In his monumental work, “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid,” Welsh chronicles the conditions that led to Apartheid, the injustices and divisions that took place under its regime, to the influences that led to its collapse, along with the challenges that came in the aftermath of transition. The complexity of the situation as described by Welsh is mind-numbing for the novice student of the Apartheid regime. The first page of the book was helpful in its orientation as the author defined terms and acronyms that would be used throughout the book.
I found myself particularly interested in the role of FW de Klerk because I felt I could relate to his position, though obviously on a much smaller scale. As the leader of the National Party, de Klerk came from racist stock, but had a change of heart and mind that caused him to want to lead the nation in a direction that would disrupt the status quo, upsetting and alienating his supporters (while having to keep them in line), who were the beneficiaries of the system. De Klerk did well to finally realize and help show his people that Apartheid was not only bad for black South Africans, and not only morally wrong, but that it was bad for white South Africans. This was critical because people don’t usually support change, even on a moral basis, if involves personal sacrifice. He had to show how the change would benefit even white people. Even more, the transition of power from de Klerk to Mandela was necessary for white survival. There were so many factors that all needed to come together in order for Apartheid to be dismantled and for the transition to succeed. The author made this clear that from societal shifts to internal factions in the NP, international isolation of the NP, and of course the most important relationship of power between de Klerk and Mandela, there is no singular event or person that caused this needed collapse (566).
Like de Klerk, I came from a very conservative, white, upper-middle class family. On my father’s side, my ancestors were slave owners in Texas. On my mother’s side, my great grandfather was a member of the Nazi Party. These are embarrassing realities for me, but what is more challenging for me is the continued pressure I feel from my parents and the ecclesial body that trained me for ministry, to promote the status quo, especially on issues of race and immigration. I no longer serve my parents’ community, but they follow my ministry. They would prefer if my sermons tasted more like a desert wafer: airy and sweet.
Currently, I am in the middle of a sermon series on the Gospel and Racism, and we’re using the Belhar Confession as supplemental material, along with films like “13th” and books like “Waking Up White.” The church I now serve is predominately white (but changing), and historically conservative (but that has changed as well). All the pastors here have been white, and the pulpit has never been used to discuss social issues, until my arrival 4 years ago. To my current congregation, it’s a little confusing to them why someone from similar stock would want to speak against realities that benefit us, and frankly why would I be interested in a subject that we could just conveniently overlook? By God’s grace, and in their defense, the congregation is courageously on board and open to the challenge nonetheless. But to my parents’ community back in South Orange County, the direction that I am leading God’s people here in Seattle, on some issues, is perceived as betrayal. In other words, “Why would our good OC white boy be talking about the love of Jesus while toting such unlawful ideas at the same time?” I understand the mind that thinks this is incongruent.
So, in this way, I felt an emotional connection with the responsibility that de Klerk faced to “betray” his own people for the sake of justice for “the other.” The feelings of guilt he must have had to overcome! It also seemed that he lacked theological resources that could have kept him “above board” or at least apologetically responsible for the assassinations that happened on his watch. Instead, he seemed to be awfully defensive much of the time. A theological rootedness could have given him an even greater sense of confidence and conviction, and a lesser sense of anxiety and need to prove himself morally righteous, perhaps in the ilk of Dr. King, Jr.
Given Mark’s post on this book regarding his experience visiting South Africa for theological dialogue around Apartheid, and the biblical and theological justification that Mark heard in defense of Apartheid by white South African leaders, it seems like an impossible task that de Klerk finally set out to accomplish. Obviously, he did not do it alone, as both de Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Peace Price (also an important move to maintain racial civility). Mandela is the one we usually hear about, and is most often honored by the American media, and perhaps rightly so. But Welsh described the partnership between the two as necessary for successfully ending the regime. Neither of them could have succeeded without the other.
A pivotal marker in this effort was when de Klerk, in the ruins of the aftermath of Apartheid, asked Mandela to address the nation as if he were president. To some, this was a display of humility and courage. To others, it was sheer survival at that point. Either way, the shift in power seemed critical in order to forge a new path.
What I found especially sobering about the partnership between Mandela and de Klerk were both the interpersonal conflicts and the issues of trust between the two, and even worse, the confusing nature around the blind eye that de Klerk turned to the assassinations of black South Africans by his government during the transition. It reminds me of our good theology that God doesn’t wait around for morally flawless people to accomplish his work in the world. He chooses those who are willing and available, and in the mess of their moral leadership yet tainted by their sinful natures, they make grave mistakes and God gets good things accomplished. This truth, which was displayed by not only Mandela and de Klerk, but also Dr. King and many others throughout civil and religious history, fills me with both gratitude and motivation to keep going in the work of leading necessary change–that even through a flawed relationship, God can change a nation. This is good news.