About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

23 Aug 1990: Boesak, Allan

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

Click here for Overview of the year

POM. I'm talking with Dr Allan Boesak on the 23rd of August. Dr Boesak if you take your mind back to the 2nd of February and to Mr de Klerk's speech, one, did what he have to say surprise you and, two, what do you think motivated him to move so broadly and so sweepingly at the same time?

AB. Yes, it did surprise me. And that was linked to the experiences that we have had with Mr de Klerk. We know for instance, purely on the man's record that he was not one of the most enlightened people in PW Botha's Nationalist Party at the time. And in fact the last time that we had tabled publicly was the time he had announced his intention to force universities by law and blackmail to keep their students in check, as it were, and to stop their students from engaging too much in political activity otherwise he would stop their subsidies. And that was cause for a publication - at least the two of us, I mean I was a part of a broad range of opposition at the time and I remember in the speech that I held at the University of the Western Cape saying that the last time that such a thing had happened that a minister had tried to blackmail universities in that regard in this way was in Germany in about 1941 or so which he did not like at all.

. And the other experience that I could almost immediately measure, February 2nd, was the meeting that Archbishop Tutu, [Carny(?)] and myself had had with Mr De Klerk in October in Pretoria. A meeting which I can only describe as very frustrating. I came away from that meeting in October completely clear in my own mind that here is a man who does not have a full understanding of what is happening in his own country. There was no understanding of black politics, black aspirations that I could see. He spoke a language that sounded nice but without any substance. For instance, he spoke about the great gap between black and white. He didn't know what that meant. He had no idea of how wide and how deep that gap actually was. He spoke about reconciliation but again in such superficial terms it drove me to distraction just to listen to him. Theologically as well as politically. And I came away from that meeting thinking, here is a man who is obviously a very nice man but that is about all that I could say about him at the time. And I said to myself, we are in for a gentler PW era but none the less a PW era.

. With that in mind February 2nd was indeed a surprise. It would be foolish not to admit that, not only in terms of what was said but the tone. Because the tone that he said was a tone that said, this is the tone that I am setting obviously for an agenda that I want to follow. It is now clear that he is at least trying his best to stick to the agenda that he has set for himself. What made him do it? Two things that I think I know for sure. And one thing that I hope. First of all we all know that somewhere in December there had been a meeting of some of his most trusted advisors. I think at that meeting the people from Foreign Affairs had explained to him exactly the nature of South Africa's diplomatic and political isolation in the world and how that impacted on South Africa's position and on South African politics. They also explained to him that the isolation of South Africa did not really mean the isolation of South Africa in spite of what you say when you make a political speech but it really meant the isolation of white politics in South Africa. The greater the distaste for white politics and white politicians and what they were doing in South Africa the greater the chance of an enormous romanticisation of the struggle in groups like the ANC. And these two factors brought together could only mean that the ANC would grow in the eyes of the world, which in at that time it actually did, diplomatically, politically, in stature and so forth while at the same time it was becoming clearer that the South African government as government and the white minority would become more isolated. That was the one thing.

. The other thing that I think had happened there was people like Barend du Plessis who in fact publicly once or twice was forced to admit that sanctions did in fact have a greater impact on the South African economy then they would like to admit politically, probably explained to him exactly what the result of sanctions had been. What it could be should it continue. Also explained to him that lifting of sanctions was directly linked to political change and fundamental political change. And possibly they began to explain to him that the world was no longer simply listening to the explanations of the South African government but there were at that point a range of players in the black community with enough stature internationally that their opinions also counted. And in fact the black opinion on the question of sanctions and why they were necessary counted more in certain circles than white opinion and that it was no longer something simply for the business world even with their promotion and with their PR work to solve, and neither could the South African government solve that. Those I think were the two most important factors.

. Coupled with that is another thing that is not immediately fair but something that belongs to FW's character. Coupled with that I think is the fact that the man obviously, other than PW Botha, has an ability to listen. Obviously also he has more insight into the political situations here and abroad. Thirdly, obviously also he cares more about South Africa's image and, these are politicians so I think I can say that in his quiet moments he will probably admit it, he cares more about his own image. I think he likes to be liked. PW didn't care whether people liked him or not as long as he liked himself - that was the end of the matter. De Klerk wants to be accepted. Not just as a clever politician, he wants to be accepted as a human being. That is my feeling of the man. And I'm now beginning to understand that that simple human trait can have a tremendous influence on the way you do your politics.

