MANY white South Africans probably can’t imagine that they might have been perpetrators of a crime against humanity. It sounds like such a gigantic, malevolent, bloody concept. On the whole, they saw themselves as going about their ordinary lives, growing up, getting educated, and raising their families, not necessarily as political activists. During their youth, many white South Africans travelled the world, associating freely with people from other countries.
Yes, there were anti-apartheid and anti-South African protests in various places, at various times, of which they might or might not have been aware, but these took a back seat and didn’t really affect the travels of the average South African. South African companies thrived all over the world and international companies came here and flourished.
The majority of ordinary white South Africans are also probably not aware of the wording of the Statute of Rome, or even the existence of the Statute. It says that the apartheid system in which they lived alongside black people or above them as masters for decades, was a crime against humanity, an international crime. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court says apartheid was similar to other ‘crimes against humanity’.
So when FW de Klerk and his foundation, without debate, issued a statement two weeks ago saying that the idea that apartheid was a crime against humanity was incorrect, many ordinary white South Africans were probably confused. In finer detail, he said it was an ‘agitprop’ project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC/SACP allies to stigmatise white South Africans by associating them with genuine crimes against humanity. Images conjured up by the words ‘crimes against humanity’ include totalitarian repression and the slaughter and torture of millions of people. The Germans in the Second World War did that; Stalin did it in Russia; the Hutus did it to the Tutsis in Rwanda. But South Africa did not do that.
De Klerk was joint deputy president under former president Nelson Mandela in 1994. He had previously been the last apartheid president. He had presided over the dismantling of the legislative framework of apartheid, freeing the way for the present non-racial democratic constitution. He jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize, with Nelson Mandela.
Following outrage over his statement, and pressure from wiser South African leaders, including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the FW de Klerk Foundation officially withdrew and apologised for the contentious statement on apartheid.
His statement stoked the uproar of the Economic Freedom Fighters in parliament last week at the State of the Nation Address. To onlookers, the EFF looked like a bunch of rowdy attention-seekers. But they claimed to represent black South Africa, to tackle the eons of white colonialism and apartheid and demanded that De Klerk, sitting in the public gallery, be kicked out as “he had blood on his hands”.
Predictably, they rejected the De Klerk Foundation apology, demanded that he be stripped of his Nobel Peace Prize, and lose his privileges as a former head of state. The unruly manner in which the EFF punted its message, or the apparent lack of focus of their attacks on people, from Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan to De Klerk, made it hard to listen to them. But does the EFF, and their fiery leader Julius Malema, really represent black South Africa today? Apartheid is gone; the country is on a different track, however tenuously, and with whatever problems. Whatever it is these people in red overalls represent, they make us sit up and take notice that the trauma of black South Africa has not gone away, nor the polarities between black and white.
Geoff Sifrin is a veteran South African editor, journalist, columnist. See more of his work on his blog