Now, It's Your Turn

F.W. de Klerk, the man who led South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy, draws a comparison between the situation in his country and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and recommends negotiations, even while under fire.

CAPETOWN, South Africa - On the day after Amram Mitzna resigned from the leadership of the Labor Party, the position was offered to Frederik de Klerk. On a spacious porch overlooking a beautifully kept golf course and the deep blue waters of a small bay, Israelis and Palestinians ringed de Klerk and asked him how to go about making peace.

De Klerk of course didn't take seriously the idea of replacing Mitzna, which was proposed - with an equal lack of seriousness - by two Knesset members, Yuli Tamir (Labor) and Eti Livni (Shinui), but he did take very seriously the question about making peace. Taking a deep puff on a cigarette, he smiled and said: "Peace is made very simply. You sit down and talk. That's what my friends and I did after the famous Parliament speech on February 2, 1990."

The meeting of Israelis and Palestinians with de Klerk took place last week in South Africa, in a charming resort town not far from Capetown, in the form of a seminar on methods of achieving peace in conflicted societies. The gathering was organized by the South African Human Sciences Research Council headed by Prof. Wilmot James, a sociologist, author and fighter against apartheid. Funding was by the Ford Foundation. It was not a political meeting, or one of the hundreds of encounters between Israelis and Palestinians who travel abroad for a weekend to let off steam. Nor was it what the journalist and confidant of Ariel Sharon disparagingly called it on Israel Radio, "a few people who went to compare the situation in the territories with apartheid." It was above all a forum for listening.

The list of invitees to the seminar included key figures in South Africa - cabinet ministers, members of parliament, businessmen, journalists, clerics and other public personalities - headed by de Klerk, who was president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with Nelson Mandela in 1993). The participants from South Africa, although unabashedly proud of their political achievements, did not come to preach or to draw comparisons between their situation and the Israeli situation or to suggest instant solutions. They talked about the crisis of the 1980s, the international isolation, the sanctions, the shame of identifying oneself as a South African, the violence, the bloodshed, the political power struggles, the arrests, the pain and the despair - but also about the light at the end of the tunnel: the transition from apartheid to democracy.

De Klerk, the man who led South Africa to democracy, has been invited to come to Israel next month, to attend a summit meeting of former leaders who will talk about peace. Ehud Barak will be there, he says, as well as Mikhail Gorbachev, and de Klerk, who is a member of the International Board of the Peres Center for Peace, will try to find time in his very busy schedule to attend. (De Klerk heads an international foundation that assists conflicted societies.)

De Klerk, who since leaving political life in 1997 has been available for international missions, sees the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as a personal window of opportunity, as a possible way to bolster his status in South Africa, too. Here many people say cynically that in his famous speech in Parliament in 1990, de Klerk did not really intend to release the democratic genie from the bottle, based on a genuine, deep belief. But after he set the process in motion, events dragged him in their wake.

Why apartheid failed

What happened on February 2, 1990? De Klerk recites the plot as though it were a well-made thriller. That morning he prepared for his annual address marking the opening of the new session of Parliament. The day before, he wrote the speech in longhand but, unusually, did not give the draft to his secretary for typing. Afterward he convened a few close friends and told them about the contents of the speech along general lines. Later that day, he met with the cabinet and informed them of his intentions.

"I didn't want this leaked to the press, so I made them promise, because usually they do leak, not even to talk to their wives, and I promised not to tell my wife, and for once we kept the secret because we wanted maximum impact of the announcement so that we could change the whole attitude of the South Africans and the rest of the world to see that this was serious and we were not playing games."

At midnight, de Klerk called Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, and told her that she would not be disappointed by the speech he was going to deliver the next day. De Klerk's wife, Marike (who was brutally murdered in December 2001), drove him to Parliament the next day, and said to her, "`South Africa will never be the same again,' and she understood," de Klerk said.

De Klerk's speech started the snowball of democracy rolling in South Africa. He announced that the Communist Party, which was fiercely hated by his Afrikaner National Party, would be granted legal recognition, that all political prisoners who were not found guilty of violent crimes would be released, that all executions were being suspended, and that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison unconditionally in ten days.

To ask a South African today where he was on February 2, 1990, when de Klerk spoke, is like asking an American where he was at the time of the Kennedy assassination or an Israeli where he was when Yitzhak Rabin was shot. Most blacks and coloreds will reply that on that day they were in the midst of a struggle of one kind or another against apartheid, and most whites will say that not only did they know long before that day that the end of apartheid was looming, but also that they believed the apartheid regime was immoral and unjust. Along with apartheid itself, it turns out, most of its supporters vanished, as though they had never existed. The collective memory has undergone a metamorphosis: Everyone was a supporter of Mandela.

