date when we planned to release you." I don't think he liked it, but he had to accept it.

What do you think was at stake in that negotiation?

To gain time to make an even more theatrical event of his release, with party political purposes, which was a legitimate motivation from his side; and it was quite legitimate from my side to ensure that that aspect, the political aspect of it, is contained as much as possible.

The actual release date itself ... What were your concerns and on the day, how concerned were you?

Obviously, I had concerns. Therefore, the agreement me and the major role players within the government, who had to manage this, was that there would be, and I wasn't directly involved in that, firm agreements not only with President Mandela, but also with whoever would be acting from their side. Firm agreements on how his release would be structured, so as to avoid anarchy. Firm commitments were demanded from the ANC side and the organizers from the ANC side, with regard to control of the crowds, with regard to where meetings would be allowed, with regard to which routes would be followed. So a lot of precautionary measures were put into place to avoid the situation getting out of hand. I had, on that day, a private lunch. It was a Sunday, after church, and we stayed on with our hosts and waited and waited, as everybody waited, because of the very long delay, and finally watched it on television. My key advisors knew where to find me should anything happen ...

One thing that is interesting about that time ... there were ANC people having to deal with government people at different levels ... where up until this moment, benevolent distrust between these two sides was the norm ... How important was your relation with Mandela at that time in just convincing everyone else, from both sides, that negotiations could work?

The relationship between me and President Mandela right at the beginning was not a very well established relationship. It was based on two meetings. But it was also based on the background of commitments having been given from both sides in the run-up to my meetings with him. In that sense of the word, there was a sound foundation on which we could develop a relationship. The fact that I was positive about him, and that he apparently sent out a positive message about me, was right from the beginning, important. His assessment of me, I believe, played an important role in the inner thinking of the ANC. They had to trust his judgment on that, and they had to have somewhat of an open minded approach to me. The same applied within the National Party ranks, but because of the number of high ranking ministers and officials involved in the run-up to his release, there was already a core group of leaders who felt that it was the right thing, who were strongly supportive of what we doing, and who therefore did not have trouble to adapt. In ANC ranks ... and in UDF ranks, there must have been a lot of agonizing about this. Therefore, our meetings thereafter and the messages we sent to each other ... each one of them were important in almost fast tracking the development of a workable relationship between us, of a direct access type of relationship between us. Right from the beginning, he had direct access to me. He could phone me and I would interrupt a meeting to speak to him.

What are the impressions as you got to meet him more frequently?

My initial impressions were confirmed. Obviously, they were also amplified. I got to know him as a very good listener, as a man with a legal mind, with analytical thinking patterns taking into account all facts. Coming forth, generally speaking, with reasonable replies and reactions towards requests, towards suggestions. Solution orientated. When arguing against certain proposals, saying, "But something else could be considered." So he was a good negotiator. I also got to know him quite soon as an astute politician. As somebody who had a wonderful capacity, and he still has it, of grabbing the attention. He's a very good marketer. He has wonderful inbuilt public relations capabilities. He has a lot of charisma. The longer we knew each other, I also got to know another side of his character. That he could be, on occasion, extremely stubborn. That he could, from my vantage point, at times, get unreasonable. That he could lose his temper and then be quite fierce and quite a different person.

In the initial period up to CODESA, in December of that year, the relationship between us was never really strained. The underlying cause, which caused strain, was his approaches to me whenever an incident occurred in which the police were involved. His suspicion that somehow or another I was not doing enough, or I didn't have control, and that we were not giving enough attention to his concerns about how violence is managed. I constantly had every allegation he made about irregularities on the police side, about the mishandling of crowd control situations, which led to violence in which people were hurt or killed, properly investigated, and paid a lot of attention. But somehow or another, he felt I did not deliver ... There were times when he would say to me, "But you are the president. You can stop the violence in KwaZulu Natal." It was an unreasonable approach, and I think after five years of having been president, and he himself not having succeeded to stop the violence in KwaZulu Natal. It's still ongoing; we've recently had some terrible incidents there. He might now agree with me that his approach was unreasonable.

