Laudatio uitgesproken door prof. dr. Robert Dejaegere, rector
For the last few years, and probably not by accident since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new wave of democratization has rolled through the world. In many countries the political leaders and the people are trying to change regimes into genuine democratic systems. For some of these countries this is a first attempt, for others it is a second or third one, after having experienced huge difficulties in keeping previous democratic attempts alive. This should make us aware of the fact that democracy is not an easy game to play, and that the battle for democracy is never definitely won. Even the so-called old and traditional democracies (and old means here then merely one century) have gone through major disruptive crises, and are confronted today with a growing distrust of the governing elites by the governed people, a distrust that damages democracy in its heart and soul.
One of such countries trying to move towards a new or a better democracy, is the Republic of South Africa. It is a special case. It not only has a non-democratic history, but the denial of democracy was, moreover, based on the denial of one of its most fundamental principles: the freedom and equality of people. Without the acceptance of this value of human dignity, democracy cannot live, democracy cannot even be born.
This not-so-glorious history of South Africa makes the process of democratization a very difficult and often painful one. South Africa is, was and will be a country in which many different cultures, many different kinds of people, with different languages and traditions and different religious beliefs will have to live on the same territory, on the territory that they all see as the South Africa to which they wish to belong.
Both history and ongoing political events have shown so many times that democracy easily gets into trouble when it has to deal with too many and too acute differences. Democracy is the best system for giving rise to and expressing demands. But democracy is often bad at satisfying these, especially when there are too many different demands at the same time. Yet this is exactly what is made possible by democracy itself.
If democracy is to survive, those responsible for it – both the leaders and the people – should be very much aware of this potentially self-destructive power that democracy unleashes. The more a democratic regime has to deal with large differences between subgroups of the population, the more it needs to bridge the gaps between the subgroups in order to search for solutions that can satisfy to a certain extent the needs of the largest possible fraction of the population. And if society is indeed divided into visible subgroups, it is a good idea to build into the processes of decision-making the obligation to listen to all these subgroups, and to take their demands into account.
To combine the freedom of choice with both the capacity to integrate choices into a balanced compromise and the capacity to make this compromise acceptable is the central challenge of democracy. It is a challenge for all democratic regimes, but harder to meet in countries with little or no democratic experience and with a history of long-lasting and deep cleavages that have created huge but still unfulfilled expectations.
Without careful leaders, without leaders who are fully aware of the subtle political balance that a democracy needs, democracy cannot survive.
The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is convinced that, with President De Klerk and Nelson Mandela, South Africa has two such leaders.
Frederik Willem De Klerk was born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936, in a political family: his great-grandfather was a senator, his grandfather stood twice for parliament and his father held the Presidency of the Senate until his retirement in 1976.
He studied at the Law Faculty of Potchefstroom University, where he graduated in 1958. He practised as an attorney from 1961-72. In 1972, he was appointed to the Chair of Administrative Law at Potchefstroom University and was elected to Parliament the same year.
He entered the Cabinet in 1978, where he held several portfolios consecutively. In September 1984 he became Minister of Home Affairs and National Education. He was elected as leader of the National Party in 1989 and became State President of South Africa in September of that same year. President De Klerk immediately started his attempts to change South African society and the South African Regime.
In October 1989 he released 8 long-term political prisoners, including Walter Sisulu, former Secretary General of the ANC. At the opening of Parliament on 2 February 1990, President De Klerk announced the end of the ban on the African National Congress. Later that same month, Nelson Mandela, the symbol of the black resistance against the Apartheid System was released from prison.
First talks between an ANC-delegation headed by Mandela and a government delegation led by De Klerk were held in Cape Town in May 1990.
In less than one year - from September 1989 to May 1990 - President De Klerk had given the definitive impulse to the democratization process in South Africa.
There was still a long way to go. And a lot of criticisms from white people, both inside and outside his own party.
Despite all these difficulties, this strategy was approved in 1992 by the majority of South Africans in a referendum President De Klerk succeeded in winning.
The legitimization of his strategy has led President De Klerk to take new steps which will culminate, as you know, in general elections to be held in the spring of next year. The fact of such elections is a culminating point of President De Klerk’s policies but would not have been possible without Nelson Mandela and the dialogue between conflicting forces.
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 at Qunu near Umata, Transkei. He spent his childhood at home and, as son of a Tembo tribal chief he was raised in a traditional way, in anticipation of becoming himself a chief. He attended Fort Hare University College, where he met Oliver Tambo. They launched protest campaigns against apartheid and were both expelled from the University, in 1940, as a result of their participation in a student strike.
Mandela then left the Transkei and went to Johannesburg where he met Walter Sisulu. He completed his BA by correspondence in 1941, and then studied for his law degree at the University of the Witwatersand.
Together with Tambo and Sisulu, Mandela participated in 1944 in the foundation of the African National Congress Youth League and in 1948 he served as its National Secretary. In late 1950 Mandela became National President of the Youth League.
In December 1952 Mandela was arrested and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment. He was also served with a banning order, prohibiting him from attending gatherings and from leaving the Johannesburg district.
In December 1956 he was arrested again and charged with high treason. Four-and-a-half-years later, he was found not guilty.
In 1960 the ANC was banned and the government declared a state of emergency. To evade arrest, Mandela went underground and travelled secretly around the country and abroad.
He was finally arrested on 5 August 1962 and first sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for illegally leaving the country. In a second trial he was, together with other ANC-leaders, sentenced to life imprisonment.
He was to spend the next 27 years of his life in prison, first in Robben Island and later in the Polismoore and Victor Verster prisons. Isolated, but not forgotten by his people. In 1982 they launched a massive “Release Mandela Campaign” both within South Africa and abroad. And I am pleased to recall here that our sister university, took part in this campaign by conferring on Nelson Mandela an honorary degree of the “Université Libre de Bruxelles”.
Nelson Mandela was released on 11 February 1990, one week after the end of the ban on the ANC. One month later he was appointed deputy-President and then President of the ANC.
Throughout his whole life, Nelson Mandela has followed the same line, fighting apartheid and struggling for democracy.
To achieve this, the choices he had to make were not easy and the way he had to follow even less so.
He could have had possibly a less exciting but certainly more pleasant life near the Bashee River, where he was born, waiting to become the chief of the Thembu Tribe. He did not.
After graduating at the University of the Witwatersand he opened, together with his friend Oliver Tambo, the first black legal partnership in South Africa. This way would have led to financial comfort! He decided not to follow it.
After his release from jail he could have dreamed of revenge. His popularity in South Africa, his stature as an internationally respected leader made this option possible. He opted for dialogue.
Thanks to the joint efforts of the two South-African leaders we honour today, democracy is now within reach.
Yet democracy in South-Africa will be confronted with the same problems that have killed off so many democracies in the past and the burden on those who wish to lead the country towards democracy remains tremendous.
In the persons of Federik Willem De Klerk and Nelson Rolihlahlah Mandela, the “Vrije Universiteit Brussel” honours two leaders who are fully aware of the subtle and delicate political balance that South Africa so badly needs to become a viable democracy.
Further, our university wishes to emphasize their efforts towards a long-lasting, democratic solution to the political problems with which South-Africa is still confronted. Their choice is a brave one, and not the most obvious.
It is for these reasons that the Board of the University decided to confer the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa upon Frederik Willem De Klerk and Nelson Rolihlahlah Mandela.