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The deceased leaders of Southern Africa: heroes, populists or villains?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2022

The past few months have seen the deaths of two key leaders in South Africa.  The first was relatively low key, and his achievements were subject to mixed acclamation.  The second death was highly publicised, with the man's life feted almost to the point of beatification.

The first death, on 11 November, was that of Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president.  He was a former supporter of apartheid, who eventually worked with Nelson Mandela to end it, and pave the way for multi-racial democracy.  He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993, though popular opinion overwhelmingly rated him the less venerated of the two.

Public opinion has always been lukewarm about de Klerk.  For liberals, he remained tainted by his former support for apartheid and white minority rule.  Many conservative white South Africans, on the other hand, accused him of having been intimidated into submission by sanctions, township violence, and global unpopularity/isolation (though the 1992 referendum to lift apartheid saw 68.7 per cent support from whites).  De Klerk effectively handed over power to the African National Congress (ANC) but not before he dismantled South Africa's nuclear weapons.


The second death (barely 6 weeks after de Klerk) was that of (former Archbishop) Desmond Tutu.  The tributes to Tutu have been unceasing and unrestrained.  Like Mandela, the man's sincerity, idealism, and (in his own case) gushing warmth seem beyond question.

While the character and public image of leaders is important to our assessment of them, more important is their enduring legacy.  In particular there is the issue of whether the changes they helped make will bring a lasting improvement in the living conditions of their fellow citizens.  This is particularly pertinent to South Africa, which is now widely regarded as following Zimbabwe's path towards becoming a failed state.

Effectively, while apartheid had no redeeming features, it would appear that bringing about instant black majority rule virtually guaranteed an eventual descent into corruption and a failed state.  This is a major reason for the departure of many white South Africans and Zimbabweans (who could see the writing on the wall) to places like Australia.

Here is my take on the milestone politicians of Southern Africa in the post-colonial era  We should begin with some context about differences between the former Rhodesia, and South Africa.

Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa had quite different political histories, especially in regard to how minority white rule was maintained.  Such rule only became a big issue because (in Africa) white colonialism never swamped the native population in the same way as occurred in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina etc.

South Africa's white population accounted for 22.7 per cent of the national population in 1911 with the proportion declining to 7.6 per cent by 2019 (largely due to high black fertility and immigration, and white emigration).  The white population of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe on the other hand was never more than 8 per cent (mid 1970s) and declined to less than 1 per cent since.  In 1891 only about 1,500 Europeans resided there.


White settlement in South Africa began as early as 1652, when Cape Town developed as a supply centre for the East Indies trade.  The (Afrikaner dominated) National Party imposed apartheid in 1948, institutionalising previous racial segregation.  Under apartheid, blacks could not vote.  In theory they belonged (and had their citizenship assigned) to one of ten 'homelands' and required a pass to live in South Africa proper.

(Southern) Rhodesiaon the other hand was colonised much later and, in 1923, was annexed by Britain.  In 1953, it was merged into the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.  Zambia and Nyasaland (Malawi) became independent in 1964 but independence (without immediate majority rule) was denied to Southern Rhodesia.  Its government, led by Ian Smith, issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965 and established Rhodesia.  "The mantle of the pioneers has fallen on our shoulders," Smith said, calling on white Rhodesians to maintain standards in a "primitive country".

Some regarded the white culture in Rhodesia as paternalistic (and not merely exploitative), with many whites raised to "look after" black Africans while at the same time keeping them at arm's length.  Certain businesses (especially in Tribal Trust Lands) were reserved only for blacks, who were also exempt from national service.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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