Since the Nobel Peace Prize was invented in 1901 there have been fifteen occasions, years of world war or ethical drought, in which they didn’t give it to anyone. The custom should have been repeated more.
For example, the Oslo committee of sages could have passed from Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state of Richard Nixon who was awarded the award the same year he blessed the bombing of Cambodia, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. The good Norwegians must today regret having given it to Aung San Suu Kyi, the apparently Blessed Burmese whose government later launched an extermination campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
There is also Barack Obama. Compared to his successor is Jupiter, Aristotle and Mother Teresa of Calcutta but during the eight years of his presidency not only did he not make peace anywhere but his drones killed thousands of innocent Muslims.
Another Nobel recipient, one who died this week, sparked controversy at the time. Frederik de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, shared the award in 1993 with Nelson Mandela. Mandela didn’t like it at all. I usually think that Mandela’s opinion goes to mass. Not in this case.
In 1993 Mandela and De Klerk received the shared Nobel Peace Prize.
Well, it’s easier for me. De Klerk was a committed member and later minister of government and president of the party that invented apartheid and kept Mandela in jail for 27 years. On the other hand, Mandela ended up having excellent relationships with characters who had more blood on their hands than De Klerk, such as his predecessor PW Botha (known as “the great crocodile”), as the last head of the apartheid intelligence services or as the general who commanded the armed forces during six years of harsh repression in the 1980s.
Mandela became friends with all three. He had the enormous wisdom and generosity to intuit that if he had been born white in South Africa in the first half of the 20th century, it is most likely that he would also have been a defender of institutional racism.
But he made an exception for De Klerk. He couldn’t extend the same generosity to her. I even think that he came to despise him, a feeling we usually associate with Mandela (he came to hate his second wife, Winnie, but that’s another issue). The difference is perhaps that he knew de Klerk much better than any other member of the white state apparatus. He saw in him a mean soul, curious at first glance since De Klerk was the head of government who freed him from jail in 1990 and ended 30 years of banning the African National Congress.
I think he despised his former partner and rival in the transition to democracy mainly for one reason. He felt that De Klerk accomplished his task not out of moral conviction but because when he became president he found a dialogue process too on track to back down. International pressure was overwhelming to end for once a system of racial discrimination (the black majority could not vote) defined by the United Nations as “A crime against humanity”.
De Klerk did not convince Mandela as a person either. Mandela admired strong leaders and in De Klerk he saw a people’s lawyer (originally he was) who lacked greatness. De Klerk negotiated the end of apartheid initially thinking that he would succeed in forging a new constitution that would give special privileges to whites (he failed) and with little apparent awareness that apartheid had been a monstrous sin against his fervent Christian faith.
There was also something that angered Mandela. During the four years of dialogue, 1990 to 1994, between his party and the De Klerk government more black people died as a result of political violence than in the rest of the 20th century. The attackers were from the right-wing black party, Inkatha, whose leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi is by far the most vile character I have come across in the 60 countries where I have worked as a journalist. But Inkatha’s violence was directed by sinister elements of the white security apparatus.
Mandela called on De Klerk to act to stop the massacres but he did not want or could not. What made Mandela explode in anger at De Klerk in repeated private meetings was the conviction that if the victims had been white, he would have intervened.
They were never friends, not even after when they both retired. But in time De Klerk began to admit that he had erred. As an act of atonement, he began the curious custom of writing letters to Mandela after his death. In one of them he confessed that his decision to embark on the transformation of South Africa was not the result “of a conversion on the road to Damascus.” “It was a slow, gradual and painful process,” he wrote. But do not hesitate, he insisted to his imaginary interlocutor, yes, categorically yes, the day came when he understood that apartheid had been unjust and immoral.
I want to think that if Mandela had been able to read those letters, his heart would have softened. And even more if he had been able to see the extraordinary video that De Klerk recorded as the final political act of his life, made public on Thursday, hours after his death. As if addressing Mandela, or perhaps his God, De Klerk said: “I am often accused by critics that I continued to justify apartheid … I unreservedly apologize for the pain and suffering and the indignity and harm that apartheid caused to blacks, brunettes and Hindus in South Africa.”
Mandela would have applauded him and perhaps finally recognized that De Klerk did deserve the Nobel. On the one hand, because he deserved it much more than others who received it, but above all because he would have remembered again that all of us – De Klerk, himself, you the readers, me – are complicated and, in the vast majority, more good than bad.
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We are all more good than bad