Riedwaan Ahmed is a former South African diplomat who now lives in Ottawa.
Last Thursday, Frederik Willem (F.W.) de Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa, passed away. And his death brought a familiar South African question to the surface once again: Who, exactly, is entitled to forgiveness?
Born in Johannesburg in 1936, Mr. de Klerk rose through the ranks of the National Party as an MP and a cabinet minister who stridently defended apartheid and its policies of racial segregation. But a different side of Mr. de Klerk emerged when he was elected the party’s leader and then the country’s president. In 1990, he stunned the world by releasing political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for belonging to a banned political organization, and by announcing negotiations to transfer political power from the white Afrikaner minority to South Africa’s first democratically elected government. He and Mr. Mandela went on to be jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and after Mr. Mandela was elected president in 1994, he appointed Mr. de Klerk as his deputy president.
For those pivotal accomplishments, Mr. de Klerk was respected abroad, but South Africans have long debated his place in the story of our march to democracy. Most South Africans recognize that without his efforts, the country may have descended into bloodshed. But we also often ask: how much applause should one receive, when returning something that was not rightfully theirs?
His appearances in recent years have only further clouded his legacy; just last year he tried to argue that, although the United Nations had declared apartheid a crime against humanity in 1973, South Africa’s policy of institutionalized racial segregation was not severe enough to be classified as such.
Growing up as a “coloured” (mixed-race) South African in the 1980s, I was among the millions affected by apartheid legislation that denied me entry to certain doorways, trains, schools, swimming pools, park benches, beaches, sports teams and career options – all because of the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair. I remember my older siblings protesting an unjust system. I remember the fear I felt when I walked amidst the heavy police presence and repression on our streets. For Mr. de Klerk to call the brutal practice of racially based suppression anything but a crime against humanity, made me feel foolish for being so eager to embrace reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. It reopened old wounds and prompted heated parliamentary debates.
But then, in a video released hours after his passing, Mr. de Klerk – knowing that his time on Earth was drawing to a close – delivered a final message to South Africans. In it, he acknowledged that he had defended apartheid as an MP and in cabinet. He referred to his apologies since then but acknowledged that they had been met with skepticism by some. “Therefore,” he said, “let me today in this last message repeat: I, without qualification, apologize for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to Black, brown and Indians in South Africa.”
Watching his final public words unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes. Even now – 27 years after the end of apartheid in South Africa – it is disarming and healing to see and hear an apology made without reservation.
I realized, while watching the video, that apologies should not be one-off statements. Memories of injustice push anger to the surface sporadically, but apologies help restore balance. They make efforts at reconciliation seem less one-sided.
The decision to forgive, then, should also not be a one-off. Mr. de Klerk’s farewell speech spoke of how his views had changed: “I realized that apartheid was wrong. I realized that we had arrived at a place which was morally unjustifiable.”
After listening to his words, and still processing them, I turned to the example of Nelson Mandela. In the last days of apartheid, when the world thought South Africa would descend into race-based vengeance, Mr. Mandela reminded the country of the power of forgiveness. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” he famously said after his release, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Changing your worldview is not easy, and it takes courage to apologize. Mr. de Klerk, who struggled to do both, showed me that. Forgiveness, meanwhile, is not something you do for somebody else. It is something you choose for yourself. It sets you free. Mr. Mandela taught me that.
I can now truly say that I hope F.W. de Klerk rests in peace. I am just one of the millions of South Africans affected by his party and his government’s actions, but I have heard his apology – and I have chosen forgiveness.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.