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Understanding de Klerk, Party Man With a Twist

John F. Burns, "Understanding de Klerk, Party Man With a Twist", Special to The New York Times (Cape Town, March 31).

Before F. W. de Klerk was chosen to succeed P. W. Botha as President, he was asked if he would be the Mikhail S. Gorbachev of South Africa, a loyal party man who overturns much that the party once
held inviolable. Mr. de Klerk had a quick reply: “The only thing Gorbachev and I have in common is this!” he said, slapping the top of his head.

Three years later, there is more than baldness to support comparisons between the two leaders. Like President Gorbachev, President de Klerk has freed men previously vilified as traitors, declared past policies bankrupt and begun a process of change that has outraged party conservatives.

Also like Mr. Gorbachev, who has shown some of the old Kremlin reflexes in his recent actions in Lithuania, Mr de Klerk has perplexed supporters and opponents alike, who wonder where he will call a halt to the scrapping of old policies. While the South African leader has said he believes in an “equal vote” for blacks and whites and a system that eliminates racial discrimination, he has been purposefully vague about the details of the “new South Africa” that the Government has said it wants in place within five years.

Pragmatic Cast of Mind

Mr. de Klerk’s broad formula acknowledges that he considers apartheid a dead-end street and that majority rule in some form is inevitable, But Mr. de Klerk has left no doubt, either, that he will strive to protect what the five million whites here have built up in the 350 years since the first settlers arrived, including their property rights and their right to control their own residential communities and schools.

While Nelson Mandela and other black leaders have said that Mr. de Klerk’s vision appears to encompass
limitations on black political authority that they could not accept, many South Africans who favor far-reaching political change say they believe that the real hope for the future may lie not in Mr. de Klerk’s current pronouncements but in his probing, pragmatic cast of mind and an instinct to reach out for new solutions.

‘He realized that you get nowhere if you don’t have a following.’

Mr. de Klerk’s associates say those traits are allied to a profound religious commitment to ideals of justice that sets him apart from his predecessors.

The leaders of the National Party before Mr. de Klerk belonged to the main wing of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist body that lent such powerful theological backing to apartheid that it became known as “The National Party at Prayer.” Mr. de Klerk is a member of the small Dopper church, a 19th-century breakaway that insisted on the separation of church and state, and, partly for that reason, avoided sanctoning the official racial doctrines.

‘Dialogue Is God’s Style’

While Mr. de Klerk makes little public show of his faith, his thinking on political matters has apparently been powerfully influenced by Dopper teachings, especially those taken from the New Testament. Meeting with Afrikaner church ministers in January, Mr. de Klerk traced his hopes for negotiations with black leaders to Dopper tenets about the need for believers to seek justice and reconciliation. According to the Rev. Pieter W. Bingle, Mr. de Klerk’s Cape Town minister, the President put it simply. “Dialogue is God’s style,” he said.

That belief in breaching differences through discussion appears to have converged with a politician’s caution to persuade Mr. de Klerk that, for now at least, it is better not to draw blueprints of the new political system he will attempt to negotiate.

Officials close to Mr. de Klerk say the President will be flexible about matters that the National
Party seemed set on as recently as September, when it won a bitterly contested election.

Among those matters, the officials said, is whether a new constitution should provide for separate, racially defined voters’ rolls resulting in a Parliament composed of racial blocs, as the National Party suggested in its September campaign, or whether the protection for whites that Mr. de Klerk has
demanded can be achieved in other ways.

Under pressure from the right-wing Conservative Party in Parliament earlier this month, Gerrit van N. Viljoen, Minister for Constitutional Affairs, said the Government would hold out for separate voters’ rolls.

But at other times Mr. Viljoen has sounded as though
the Government might accept Mr. Mandela’s demand for a single voters’ roll that is blind to race in return for other mechanisms like voting procedures that would give white members of Parliament, perhaps in conjunction with members from other minority groups, an effective veto on issues like property and education rights.

A few years ago, not many in the National Party would have bet on Mr. de Klerk leading the party to change. As a
member of President P. W. Botha’s Cabinet for 11 years, and of B. J. Vorster’s Administration before that, he sometimes sided with racial hard-liners.

Afrikaans-language newspapers recently identified Mr. de Klerk as one of two Cabinet ministers who went to President Botha in 1986 and demanded that the Foreign Minister, Roelof F. Botha, be ordered to recant a prediction that South Africa might one day have a black president. The Foreign Minister complied.

De Klerk’s Political Shifts

But the story is recounted these days to show that Mr. de Klerk, then leader of the National Party in
Transvaal Province, was a canny politician, aware that to have any chance of leading South Africa away from apartheid he would first have to consolidate his position with the powerful conservative
wing of the National Party.

“He realized that you get nowhere if you don’t have a following, that you have to be able to take the people with you,” said Ebbe Dommisse, editor of Die Burger, a Cape Town newspaper with close links to the Government.

More recently, the setbacks for Communism in Eastern Europe is said to have a profound effect on Mr. de Klerk’s thinking. The President acknowledged as much in his speech to Parliament on Feb. 2, when he announced the legalization of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, among other anti-apartheid groups.

He implied that the decline of Stalinist Communism in Eastern Europe had encouraged the Government to move toward negotiations with groups like the African National Congress that have relied strongly for financial support and military training on the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies.

‘Dialogue is God’s style,’ the South African leader has said.

But according to a senior Cabinet minister, there was another lesson Mr. de Klerk took from Eastern Europe, that battalions of soldiers and police officers cannot sustain an unpopular political system indefinitely.

Facing the Hard-Liners

The lesson was one Mr. de Klerk took to a meeting in December with the country’s top 500 police commanders, many of whom were skeptical of moves to dismantle apartheid. Mr. de Klerk offered a grim picture of the alternative to a settlement with blacks. “Even if the blood flows ankle deep in our streets and four or five million people have been shot dead,” he said, “the problem will be just as great as before we began shooting.”

Roelof P. Meyer, the Deputy Minister for Constitutional Affairs, said that that realization fortified Mr. de Klerk in the face of the wrath of racial hardliners.

“The President has come to the conclusion that we have to do something about our situation, that we cannot go on with conflict indefinitely,” Mr. Meyer said. “This means that we have to go for political reconciliation, and that we cannot wait for the support of all whites, because if we do, we will have to wait years, indefinitely even, and in the meantime we will lose the country.”