Jean-Jacques Cornish

Don’t shoot the pragmatist

The nation’s flags fall to half staff today as South Africa begins a four-day official mourning period for its last white leader F.W. de Klerk.

President Cyril Ramaphosa calls this a mark of respect for a predecessor.

A State memorial service for de Klerk will be held a date to be determined.

The former president’s family has opted to have the 86-year-old cremated after a small funeral service for family on Sunday.

It is a wise decision given the mixed feelings expressed since de Klerk died of lung cancer last Thursday.

There are those who say he does not deserve any honour because of his active involvement in the apartheid system.

His unqualified apology,  recorded near his demise, to those hurt by apartheid would indicate that he was regretful about this.

His critics say he released Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and unbanned the African National Congress and other political parties because he had to.

No-one has suggested that de Klerk acted altruistically at the time.

He realised, as previous leaders of the National Party must have done, that the system was untenable.

By the time he took the helm of the ruling party, the Soviet empire had fallen and the game was up for the apartheid system that was only allowed to survive as a Cold War bastion against Soviet imperialism at the foot of Africa.

In short, his was a classic piece of pragmatism.

If one is to castigate a politician for pragmatism, there would be virtually no public representatives – proud exponents of the art of the possible – left to admire.

De Klerk’s move was indisputably a courageous one. It spelled the end for himself as leader and his party as the instance of power.

Happily, this was realized by leaders at home and abroad. 

It was why he got to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela.

That the overwhelming majority of black South Africans retain a sense of suspicion, not to say bitterness, is hardly surprising.

Where would one hear open appreciation of any system universally and rightly denounced as a crime against humanity?

However De Klerk’s role in dealing a fatal blow to that system is self evident.

The ANC is right: “De Klerk’s legacy is a big one. It is also an uneven one, something South Africans are called to reckon with at this moment.”

The sooner we get around to this, the better we will be able to move on.

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.