The Autobiography
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A strangely distanced, often stilted autobiography by the last white leader of South Africa. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, de Klerk is a fundamentally tragic figure: someone with the courage to abjure his most heartfelt inclinations and bravely lead his country forward—and himself straight out of power. There was little in his background to suggest he would be the man to end apartheid. He was an assiduous, ambitious National Party stalwart, reliably punching the clock in a variety of ministerial assignments, delivering competence but never controversy, slowly climbing the slippery pole of politics . . . and then he changed everything. Modern political autobiographies aren—t noted for their Rousseauian self-revelations, but de Klerk is particularly, even frustratingly opaque. While he provides a useful account of what happened, detailing the minutiae of the negotiating process leading to the creation of the “new South Africa,” he seldom shares the all-important “why.” Unsurprisingly, he claims no knowledge of any of the recently revealed darker activities of the apartheid military-security complex, many of which occurred while he was state president. Yet de Klerk doesn—t shy away from discussing numerous times when he felt slighted or mistreated by Nelson Mandela, whom he depicts as engaging in especially brash and brutal politics (so different from the chummy confraternity of white rule) and also as much more bitter than the official hagiographic portrait. The end of apartheid may have been a moral struggle, but it was above all a grimy political process, and the most fascinating part of this account is the eggshell dance of adversaries, the shifting coalitions, the victories and defeats. Philosophically, perhaps even morally, de Klerk may have shifted, but he never turned from what is perhaps his truest identity: master political operator. Like South Africa’s gold deposits, a lot of the value here is buried deep.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-22310-2
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1999