I called it a continuation of apartheid by other means; F W de Klerk called it "a broad consensus"

I first saw F W de Klerk in action in London a few years ago. He was a guest on Clive Anderson Talks Back, glowing from the comedian's praise. It hasn't been quite the same recently as he has toured this country, promoting his autobiography, The Last Trek: a new beginning. There have been occasional tricky questions about how he could not know about the state-sponsored bloodbath during his four years as South Africa's last white president, when there were more political killings than in all of the 1980s.

Whenever his rhetoric of innocence has faltered, he has produced a sheet of paper written by his "co-author", Dave Stewart. He did this when we met the other day and I pointed out the evidence of his complicity in a "third force" terror campaign aimed at destabilising the African National Congress during the pre-election negotiations - a critical period when the ANC made a number of historic, if disastrous, compromises based on its fear of a civil war. "The chief of the South African Defence Force," he read from Dave Stewart's paper, "regarded de Klerk's understanding of how the Defence Force and the other security forces worked as not so wonderful, probably because he was never allowed close to the inner circle of these forces."

He looked up, satisfied. "There, you see," he said, "I had no special relationship with these people." He maintains he knew nothing about the covert operations confirmed by two cabinet committees which he chaired and about which, say his closest State Security colleagues, he was briefed. He knew nothing about the death squads that operated from Vlakplaas, the headquarters of a South African Gestapo, even though its commander, Dirk Coetzee, had publicly confessed in 1988. He knew nothing about the chemical and biological warfare programme, and its diabolical experiments aimed at black people, even though its director, Wouter Basson, "South Africa's Dr Mengele", was charged with murder. He knew nothing about documented police involvement in the Boipatong massacre in 1992, in which more than 40 people were slaughtered. His book's title ought to be I Deny Everything.

I asked him why, as one of his last acts as president, he had authorised huge pay-offs to state assassins, such as the infamous Eugene de Kock, who was paid 1.2 million rand. "At that stage," he said, "I didn't know de Kock cold-bloodedly killed people. He was paid that money because of his senior rank and the terms of his employment." I asked him if he was paid to shut up. Horrors, no. It was just a "normal retirement package".

De Klerk likes analogies. "If I was guilty of not trying to find out what the truth was," he said, "there would be a foundation for [these suspicions]. But I did what was humanly possible. Would it be fair comment to say that President Mandela is guilty of the very high rate of corruption in South Africa and, even though he's not personally involved, he should have known about it?"

I mentioned that when I interviewed Nelson Mandela, I was struck by his anger at the very mention of de Klerk's name. "He regards you as duplicitous," I said. He shrugged behind a curtain of cigarette smoke (he is a chain-smoker). In his book he complains that Mandela described him as the head of "an illegal, discredited, minority regime".

"Weren't you?" I asked.

"You must understand," he said, "there is a difference between illegal and illegitimate . . ."

De Klerk is a neatly concealed apologist for apartheid. "Separate development", he says, was not a euphemism for one of the great crimes of the century, but an "idealistic mission".

When I described meeting some of the victims of this "mission" - people who had been brutally dispossessed in the 1970s - and seeing the graves of some of the 25,000 children who starved or froze or sickened to death in the Eastern Cape alone, he talked about the schools the regime had built. He said his fellow-burghers, like the neo-Nazi John Vorster, who was his political mentor, were merely misguided, not fascist; and it was born-again "FW" who led them to enlightenment.

"Didn't you really win?" I asked. His expression changed as if a secret truth had been put to him. I said: "When the American banks, like the Chase Manhattan, refused to roll over your regime's loans, you knew you had to find another way of holding on to economic power. You won by forcing compromises on the ANC that meant that the white population had to make no substantial changes; in fact, many are better off, and white corporate power has never been stronger."

He smiled. "It is true," he said, "that our lives have not fundamentally changed. We can still go to the cricket at Newlands and watch the rugby."

I said, "For the majority, the poverty has not changed, has it?" He warmed to this implied criticism of the ANC and agreed that his most enduring achievement was to have handed on his regime's economic policies, including the same neo-liberal Reserve Bank governor, the same Thatcherite minister of finance, the same corporate brotherhood. He spoke about blacks who now lived in big houses, the beneficiaries of "affirmative action". In fact, while the boardrooms of multinational corporations have enlisted a few black faces, often as front men, the black population has grown steadily poorer.

"Isn't that the continuation of apartheid by other means?" I asked.

"You must understand," he said, "we have achieved a broad consensus on many things now."

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again