... I would guess that most of those gestures, which really captured the attention and, at most times, were quite unexpected, came from him. Here and there, no doubt, where an event was very carefully pre-planned one might expect that it was part of a plan. For instance, when he and I had the one-on-one television debate, where I felt, and everybody felt, I was winning on points in the argument against argument ... he really pulled up level again by suddenly reaching out and saying, "But not withstanding all this," and then praising me and taking my hand in front of all the television cameras focused on us ... and it's possible that that was part of a preplanned action.

... Everyone knows that politicians plan, and politicians know what helps their political ambitions. One thing about Mandela ... most of the world's not cynical about Mandela, which gives him a slight advantage in any political confrontation. So an example like that, you think it was a political move just like any other politician would have made.

I'm guessing. But I do think that the majority of his media triumphs, if I could call it that, was an instinctive reaction from him, and he has a wonderful talent in that regard. Quite often, in the later years, he's been criticized because he does these things. He sometimes creates expectations in reaching out to the Afrikaners or talking about a specific situation, and then not always delivering on those expectations ... A little bit of a skeptical approach has developed in many parts of civil society about his capacity to take the ANC and his team along in fulfilling many undertakings which he has given. This is one of the shadows over his presidency, that quite often he's said the right thing, at the right time, but then what should have materialized thereafter did not sufficiently materialize.

... One of the impressions ... of his presidency is that ... he came to power at the inauguration and said, "I'm retiring after one term," and he focused on one thing, on the nation building, the reconciliation, and really never engaged that much in the broader sort of areas of governance.

President Mandela was not a hands on president at any time. Right from the beginning, he never chaired the cabinet ... I and Mbeki chaired the cabinet on a rotational basis. He attended most cabinet meetings. He did not interfere in the day to day discussions and decisions which were taken. But he had a few specific issues to which he gave a lot of attention. In that sense, he played more the role, without it being written into the constitution, that a French president plays. While leaving actually the day to day governing of the country almost right from the beginning, to Thabo Mbeki. As the years went by, this became more pronounced, so that I would say for the last six months or so, actually Mbeki was running the country as a prime minister, and President Mandela, and he actually said it in public speeches, acted more the role of a nation builder, of a ceremonial president, of trying to be a unifying factor.

Now I'm not critical of this approach. I think for a man his age, released after 27 years in jail, stepping into a situation which make tremendous demands on the president of the country. At the same time, having to deal--he couldn't ignore it--with the whole international outcry for his presences, to be seen, to travel the world. It was virtually impossible for him to be a hands on president as Helmut Kohl was a hands on chancellor, as I was a hands on president, and as I think Thabo Mbeki might become a hands on president. So I'm not critical of it. Within the framework of what could be done, really it was too much to ask of one man his age to do everything he did, and in addition to that, to really run the country and to have firm control over each minister in his cabinet.

Then something in your speech and obviously I don't know about the context of the time ... [you] made a very angry speech ...

The occasion of us receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was, in one sense, a highlight. But when I arrived in Oslo, I arrived to face a barrage of questions because he arrived before me, and he'd been on the media there, attacking my integrity, and being very unfriendly towards me. I shied away from reacting and creating a confrontation while we were there to receive the prize together. In our personal interactions at the occasion of the hand over of the prize and the immediate social functions, he handled me impeccably. His attitude was friendly and there was no direct confrontation between me and him on that occasion. The following day, when we went to Oslo, we had a sort of a banquet and there he made a speech, which was in my presence a vicious attack, again upon me, and what I stood for. It was embarrassing to the point that without me saying or doing anything, some of the Swedish hosts apologized and I think were also embarrassed by this attack.

... It was also surprising because he was recounting the things that had been done to him on Robben Island. It was a surprisingly personal speech, he doesn't normally talk about those things, and he chose that time ...

