For some South Africans, de Klerk Missed Chances for True Reconciliation
By Eleni Roumeliotis
It was the happiest day of Frans Malema’s life. It was May 13 1997, and Malema, the 26-year-old son of Limpopo farmers, sat with his two sisters in the front row at a friendly restaurant in Pretoria. Sauti Sol, a close family friend, was there with his four young daughters. A million miles away, the South African press was abuzz about Malema’s 20-year sentence for inciting public violence. But on that day, this young man with his twin blonde sisters sat alone in one of the few public restaurants in Pretoria, just one of countless others in the city’s central business district that day.
A young Afrikaner from a farming family who was a member of the ANC, Malema used to go to Sauti Sol’s restaurant in Pretoria with his friends. It was near parliament, just five minutes’ walk from the Old Parliament Buildings. The politics were relaxed. But by 1995 Malema had been through most of the political parties and was a member of the ANC Youth League. He had been the spokesperson for the ANC’s youth wing and had become popular. But on 7 April 1993, the day that Nelson Mandela was released from jail, his youth friend, Hendrik Verwoerd, had done much to secure the future leader of his party.
Malema and Verwoerd were on a cross-country train trip in KwaZulu-Natal. Along the way, Verwoerd, a notoriously cynical man, slipped one of Malema’s sisters one of his anti-Apex African National Congress (ANC) leaflets, urging her to think twice about voting for the ANC, which was then in opposition. And he warned her that she might not live long enough to see “real change.” On July 26 1995, Verwoerd was assassinated along with his wife, Sonke “MaBa” Verwoerd, whose death immediately attracted media attention from all over the world. Many speculated on the motive of this murder: political revenge, political assassination or simply political scurrilousness. The two young white members of the ANC’s youth wing, Jonnie and Geoffrey Lucas, were suspected, but ultimately cleared of any involvement. But the student who discovered Verwoerd’s murder letter reportedly became suicidal and committed suicide. That was the beginning of Malema’s political career.
Malema was well aware of Verwoerd’s racist ideology. He had read biographies on the infamous Afrikaner politician and it all made sense to him. “He was like a father to me, and had a lot of influence on my life. I could see everything from the time he was in prison.” But Malema knew that the law was the law, and he was young and inexperienced, vulnerable to his friends’ machinations.
The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 brought about what many South Africans had long been waiting for: the end of apartheid, the beginning of a new country. But the country’s first democratic elections did not end Malema’s political career. Rather, the quest to correct the injustices of apartheid triggered his political career into a higher gear. It was in the ANC Youth League where many of those who had supported Verwoerd during the apartheid era would go on to take leadership positions. And yet, Malema was the idealist: the most innocent, the most naive.
Once Mandela had become president, he felt the change needed to be brought about by deep, meaningful reconciliation. And Mandela was aware that many of those who were jailed in prison and who had been accused of carrying out the atrocities that occurred during the apartheid era – such as Verwoerd – could not be pardoned immediately. But he also wanted to give the many millions of people in South Africa many opportunities that they had not been given during the apartheid era. It was in this context that Mandela wanted to be persuaded to pardon Verwoerd. Mandela was known to go to great lengths to obtain forgiveness from others; the dispute would only be solved through negotiations and compromise.