FW de Klerk

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.


As I get older I discover that people and events that were crucial to my own experience and understanding of the world are unknown to a younger generation. I guess that the death of FW de Klerk fits in that category.

For my generation the curse of Apartheid and the cry for the liberation of oppressed people rang out from South Africa. Shaped by a particular Christian theology and an ideological commitment to a particular form of the nation state, white Afrikaaners fought to defend the land they dominated. Just as many of us caught up in the Cold War could not envisage how change might come, so did the South African regime seem impregnable.

Yet, change can come quickly. When de Klerk succeeded PW Botha as head of the National Party in 1989 few would have imagined what was to follow. This ideologically conservative white man recognised that the need for peace and justice transcended even deeply-held and culturally-entrenched worldviews. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, multiracial elections took place in 1994, Mandela became President … but de Klerk continued to serve with him as a Vice-President.

I think I learn two things from this remarkable transition of power and culture: the first is about what I would call ‘repentance’; the second is about the nature and demands of leadership.

The word ‘repentance’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to change your mind’. It basically means changing the way I look at God, the world and us in order to change the way I see God, the world and us in order to change the way I think about God, the world and us in order to change the way I live in the world with God and everyone else. It takes immense courage to repent – not least because, especially for a leading politician, this will invite abuse, opprobrium, and charges of betrayal. But, integrity and wisdom sometimes demand such courage. Christian theology certainly does.

Leadership is not for the romantic. At the heart of good leadership lie the virtues of ethical integrity and moral courage. In dismantling not only a political culture, but also a theologically underpinned cultural construct, de Klerk challenged the very foundational myths of a people … and did so knowing there might be a high price to pay.

He apologised for the effects of Apartheid, but not for Apartheid itself. He wasn’t perfect; but, given that leadership has to be exercised by real, complex and conflicted human beings, he had the courage to repent in action and open the door to a new generation and a new, more just world.

His death might evoke mixed memories for some. But repentance and courageous leadership should not be ignored.