Reporting on President Jacob Zuma’s landslide re-election as leader of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) on Tuesday, the BBC sought the opinion of former apartheid ruler F. W. de Klerk. He told the BBC that “… a significant proportion of the South African population were unhappy with Mr Zuma.” It then quotes the former dictator as saying “If the head of state loses the respect, I think that person loses the capacity to govern effectively. I think it would be in the best interest of South Africa if there can be a change of leadership in the ANC.” Who cares what de Klerk thinks about Zuma?
Does he represent any constituency in South Africa? Does he have any moral authority to comment on the democratic process within the ANC itself and South Africa as a whole? Did his National Party tolerate Africans expressing their opinions about politics to the international media during the apartheid era? What chutzpah.
Unlike Zuma, De Klerk never stood for office in a democratic election. Unlike Zuma, De Klerk never received the mandate of the overwhelming majority of South Africans. Unlike Zuma, de Klerk was never subject to any popular verdict of his leadership via a follow-up election. De Klerk owes his position as a former head of state to a totalitarian, racist system that through violence guaranteed rights and protections to a minority at the expense of an exploited and oppressed majority.
Why does the BBC think De Klerk’s so-called analysis is worthy? In the dominant liberal historical discourse–which a global news organization like the BBC unfortunately has fallen prey to–De Klerk is usually portrayed as a brave figure: that he had extended a hand to the ANC, negotiated the end of Apartheid, and that he was rightly was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Nelson Mandela). The facts were, however, that de Klerk had no choice but to sit down with South Africa’s liberation leaders; that the South African army was decisively defeated by the Cubans in Angola; that sanctions against his nation were crippling the economy; that the popular struggle against apartheid could not be crushed by force; and that right before he left for Oslo to receive the Nobel in 1993, de Klerk okayed a raid by a state-sanctioned death squad that killed five children in the then Transkei—hardly if ever enter into this historic revisionism.
What do South Africans think of De Klerk? Do they value his opinion? In particular, do they care what he has to say about their elected President? The short answer is de Klerk is irrelevant to South Africans today.
The BBC would have been better suited to interview Thabo Mbeki or Nelson Mandela, since they have had experience of governing a democracy in South Africa. Or they could have asked one of Zuma’s former cabinet ministers or a senior civil servant. Whatever you make of Zuma (and at AIAC many of us have a dim view of Zuma’s performance as president), both Mandela and Mbeki have repeatedly demonstrated their unreserved support of Zuma. Perhaps that is why the BBC has to call up an apartheid-era ruler for a quote?
But this is not the first time the BBC chose to go with de Klerk. In August the BBC’s Africa desk scheduled a “debate on reconciliation” in South Africa. While it’s their prerogative to do so, it wasn’t clear at the time why they chose to do so. In a post announcing the debate, the BBC decided to use de Klerk as an analyst of sorts (along with someone from the equally problematic South African Institute of Race Relations). This was soon after de Klerk told Christiane Amanpour on CNN that Apartheid had been beneficial to its black victims. Like now, we took the BBC to task on Twitter. You can read that exchange here.