Mandela's Forgotten Partner

We humans are by nature idolatrous; we crave god-like heroes. In our haste to build a pedestal for a new idol, we often appropriate achievements that were actually the work of others. Admittedly, Nelson Mandela was a truly heroic figure, but the principal achievement that the current flood of adulation attributes solely to him was primarily the result of a collaboration with Frederik Willem de Klerk.

The old adage that "it takes two to make a quarrel" is nonsense; one is usually enough. But it does take two to end a quarrel. And it often requires a meeting of two minds from very different backgrounds.

Consider Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. If Reagan had been dealing with Vladimir Putin, we would still be enmeshed in a cold war, if not buried in the ashes of WWIII. Instead, Reagan felt that he could win Gorbachev's trust and work with him to end the cold war. And Gorbachev responded by an astounding break from the intransigence and deviousness of the Soviet establishment.

A similar rapport was achieved between Mandela and de Klerk. They seemed to have nothing in common. Mandela had been a relatively violent activist, whose prison sentence had been at least partly deserved. De Klerk seemed to be a typical establishment politician, with no conspicuous record of anti-apartheid sympathy. In a surprisingly candid interview, de Klerk describes how he came to respect Mandela's abilities, how he and Mandela came to respect and trust each, and how they began to work together to dismantle apartheid.

But the initiative and strategy was primarily de Klerk's. In 1990, he took the daring step of lifting the ban on anti-apartheid parties, suspending the state of emergency, and releasing Mandela (among others) from prison.  In 1991, he abolished many of the apartheid laws. The results were ominous; violence increased, de Klerk's National Party lost three by-elections, and his mandate was challenged by the pro-apartheid parties.

The crucial moment was de Klerk's apartheid referendum of 1992. In a brilliant all-or-nothing gamble, he initiated a whites-only referendum on the question;

Do you support continuation of the reform process which the State President began on 2 February 1990 and which is aimed at a new Constitution through negotiation?

A defeat would have forced his resignation, new elections, and possibly the reinstitution of apartheid. Instead, a 68% victory insured the democratization of South Africa.

After sharing a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, the two men continued to work together. De Klerk regarded Mandela's election to the presidency in 1994 as "a fulfillment" and served as deputy president until 1996. De Klerk has since focused on fighting the corruption and inequality that remain in South Africa.

But according to the media storm of adulation (with a few perceptive objections), Mandela did it all single-handedly. De Klerk hasn't disputed this; in fact, in his usual oblique style, he added his tribute to the pile. 

De Klerk is well aware that when he dies, there will probably be nothing more than a brief report on a back page. But he knows what he achieved and will, I think, rest content with that.