. The third thing that I'm beginning to understand, but I also hope that it is rooted in the man's religious convictions. Like me Mr. De Klerk is a reformed Christian from the brand of Calvinists, one of the things that we have as Calvinists and when we are convinced that something is wrong, other than Catholics we don't immediately confess or we don't think that the confession is enough. For us when something is wrong the thing that you begin to understand that you must immediately do is you must rectify those wrongs. Otherwise nothing helps. So when you begin to realise that apartheid is wrong it makes no sense to say it is wrong unless you begin to say, now this is what I intend to do in order to correct the situation because that is what we feel will be the confession before God. This is the way we were taught, this is the way we preach, this is the way we hear all of this. It is so ingrained in Calvinist reform thinking together with the fact that more almost than any other strand in Christian thoughts, we are absolutely convinced that we are co-workers with God in the making of history. Nothing falls out of thin air if it is not laid in heaven, you are responsible with God for what happens in this world. We have what you can call a world formative Christianity, a world form of the faith. You form history. You know that the responsibility of Christians to create the situation in which the lordship of Christ will be seen and recognized is so much part of Calvinist thinking that if you are a politician and you want to be honest you cannot but say therefore I have to have a practical programme. And I think, I think and in fact I hope, that this is the third major factor in de Klerk's strike because if it is then it means that we are dealing here with more than just political experience. We are dealing here with a kind of commitment that obviously needs to be strengthened and needs to be supported and encouraged and so forth. But a commitment that basically cannot change any more.

POM. In that regard I was going to ask you whether you believe that de Klerk has conceded on the issue of majority rule?

AB. Yes I think he has. I think he has because, if you remember well, those first months he made a point of publicly saying every time he rejects majority rule, he was not going to see all whites down the drain and stuff like that. I think he has conceded because he hasn't mentioned the subject. And I think that is his way of having come to terms with reality. He no longer talks about he rejects majority rule. He now talks about how do we find security for minorities. And he now even accepts that their old definition of South Africa being a nation of so many minorities no longer holds any water. Nobody talks about that, not openly any more. And I think he also accepts that the minority he is really talking about is the white minority, although you have to push him to get that admission from him. I don't think that he automatically, for instance, accepts that his definition of majority and minority and what the position is and who needs to be protected, that his definition will be accepted by other groups described by various minorities, for instance, the Coloured people. Because I will not accept that definition and I will not accept a special position and I will not accept special protection. I want a constitution with a bill of rights protecting the rights of the individual because I believe that therein lies the security and the protection for whoever can be described as a minority culturally or religiously or whatever.

POM. There has been some talk on his part, at least by members of his government, about power sharing. Do you envisage a situation in which the majority would in fact be the majority, form the government, have the power. Or one in which the majority would be the majority but the majority would still share power with the minority, perhaps even at the executive level? That is to say perhaps if you had an ANC government and that the ANC would share power with the National Party, perhaps giving the National Party two or four posts in the Cabinet? So even though the ANC government would be in control of the majority the minority would still have a voice in the Cabinet.

AB. That kind of scenario almost envisages a form of political alliance between the ANC and whatever the Nationalist Party may become. That is possible. There is of course also another possibility where you have a government in which there is a majority but the power sharing is genuine rather than contrived or the result of a design and therefore maybe superficial or controlled. Because there is, you could say we are the majority but in order to give this impression or in order to do this or that or the other for whatever political reason let us give three positions to the whites. Now that is not only contrived it is also controlled. I'm not sure that that is what we want. You may, what I would like to see is that there is a clear majority but the majority is not enough for the one group to simply take over everything or to decide at its behest that now we are going to grant this group or that group or that group this position and that position and the other position. I'm afraid when that happens we will not - it will always have to happen within the context of ethnicity. I don't think there would be another context. If that is true, that means that one of the things that we have fought for for so long, knowing that it has to fundamentally change, there indeed the whole question of racism and ethnicity and so forth, that we will not be able to get away from that and we will actually carry it into the new South African dispensation. I would find that a great pity.

