When former South African president F.W. de Klerk came to speak to the Saint Louis University community on February 13, more than half the audience of about 50 people wore red in protest of de Klerk’s presence on campus.
“Bringing him here during Black History Month is like bringing Hitler to a Jewish ceremony,” said SLU senior Brian Barlay, who is from Sierra Leone and studied abroad in South Africa in 2017. “That’s exactly how the African and black kids feel. Because this is supposed to be a month of remembering. Him and his regime did a lot to South Africans. They displaced families, slaughtered people.”
The Great Issues Committee (GIC) — a student-run organization funded by annual student fees — hosted de Klerk. The group touted him as a Nobel Peace Prize winner who worked with Nelson Mandela to end apartheid during his time as South African president from 1989 to 1994. However, Barlay said the organizers did not do enough research.
Between 1990 and 1993, nearly 12,000 civilians were killed and 20,000 were injured as part of the government’s effort to squash anti-apartheid activists, including several major massacres, according to a statement submitted to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the African National Congress.
“In the few short years in which De Klerk had been in power, more civilians had been murdered than in all the previous decades of apartheid rule,” the African National Congress stated.
The Human Rights Commission recorded an accelerating pace of assassinations of anti-apartheid figures: 28 in 1990, 60 in 1991, and 97 in 1992, according to the statement.
After learning about de Klerk’s speaking event, Barlay and his roommate from Ivory Coast met with members of GIC on February 7 and asked them to cancel the event. The student organizers said they couldn’t because of a contractual obligation and they would lose money if they canceled. A university spokeswoman said she could not provide the amount de Klerk received to speak. However, according to some entertainment firms that book de Klerk, he is paid upwards of $12,000. His speech was focused on globalization.
“Imagine if we brought Kim Jong-un (supreme leader of North Korea),” Barlay said. “People say, ‘Let’s hear him speak. Let’s have an open dialogue.’ For you, if you don’t belong to the community, it’s okay for you to have an open dialogue. But the people who belong to that community, how do you think they would feel?’’
Barlay said his roommate didn’t sleep the days before de Klerk’s arrival.
The American requested comment from the university president and has not yet received one. A SLU spokeswoman said, “Because we recognize the harm experienced by members of our community, we are moving forward now to work with students, faculty and staff to do some restorative justice work.”
Barlay said no one has reached out to him or the black student organizations yet. The American also requested a comment from the event organizers and did not receive a response.
The event was free, but students had to check their bags and purses and present student IDs to enter. Press was not allowed inside.
Barlay said that instead of trying to protest outside the event, they decided to ask questions that would discredit de Klerk. Members of the Society of African-American Studies and the Black Student Alliance participated in the protest.
A livestream by a SLU student shows that de Klerk ended his globalization speech saying, “The greatness of the United States does not lie in the strength of its Army, its Navy or its Air Force. It lies in the values and ideals of personal political and economic freedom.”
The first question the moderator asked de Klerk came from a list that the protestors had submitted ahead of time. The question stemmed from de Klerk’s 2012 interview with British-Iranian journalist Christiane Amanpour, where she pressed de Klerk on why he’s never renounced the idea of apartheid.
When Amanpour asked de Klerk if he thought the idea of apartheid was “morally repugnant,” he responded, “I can only say that in a qualified way. In as much as it trampled human rights, it was and remains morally indefensible. But the concept — as the Czechs and Slovaks have it now — of saying that ethnic unities with one culture and one language can be happy and can fulfill their democratic aspirations in their own state, that is not repugnant.”
Amanpour countered that the concept was based on disenfranchising the black population in South Africa economically and educationally. De Klerk refuted the idea that they were disenfranchised because they could vote.
At the SLU event, the moderator asked de Klerk if he still felt the same way as he did in 2012, that apartheid was a reasonable system.
“I apologized profusely for the pain and the suffering and the indignity that apartheid has caused,” de Klerk stated at SLU. “I did so in the 1990s after when Mandela became president. I admitted apartheid was wrong.”
However, he went on to say, “It was not as if nothing good happened during apartheid.”
He said that new schools and universities were built in the Homelands, the areas established under apartheid for the various tribes to live. Legislation passed under apartheid allocated 87 percent of the land to white South Africans, though they only represented less than 10 percent of the population. About 3.5 million Africans were forcefully displaced from their native land between 1960 and 1989.
The protestors also submitted a question asking about de Klerk’s relationship with two men known as “Prime Evil” and “Doctor Death.” Eugene De Kock (aka Prime Evil) was the commander of the South African Police’s counter-insurgency unit that kidnapped, tortured and murdered anti-apartheid activists from the 1980s to early 1990s and was sentenced to 212 years in prison (but was released on parole in 2015). Wouter Basson (aka Doctor Death) headed an apartheid-era germ warfare program that allegedly experimented on many black prisoners but was never convicted of any crimes.
The protestors’ question was: “When they testified under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they claimed that they received direct orders from you. What would you say to that confession?”
De Klerk responded, “It’s not true… There were bad people. I was never part, never part. They couldn’t find any evidence because no evidence exists. I was never part of any policy or decision to say it’s okay to do gross violations of human rights.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the human rights violations under apartheid and released a report in October 1998. In the report, the commission stated that de Klerk’s appearance before the commission was a “particular disappointment.”
“As one who had done so much to turn the tide of South African history, his evasiveness and unwillingness candidly to acknowledge the full burden of the National Party’s responsibility seemed to the commission to be a missed opportunity to take the reconciliation process forward,” the report stated.
The commission also found that de Klerk withheld information from the commission regarding his knowledge that his predecessor, Pieter Willem Botha, authorized the bombing of the South African Council of Churches’ headquarters, where anti-apartheid activists were seeking refuge. The commission found de Klerk to be an accessory to this gross human rights violation, while acting as a minister under Botha.
The report also included a statement from de Kock saying that he couldn’t prove that de Klerk ordered certain deaths or raids, but de Klerk did condone the actions of the security forces.
At the end of the SLU event, the protestors asked the organizers why they brought de Klerk to campus during Black History Month.
“There was obviously a lot that we didn’t know,” one GIC member said.
The protestors asked about the racial makeup of the Great Issues Committee, which is comprised of 15 students who applied and were selected to be part of the group.
Committee leader Peyton Richardson said, “It is a problem, and we do need more diversity in our group. It is a primarily white group.”