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Five Shades of White: Interview with 2013 Alan Paton Award Shortlistee Hermann Giliomee

By Antony Altbeker for the Sunday Times:

The Last Afrikaner LeadersAntony Altbeker speaks to Alan Paton Award finalist Hermann Giliomee about five men who shaped South Africa

Professor Hermann Giliomee has been publishing popular and academic work since the mid-’70s, has held professorships at the universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town, and was president of the SA Institute of Race Relations in the mid-’90s.

His latest book, The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power, describes the political lives of five Afrikaner leaders – HF Verwoerd, John Vorster, PW Botha, FW de Klerk and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

How easy is it to get to grips with these different men and their different styles, philosophies and politics?

They present different challenges. I think I understand Verwoerd, who was an academic, better than a man like PW Botha, who was a career politician and interested in power. Of the five, Verwoerd is also the most difficult to come to grips with because he really lived in a different time to the others. He had no idea how the country’s demographics would change. He was a leader in a time when it was still possible to think that central planning could work. He had no idea how quickly Africa would decolonise. The other men all knew the score, so comparing them is a little easier.

And yet you suggest that of the five, it was only Verwoerd who had the imagination and charisma to change direction.

One of the underlying themes of the book is that South Africa has always been a very difficult country to govern. The most important fact about South Africa’s recent history is the doubling of the black population between 1970 and 1990. I think Verwoerd realised by the mid-’60s that the plan to develop viable black states did not have a chance of working. He was too intelligent to stick to a policy that he knew was not working and could not work even if state spending was massively increased.

Would you describe him as a racist?

Verwoerd was not a racist in the way the term was understood in his time. His predecessors were old-style segregationists who believed in the biological superiority of whites. He believed strongly that blacks could develop to the level of whites. It was during his term as prime minister that politicians stopped using racial slurs in public. But Verwoerd was a child of his time and he did conflate race and culture, a practice that is now described as racist. He was also inclined to think that culture was fixed or immutable. He did not, however, subscribe to the idea that whites were inherently biologically superior to blacks.

But when people think of Verwoerd, they think about Bantu education …

There is a danger that revisionist history over plays the negative aspects of a subject. Verwoerd’s most disastrous step was announcing Bantu education in 1954, saying: “The Bantu must be guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.” This is often quoted, but is usually distorted by omitting the qualification he added, “Within his own community, however, all doors are open.” This was actually not a new policy because blacks had not been able to get advanced jobs in the so-called white areas since 1910. But his words created the impression that blacks were either inferior or did not deserve better. This poisoned black education to the present day.

You cast PW Botha as a competent leader who understood the depth of the crisis faced by his country and his people. Certainly, he comes off as more capable than Vorster. How do you rate the Groot Krokodil?

I came up with that nickname in conversation with Piet Cillié, editor of Die Burger in the early ’80s. He said that all Afrikaner leaders had been crocodiles. I agreed and said that PW, who was then prime minister, was the Great Crocodile.

So how do you rate PW?

Botha is often underestimated as an uneducated political hack and as a gung-ho military hawk. But he was more aware than Vorster of the need for comprehensive change in a fairly short time. He did away with discrimination in the defence force and started to get the state out of the economy. He got rid of the crude racial sex laws. Discarding the all-white parliament was important, but leaving out blacks was disastrous. He didn’t understand how great a rebuff this was.

Yet he did initiate early negotiations.

Botha did not have the stomach for including blacks in any kind of open, competitive elections. Nevertheless, he realised he had to make a deal and that this could only be made with Mandela. He told Leon Wessels: “We have achieved nothing with the detentions. We have only made them more embittered against us.”

Why do you say Mandela would have preferred to negotiate with Botha rather than with De Klerk?

Mandela told me it was his greatest regret. I think he didn’t know what to make of De Klerk, who was 20 years younger than him. I think he felt that the two old men could drag their constituencies into a new SA.

The picture you paint of De Klerk is less than flattering.

De Klerk was a pleaser and a placator, always looking for the middle way. The ANC knew he had staked everything on a settlement and that he would not use the security forces if there was a breakdown. The reality was that the National Party wasn’t well suited to the negotiations. They were used to parliament, where they could impose their will on everyone else.

What do you think would have been different if PW had been negotiating with the ANC?

Niel Barnard told me that he thought PW would have said that the ANC and the NP should rule together for a period to see how it went. But that wasn’t possible after the ANC had gained control of the townships in 1992. With all the turmoil, De Klerk had lost the ability to control the agenda. There was too much pressure, and the National Party wound up as junior partner. PW may not have conceded as much control of the country to the ANC.

  • The Last Afrikaner Leaders is published by Tafelberg, an imprint of NB Publishers

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