. I would like a situation, I'm not sure whether you are asking me what I would like, I would rather like to see a situation where everybody, let me say the main players in this country would move away from ethnic politics. I believe that ethnic politics have no future in this country and should not have a future because it carries with it not only a risk, a political risk that can undo you at any time, it carries with it a seed of the past that can only be destructive in too many ways. That everybody involved, in other words those who now more or less contain themselves to black politics, those who are not exclusively white will all break open and will all strive for non-racial politics where the coming together of people will be around the issue of political ideology rather than culture or race or sentiment from the past. So that you might find, let me say that opposition to the ANC majority, which will be including non-racial opposition, now it might have people like de Klerk and so forth in them but that a de Klerk as head of an opposition will be the head of a non-racial opposition and that on that basis they will challenge each other at the polls. And they can find more or less a balance in the outcome of the election that will make the whole question of who gets what in a government the result of political compromise which in itself is the result of an election rather than a contrived plan or designed beforehand or look degrading to the selection and is going to be like this so in order to keep western influence or to keep investments flowing or to keep the business community happy we'll give you three seats. That is the kind of thing that I think in our particular situation will not last very long. The other I think will last much longer.

POM. But the other is an aspiration, I mean realistically people tend to vote along ethnic lines.

AB. That is true unless we make the part of the process now - I am convinced, everybody says we've got to talk about the negotiating process but the negotiating process goes hand in hand with a process of political education that not many people are thinking about these days. I'm saying this partly because it is what their foundation is dedicated to doing. People need to understand that in order for us to create a generally new South Africa, in order for us to move away from the apartheid system to a system of genuine multiparty democracy, to move away from the racialism of now to a non-racial South Africa you have to educate people, quite purposely educate people to stop thinking along racial lines, to stop thinking along ethnic lines. To begin to see that the interest of the broader community on a non-racial level, those are the interests that are closest to my own heart even as an individual, and are closest to me, so that when I serve those interests, at that level, rather than thinking what can I do for Coloured people, is there something for Indians that we can get out of this? What do we do to protect white people? When you think like that, nothing like that I think will ever last politically.

POM. Do you not think that one may be in a situation where events themselves are overtaking the capacity for this type of massive educational effort to be undertaken?

AB. It depends on a number of things. It depends on whether we actually wake up now and begin to think. Proper negotiations have not started yet. We still have that time. People are saying "oh everything will be over in two years, everything will be over in four years". That really doesn't matter. I'm thinking if everything is going to be over in two years, or thank goodness we still have two years. That's the way I think. So that if people begin to understand the nature of negotiation, they must begin to understand why are we negotiating. What are they negotiating towards? If we believe what we say, and that's why I believe it's not so difficult, for years and years and years we have battled for things that we really believed in. I mean I fought for the UDF to make the ideal of non-racialism a reality within the UDF. I'm thinking of the days when we fought with people who'd come from the Black Consciousness position, myself, with the central question when we formed the UDF "what is the role of white people going to be?" And we fought that battle and we won that battle. And the UDF was a non-racial organisation which made that a reality even in the way that we dealt with the political situation.

. And the full fruit of that has not yet been seen but I could see by the time they had our last big marches here how the participation of white people in those public political activities, which in the beginning were the strangest things to white people, they never did something like that. I mean you go and you vote. Quietly and gently. Never go out in the streets and do something except when you're Black Sash and you can still keep your dignity. But in all of those things we brought them in and it was really genuine. It was one of the most rewarding things for me to see. So what I'm saying now is that if it is true that even in the heat of the battle when the lines, also along racial lines, was so starkly drawn, and the mistrust was even deeper then, now that we have learned that we can be comrades together, that we can actually march together, we can go to jail together, we can take all those things and the abuse together, we can face some things together. We already have a foundation on which we can build this new education and it can be done if people begin to understand that the negotiations without the concomitant education process actually will be meaningless.

POM. Since time is limited I'd like today to cover three things briefly and then we can go over them in more detail when we talk, I hope, in December. Two of them are very quick. One, de Klerk has given an undertaking that he would take any proposed new constitution back to the white electorate for approval. Now we have heard two things about that. One, that it is something he can't do. On the other thing it is something that he must do, that if he doesn't get a stamp of legitimacy from his own constituency on it, it could create havoc. The second thing is on how you think the process itself would unfold. Will it be a Constituent Assembly, a broad negotiating table, an interim government of some sort? The third thing, which may be at this point in time the most important, is the question of the violence. The violence has spilled over from Natal into the Transvaal and it appears to be assuming an increasingly more ethnic nature and bringing the ugly word ethnicity into the political debate perhaps in a way that hasn't figured there before.

