Wednesday, February 29, 2012

De Klerk Visits Portland

Today on the extra day we get once every four years was made memorable by the visit of F. W. de Klerk to Portland, Oregon. This is a big visit by an international public figure / statesman. In fact, Mayor Sam Adams of Portland signed a proclamation making today "F W de Klerk Day" in Portland. De Klerk was the last white president of South Africa. He was the National Party leader who released Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990 and oversaw the handing over of power to the African National Congress in the historic 1994 elections that made Nelson Mandela the most famous "prisoner-to-president" in history.

In the 1990s, I often thought of de Klerk as the political brother of Mikhail Gorbachev. Not only do they look similar, as though they really could be brothers from the same mother, but also, both men saw the transformation of their countries based upon reform measures they introduced, which swept both men out of power. Interesting enough, the collapse of communism as a viable political and economic system made it much easier for the apartheid government of South Africa to dismantle their system of racial discrimination and allow Africans to have a say in the politics of their nation. Previous presidents in South Africa (notably P W Botha) have used the spectre of communism to maintain the National Party's dominance of politics during the apartheid era.

De Klerk's visit to Portland is a rare treat and he had a full day scheduled, from speaking at a school, to facing a panel for a discussion at a college, to a lecture at a Congregational Church downtown, to an expensive fundraising dinner at a hotel. When someone of this stature comes to Portland, I have to go...even if it costs me $20 for the privilege. So, to the Congregational Church I went. There were security around, including a Portland Police presence, as well as de Klerk's own security team. I had no idea that he needed protection. Most Americans probably have no idea who he is and those who do are interested in politics.

What I noticed during his speech is that his speaking style isn't charismatic. He's kind of dry. Mandela has the same problem. De Klerk spoke about the decision to work with Mandela and the ANC at the tail end of the 1980s and early 1990s because the Afrikaners realized that the country was sitting on a huge timebomb. The biggest fear was an armed revolution and by meeting with Mandela for talks, the National Party realized that they would never have a better deal if they waited any longer. Though de Klerk did not speak about Mandela much (there is no love between the two men, even though they were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994), it was interesting that he acknowledged the collapse of communism as a sign that it was time to negotiate the future of their country with the banned political party that was often accused of being communist-led.

De Klerk grabbed my attention when he spoke against "isms", which I've never heard any politician say. I was pleasantly surprised by that, because a character in my unpublished novel has a riff where he makes fun of "isms." I agree that any "ism" is a problem. As de Klerk mentioned, "ism" means that ideology becomes more important than people. Once you accept an ideology, it is hard to change. And de Klerk included capitalism in his condemnation of "isms." Good for him to speak so honestly! He is definitely among the statesmen of the world and like Gorbachev, a man beyond nationality.

After his lecture was a Q & A segment in which he answered some written questions by people in the audience. I did not submit a question because I couldn't think of any. In some of his answers, he showed himself to be a true politician: optimistic in the face of serious problems. For example, he denied that South Africa continues to be dangerous to the point where young white people are considering emigrating. He seems to believe that the country is getting safer for ex-patriot South Africans to return and for those growing up in the country to stay. He also, somewhat surprisingly, did not condemn Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe. He said that Mugabe still has some "good will" in the world because of his leadership in leading Zimbabwe out of its white minority government during the days when the country was known as Rhodesia. It sounds like the world is simply waiting for Mugabe to conveniently die so that Zimbabwe can return to the good graces of the international community.

The best question someone asked was about the accuracy of the film Invictus. De Klerk verified that the film was close to the truth and he used that question to offer a rare praise of Mandela for having the foresight to use the World Cup Rugby to unite the country in pride around the home team (black South Africans cheered against the Springboks during the apartheid era because Rugby was considered the sport of the Afrikaners while soccer / football was the sport of the Africans).

All in all, it was a good lecture and great to finally see an international statesman in person. So glad that he came to Portland for a visit. Interesting enough, I knew exactly what he was going to say at the beginning of his speech. I have no idea how I knew what he was going to say, but when he did, I got chills all over my body. He said: "Thank you for the warm reception on such a cold and rainy day."

On this extra day of the year, I hope you had a Happy F W de Klerk Day! May it be a day of forgiveness and building trust for the good of the future.

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