De Klerk, 67, was born in Johannesburg to an Afrikaner family of public figures and politicians. He studied law and worked as a lawyer for 12 years. In 1973, he passed up a prestigious academic appointment to pursue a political career, having been elected to Parliament in November, 1972. He steadily climbed the political ladder in the National Party - which had been in power since 1948 and had introduced the apartheid laws - until 1989, when the president, P.W. Botha, had a stroke and resigned, and Parliament chose de Klerk to succeed him.

The question that most intrigued the Palestinians, the Israelis and, surprisingly, the South Africans at the seminar, was what had caused de Klerk's transformation. What induced a politician with such a conservative background, who grew up and lived in a rigid climate of establishment racism, to make a complete about-turn?

In his reply, de Klerk, paints the past in today's shades: "When I was a young man and supported apartheid the idea was to partition South Africa and to offer to each identifiable nation, with its own language, its own culture, its own royal families, an independence which at the end would form some sort of a confederation as the European Union was once. In other words, in a sense, what apartheid originally wanted to achieve is what everybody now says is the solution for Israel and Palestine, namely - partitioning, separate nation states on the bases of ethnicity, different cultures, different languages."

If it was so good, why did it fail?

"In our case it could not work because of demographic realities and our totally integrated economy. The majority of the blacks said this is not how we want our rights, we prefer to have our rights in one united country. The white South Africans wanted too much of the land and were not prepared to give up enough in order to ensure that the black nation would be economically viable. Thus, the possibility of partitioning became unachievable and impracticable."

Negotiating under fire

De Klerk talks about the need for new thinking in connection with the Jewish-Arab conflict, while emphasizing the differences between South Africa and the Middle East.

"There is no other solution between Israel and Palestine than to negotiate and compromise, which is meaningful and fair to all parties concerned. I do not know of any conflict which has been resolved without meaningful negotiation."

When he talks about the South African experience, his criticism of the Israelis and the Palestinians is evident: "We negotiated under fire. South Africa was burning with violence, but no one allowed himself the luxury of believing that we could wait with the negotiations until the violence ceased."

Did the isolation and the international sanctions help you decide?

"The tragic thing about sanctions was that it hurt people it was intended to help most. The lack of economic growth did not result in higher unemployment among the whites, but it did among blacks. It did not hurt the middle and high income groups, but it did hit the lower income groups very hard and had a profound effect on unemployment.

"Isolation played an important role - for example, South Africans are keen sportsmen. Being excluded from international competition such as the Olympic Games had a profound effect. Scientific isolation also played a very important role in mobilizing the academic world towards becoming politically active; suddenly the doors of the universities and libraries were closed to our bright students, which stimulated and motivated advocates of change. But this isolation also had a counter effect for some years because it increased the patriotism in white South Africans, who felt: We will not allowed them to dictate to us."

De Klerk's decision to change direction was also influenced by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. Until then, he says, he was paralyzed by fear of a Communist takeover in South Africa and in the neighboring countries.

In South Africa, people say that it was neither the fear of Communism, internal or external, nor a farsighted approach that led de Klerk to embark on the right historical road. It was, they say, something as simple as a love story, a transformation he underwent at the age of 60, when he fell in love with Elita Georgiades, the wife of a Greek tycoon with interests in South Africa and a supporter of de Klerk's party. After a secret love affair, he cut himself off from her for three years, but in the end they both got divorces, de Klerk after 39 years of marriage. Today he and Elita are married, and de Klerk guards his private life zealously.

Sanctions don't always help

Thoughts about love did not accompany the end of the first day of the seminar. Instead, spontaneous joy erupted in dance. Maybe this is what peace is supposed to look like. Palestinians, Israelis and Africans breached the barriers, joined hands and danced. Everyone let it all hang out, including the finance and education ministers of South Africa. Both Israelis and Palestinians said South Africa has cause for rejoicing. When de Klerk heard about the dancing and the pessimistic feelings of some of the Israelis and Palestinians, he said, "Sometimes when things look at their darkest, then the light is near."

The former white minority governments of de Klerk and his predecessors had good relations with the governments of Israel, even when the international community imposed sanctions on South Africa. It was an alliance of outcasts. The blacks and their leader, Mandela, had close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization. An alliance of the oppressed. Now a governmental attempt to create a balance is under way in South Africa.

"Yes, the Israelis helped us cope with the international sanctions. There were countries that helped us because not all countries supported the concept of sanctions.

"But today there is more objectivity in our relations with Israel. Yes, traditionally Israel had good relations with South Africa, which was the first country to recognize the State of Israel. And it is logical to say that basically there is more closeness between the present South African government and the Palestinians; before, it was a closer relationship between the old government and Israel."