AB. I cannot understand why de Klerk keeps on with this, committing himself publicly to a white referendum. Because I think he believes that he has made a promise, he must honour that promise. But I think if he does that he is going to run into all kinds of problems. I think once again, and I base this on my own understanding that anybody who makes ethnic politics their basis is going to find that they are not going to last very long. In the de Klerk's case it is even clearly because as long as he confines himself to white politics, as long as he lays his political future in the hands of mostly Afrikaners, Afrikaans people, white people, his chances of survival must be risky, shaky, if not slim. The moment he publicly admits that the only way to test the constitution is to test the constitution with all the people because the constitution will be a constitution for all the people, whites no longer have a right to have an exclusive say over anything on their own and that therefore whites must participate in a referendum of some sorts with everybody else who will be eligible to vote. The sooner that message comes through the better it will be for him. The moment he steps out of the narrow field of ethnic politics, in his case white politics and Afrikaner politics, and he throws himself open in the non-racial thing he has a better chance of survival.

. The Conservative Party and the AWB and these people are only strong as long as politics remain ethnic. Their appeal is only confined to a small number of white people. Once, and it may be a big number now, but once you take that big number of white people and place it here in the field of non-racial politics it becomes insignificant. De Klerk will still run risks. My reading of the situation is that the risk that he will take in non-racial politics can be far more calculated and will be less than the risk he will be running by confining himself to ethnic politics. Should there be a Constituent Assembly? Yes. I have no doubt in my mind. It may not be the same mechanism or the same mechanics as in Namibia whereby a Constituent Assembly automatically becomes the government or the parliament or whatever. And I foresee in my own scenario actually two elections for South Africa. An election for a Constituent Assembly which will then look at or negotiate for a new constitution and a second election which will be a parliamentary election, after the first.

POM. Many would argue that if you had an election for a Constituent Assembly the government in effect would be conceding what in fact it wants to negotiate. That if you had an election for a Constituent Assembly by universal franchise, that the whole issue of majority rule is conceded and ultimately this is something that the government would want to negotiate to get the best deal for itself. Secondly, that if you had it in the next year or so or in the foreseeable future, that the government itself would find itself heavily out voted by the Conservative Party. The question would be on whose behalf would the government negotiate?

AB. This is correct. I mean that I find the second question far more important than the first. I think, again, the first question arises out of people's inability to think of South African politics in any other terms than ethnic politics. And therefore it may very well be that the interim period between now and the Constituent Assembly needs to be lengthened and people in government talk about sitting around the negotiating table by January of 1991. I think that if you want a Constituent Assembly it should not be January of 1991 but maybe December of 1991, for instance. Because in the meantime you will then give everybody the opportunity (a) to make sure that they build for themselves a constituency that they hope will back them when they come with the question to the party "will you send us to the negotiating table to speak on your behalf? This is our program, this is what we want, this is what we want to see in the constitution". De Klerk will have to go the same way as Mandela, as Buthelezi, as everybody else will have to go. That is my belief. And therefore you need a longer period between now and then in order to make that happen.

. It is true that the government will be, we are now already conceding majority rule. I don't think that that is true. If you work on the basis of a non-racial future, de Klerk has as much chance, if he wants to, to get the political backing of people from the black communities as does Mandela. Why should he accept that Mandela will automatically have that and he won't? Now at the moment he has to. I have, however, an idea that if he works at it very hard it doesn't have to be that way. And so it seems to me that the obligation to go back to white South Africa is not necessary. It seems to me also that the obvious reading that if he should concede that and therefore fall victim to white Conservative Party politics, is also not necessary. It need not be realised because it will be the other way around. If de Klerk goes non-racial, there is no way clearly it can. The will lose out.

. Now it is another question as to what the reaction of the white community will be. But if you accept, like I do, that whatever happens it is almost inevitable that we will go through a period of white frightening violence because there is no way in the world that certain extreme elements in the white community will accept the outcome of anything, whether it through war or negotiations, or peaceful settlement. And I think it is only wise to accept that that situation will arise. And there are reasons that I believe we have to accept that I can't go into now. Only if you play it right, by that time the community will see that not as de Klerk's problem but as South Africa's problem because those people will be jeopardizing a process in which all of us feel that we have the right to participate in and want to happen. And they will be saying we are cutting you off.