That is true ... his speech went beyond his normal attacks. And that in his speech he dealt with various aspects and allowing some of the understandable bitterness ... he is a man remarkably unbitter. But nonetheless, I don't think that he, as anybody in his place, have successfully escaped from all elements of bitterness. There must be some residue of feeling deprived, of feeling some personal bitter thoughts ... It came out at the Oslo dinner, but my recollection of the details of the speech aren't clear enough for me to really analyze that speech in detail. It did not only contain elements which were not there before. It once again also contained a very sharp and what I perceive to be a very unfair attack upon me and my administration, and a lack of recognition--not that I want to be recognized--but a lack of recognition for the fact that if we did not do what we did, also there would not have been a solution. On many other occasions, he gave that recognition. It is as if there was a conflict. One day he would lift up my hand and say I'm one of the great sons of Africa, and two weeks later, he would attack me as if I'm a man not to be trusted. There was this constant contrasting statements, which even the media picked up after some time.

How did you deal with that?

I, in the later stages, had a many confrontational discussions with him. Not confrontational in an ugly sense of the word. But where I would say, "But you have said this, and this is unfair," and where we would talk it through ... after such an occasion, we had a discussion where I, from my side, took him to task for what I regarded as unjustified statements, and although he would not concede that it was unjustified, it usually ended with a hand shake and a somewhat restored warmth in our relationship.

... Now you are one of the people to make an assessment of the role he's played.

Let me firstly, on highs and lows, say that when President Mandela became president, we then entered a new relationship with each other. He was president, I was deputy president, leader of the second biggest party, the biggest minority party, and we sat together in cabinet and there followed a year or so of very good relationships, where my experience was being cleverly used. I made it available to induct people who never had the experience of parliament and of sitting in cabinet, to ensure that the transition is peaceful, and to induct them into the new governing role that they had to play. That was a period of good relations between me and President Mandela. The new cause for tension between us, which then re-arose was the role that I had to play as leader of the official opposition, the public criticism of the ANC as a party and their policies. The public criticism of decisions taken without consensus in cabinet, where we said we cannot support this decision, and where we then took the ANC majority in the government to task about those decisions, and publicly distanced ourselves from it. That caused new tension.

... after my resignation, as leader of the opposition, I was then, for one year, leader of the opposition, and our relationship was then strained. There were many acrimonious statements against me in parliamentary debates. At one stage, President Mandela opted to praise some of the senior people, like Pik Botha, Roelf Meyer, and to drive a wedge between them and me. He was then quite a tough and fierce political opponent ... I was also tough and fierce at times. That's the role an opposition leader had to play. When I resigned from politics, one of the first things I did, was to go and have a cup of coffee with him. Since then I've seen him on another occasion fairly recently. We have a date, yet to be fixed, to have lunch together, and with his retirement and mine, I believe that there is a wish from both sides to restore the very good relationship which existed between us at a certain stage, and as elder statesmen no longer actively involved in party politics, to make a contribution towards the common goals which we developed, the common goals of nation building.

... In the process of ... negotiations, there is one very obvious personal factor, Mandela played the role of someone who managed to convince a lot of white South Africans that they shouldn't be scared ... and I just wondered what you think ... he did seem to achieve that.

If President Mandela was younger, and made himself available for another term as president, and if the constitution provided for two votes--one for president and one for a political party--I am absolutely convinced that President Mandela would get a very substantially higher percentage of the total vote than the ANC as a party would get. I think he is held in high esteem by the overwhelming majority of all South Africans. They have forgiven him, I think, for some serious mistakes which he made, and they have admiration and appreciation for the moderation which he brought to the whole process, and for his commitment to nation building and for his understanding, which is not always reflected within the ANC. For his understanding of the fears and aspirations of our great cultural diversity.

What did you feel that day of the (inauguration) ...

... My overwhelming feeling and emotion was a sense of fulfillment. I never really doubted that we would end up with a situation where he, given good health, would become the president in whatever new constitution we negotiated. In that sense of the word, although I was somewhat disappointed in the actual results, and I had hoped for my party to get a bigger slice of the vote, the results held no surprises.

I felt a sense of fulfillment that an action plan which I'd laid on the table on the 2nd of February 1990, had been fulfilled, had been properly implemented within the time frame which I envisaged. I also had some feelings of apprehension with the power now transferred. Not so much he, but would the system hold up to the stresses and strains built into the situation. But basically, as far as President Mandela is concerned, I wished him luck also in my mind. And thought to myself that in everything which I could support from the basis of the principles in which I believe, I would be helpful to help him to make a success.

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