South Africa: film profiles last apartheid leader

Associated PressJuly 17, 2014 

— He was South Africa's last white president, overshadowed by Nelson Mandela when they plotted the historic transition to a multi-racial democracy for which both men won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Today, F.W. de Klerk is a distant figure for many South Africans who see his legacy as mixed.

A new documentary focuses on the man who teamed with Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who spent 27 years in prison before replacing de Klerk as president, to end white minority rule and defuse fears of racial war. Despite this achievement, de Klerk's record is clouded by accusations that he bears at least moral responsibility for torture and killings blamed on the white-led government before it gave up power.

"He's this guy who got this most prestigious prize and he's not really even known, not really talked about in South Africa. Or if he is, it's not always in good terms," said Nicolas Rossier, the American director of "The Other Man: F.W. de Klerk and the End of Apartheid in South Africa."

Rossier's 75-minute film premiers Saturday at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa. Even then, the monumental figure of Mandela, who died in December at the age of 95, will be in the spotlight. Another film, "Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me," will be screened Friday, Mandela's birthday and an occasion for South Africans to honor him with charitable acts.

De Klerk, who was applauded by the crowd at Mandela's memorial service in a Johannesburg stadium, is often praised for his role in a spectacular turnaround in his country's fortunes but criticized for what some victims of apartheid saw as a failure to take full responsibility for his government's wrongdoing. Did he apologize enough? Was he forced to act by events beyond his control, or was he a pioneer guiding the sweep of history?

De Klerk is a "a different type of hero" who didn't struggle or have the charisma of Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists but drew on his own pragmatism and legal mind to help steer South Africa into a new era, Rossier said.

"He's a great example to study — the motivation, the politics of it is another question," said the Geneva-born filmmaker, who first visited South Africa in 1992. He has also made documentaries on Norman Finkelstein, an American scholar criticized by some as being anti-Semitic, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Haitian president who was forced from power twice.

De Klerk stunned the world and his own political base when he released Mandela and other prisoners and lifted bans on underground groups fighting his own government. The documentary traces his close, sometimes testy ties with Mandela, and his disputed declarations that he was not complicit in state-sanctioned killings or alleged efforts by security forces to stir factional fighting.

It includes interviews with Thabo Mbeki, another former president, Roelf Meyer, a key negotiator for the apartheid government and Albie Sachs, an anti-apartheid activist who was injured by a bomb and later became a judge on South Africa's Constitutional Court.

A decade ago, de Klerk started a non-profit group of former international leaders, and he presides over a foundation that promotes South Africa's post-apartheid constitution and shows a photo of de Klerk and the Dalai Lama on its website. De Klerk travels internationally, including upcoming trips to Australia and Europe, and will join a gathering of Nobel peace laureates in Cape Town in October, his office said.

In recent statements, De Klerk's foundation hinted at disagreement with a government decision to deny parole to Eugene de Kock, the jailed former head of a covert police unit that killed activists during apartheid, and praised Nadine Gordimer, a South African author and Nobel laureate who died Sunday, as a prominent critic of apartheid and a defender of press freedom.

South African humorists have targeted de Klerk as out of date. A puppet show depicted him wrapped in cobwebs, and Chester Missing, a satirical television character, compared the Nobel award to "giving a carjacker a prize because he stopped stealing cars."

On camera, Rossier asks de Klerk about comparisons to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who relaxed communist controls. De Klerk says he took things further than the Russian: "I said apartheid was wrong and took the lead in abolishing apartheid totally."

De Klerk's office said he had not seen the new documentary, and that the former president had cut back on press interviews a year ago. Rossier said de Klerk was initially suspicious, but grew more open and confident as their relationship developed.

De Klerk's story, the filmmaker said, teaches that "it's never too late to do the right thing."

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