. The violence now, and again I hope we have time to talk about it later, but the violence now is the result I think of two things. My understanding of the situation is that if I look at the pattern of violence in Natal, in Port Elizabeth and now in the Transvaal, especially Port Elizabeth and in the Transvaal, and how all of a sudden just after the ceasefire there is violence in places where up to now we have not even expected any violence, Port Elizabeth where the violence has started as a result of deliberate police action after a peaceful march on that Monday, police getting 3000 people after the peaceful march was over and after the memorandum was handed over to the Municipality and the people got back into the soccer field and they were just waiting for the report-back of those people who went to talk to the Municipality, the police come, block off two of the exits, then tell people now you've got five minutes to disperse and then start shooting tear gas. That is deliberate provocation. On the very day, not just before, on the very day that Mandela and the ANC and FW were talking in Pretoria and the violence actually escalates when the ceasefire is announced.

. My reading of that situation and what happened subsequently is that there are elements in the police who want this process to fail, who want de Klerk and Mandela to look bad, who want the world to say that Mandela cannot control his people on the ground even though he has announced a ceasefire. There is to much coincidence here for me to understand that any differently. And the second problem here is that I think it is not, again by accident or coincidental, that the violence now flares up between Zulus and Xhosas, who have been working together in the Transvaal for years where they have not been any clashes like this. I think Gatsha Buthelezi is deliberately fanning the violence and his message to both de Klerk and Mandela is - give me recognition. If you exclude him from this process this is how it will go. [And he's got what he want works.]

POM. Do you think he is orchestrating this himself, that it is part of a plan that he has presided over and more or less implemented or given the broad instructions, something happening which he gains from?

AB. I don't think he was sitting there waiting for something to happen. I think he, I mean it sounds like conspiracy theory and I'm always a little bit scared of that, but sometimes it is closer to the truth than we think. This is too sudden. And in a sense I think that he has made up his mind. If I am not included I will use my people to force them. This has happened before in Natal. He has told at one point a delegation of the South African Council of Churches that what he wants, when these asked him to please talk to your people, let the violence in Natal cease, "What I want is for you to arrange that I see Oliver Tambo." That is what he wants. He wants political recognition as a national leader.

POM. Do you think Mandela should meet with him?

AB. I suppose it is now neither here nor there because the problem is not with Mandela, here I blame de Klerk. If the South African government stops thinking in ethnic terms, in oh my goodness we've got to have Gatsha Buthelezi there because he represents six million Zulus. Number one, it isn't really true and number two it's a dangerous reasoning because if de Klerk applies the same criteria to Gatsha Buthelezi that he applies to the ANC and everybody else, look if you engage in violence you won't get to the table. If he tells that to Gatsha today the violence will stop. Gatsha works on the assumption, it is a correct assumption, that de Klerk wants him there, that de Klerk needs him there. That if there is going to be an alliance it will not be between the ANC and the government but between the government and Inkatha. He works on the assumption that most of white South Africa wants him there so it is a correct assumption. He works on the assumption that white business in South Africa wants him there and it is a correct assumption. He may even be correct in his assumption that most of the leaders in the west want him there. And that is why they will all tolerate this nonsense to allow him to force his way into the negotiating process.

. I would have said he should be told, "If you engage in violence you will be excluded and we will tell you so. The only way to get there is to go to whoever your constituency is and let them elect you" Because you see, and this is something they are going to regret, this inclusion of Gatsha Buthelezi, because tomorrow. If the PAC wants to go this route or somebody else wants to go this route, there will be no reason to tell them this is not the way to do it. That is my feeling. I feel rather strongly about this because not only that people's lives are at stake but to me this jeopardises this whole negotiating process and it undermines people's confidence in those who are the key players in this and it is wrong. If there is one thing that we need now, now at this stage in South Africa, it is to build the people's confidence in a process of peaceful negotiation so that they will believe that it can actually work. What they are doing now is they are taking them back to the days where people were saying "the only way to do it is by the gun".

POM. Thank you.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.