Do you think Abu Mazen will be the Mandela of the Palestinians?

"I am not expert enough to express such an opinion. I sincerely hope that we can help Israel and Palestine out of the deadlock."

And can Sharon be the de Klerk of the Israelis?

"That would be difficult for me to comment on. You have to work with the leaders you have. You can not import leaders, you have to create them."

Between Mandela and Barghouti

Heribert Adam, a native of Frankfurt, has been studying Israeli and South African nationalism for many years. He teaches political sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and at the University of Capetown, specializing in nationalism, ethnic conflicts, collective memory and how societies cope with crimes and traumas from the past. His connection with South Africa began in the apartheid period, when he fell in love with a South African of Indian origin on one of his visits to the country for academic purposes, and afterward married her.

"When it turned out that the law forbade me from even meeting with her, not to mention living together, we decided to leave South Africa and settled in Canada," he says. "Although I must admit that at first there was something magical about it - the fact that we had to hide and outwit the authorities - it was the excitement of those who bite into forbidden fruit."

Since the end of apartheid, he has been a regular visitor to South Africa. The seminar was shaped largely on the basis of his academic model: Peace-making in divided societies. In one of his lectures at the seminar he jolted everyone by stating that he prefers a "binational state" to "two states for two nations," and then attacked the Palestinians for the bad public relations they are doing for their cause.

Does the binational concept have a chance in Israel?

"I am aware of the fact that at the moment the idea has no chance in Israel, even though in my opinion it could crop up in one of the next stages of the negotiations. But I don't find it illogical at all. Taking into account the fact that your economy is so dependent on theirs and that both economies are in such dire straits today, that dependence makes political independence almost completely unimportant.

"The Palestinian state that will emerge will not be able to provide even the minimum requirements of the population from any point of view, and certainly not territorially, because there is no hope that the settlements will be evacuated. On this subject I am not optimistic at all, and in the end it will lead to one state, of a binational character.

"In that case, I would even say: Why shouldn't the settlers stay there and the Palestinian government not be at least as tolerant of them as the Israeli government is toward the Palestinians who live within its borders?"

Adam doesn't think that Sharon is going to become a new de Klerk or a new de Gaulle anytime soon. "At the moment he is more like President Botha" - under whom apartheid in South Africa reached a peak.

Is there any chance that Abu Mazen will one day be Nelson Mandela?

"I doubt it. Everyone who is openly supported by Israel and the United States is a leader who is forced on the Palestinians, and therefore will not have broad support. But perhaps others, perhaps some who are now in prison, such as Marwan Barghouti, have a chance of becoming Mandela."

Adam's advice to the Palestinians is to replace their PR. "Until they recognize Israel's legitimate existence and until they change their public relations in the international media, and stop sounding as though they are preaching anti- Semitism, nothing will happen. They have to come out openly against the suicide bombers and encourage a discussion in the Arab states to recognize a legitimate Jewish state."

The burning house parable

When Pallo Jordan, minister of environmental affairs and tourism in the Mandela government, and now a member of Parliament and chair of its Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke, silence reigned in the hall. Perhaps it was the expectation that a black leader, a senior member of the African National Congress and a highly regarded politician, would preach morality to the government of Israel. Instead, Jordan turned to the Palestinians and suggested that they stop making use of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the anti-Semitic forgery concocted by the Russian secret police 100 years ago.

"The Palestinians have no chance of succeeding if every Jew in Israel thinks that the only thing that is going to happen is that the Palestinians are going to blow them up," Jordan said afterward. "The intelligent thing to do is to persuade the Israelis that a Palestinian state, when it is established, will not pose a threat to them. The Palestinians mustn't forget the trauma of the Jews of Europe. If they don't learn Jewish history, about the pogroms and the Holocaust, and don't recognize the suffering the Jewish people has endured, and don't free themselves of the anti-Semitic context that their comments create, there is no way they will succeed in promoting their legitimate interests, from the point of view of public relations."

The African National Congress party traditionally supported, and continues to support, the Palestinians, Jordan notes. "But we are fair enough to tell them that they are doing themselves damage by the violent methods they are using. On the other hand, I have no great expectations that Ariel Sharon will be the person who makes peace or will change his approach."

How did you succeed in neutralizing the enmity, the anger and the hatred that all of you must have felt for the whites?

" Anger gets you nowhere. You have to talk, to put down the gun and talk, to listen to what the other side has to say. If the other side speaks to the point, listen to them. That's what people who use their brains, and not their blood, do. Think where you want to go and then go there. What's the problem? Decide who you are, as Israelis, and what they, as Palestinians, want, and then use your brains to think how you get there."