There are heroes and then there are the rest of us, and there are no degrees of heroism. Mandela and de Klerk were equally heroic. However, of the two sorts of heroism they displayed, de Klerk’s was rarer – much, much rarer.
Most heroism involves having the courage to stick to your guns, to do your duty, to maintain your principles, even if doing so brings pain, lifelong hardship or death. This is the courage of Mandela, Horatius, Nathan Hale, Dalton Trumbo, Thomas More and other religious martyrs and the guys who defended the Alamo.
F. W. de Klerk, on the other hand, had the courage to recognize that the guns he had been sticking to, the duty he had been doing and the principles he had been upholding were wrong; he had the courage to change his mind. Perhaps that is not such a rare kind of courage when it is displayed on the personal level, but in the leader of a country, a world figure, a standard bearer, it is extremely rare. In fact, off-hand, I know of no other example.
Certainly, I am aware that international sanctions put pressure on the business elite in South Africa, and that de Klerk’s change of stance, from a very conservative position to what was known in his party as an “enlightened” one, was politically canny. Still, the swiftness and comprehensiveness with which he brought down apartheid as soon as he became President astounded the world.
The pressures on de Klerk from the business community, which was feeling the brunt of sanctions, must have been counterbalanced at least to an equal extent by pressures on him from white supremacists. He was a Boer from the Transvaal and to most of his oldest friends and his provincial constituency the heroic thing for him to have done would have been bravely to uphold apartheid, no matter what.
I am sure that Mandela in his 27 years of imprisonment never once considered abjuring the ANC and the anti-Apartheid struggle. But, hypothetically, let’s imagine that it did cross his mind. Among his peers there would have been no support whatsoever for such a move; in fact, it would have been regarded by everyone who mattered to him – and by himself, most of all – as shameful.
Mandela – a strong, principled, intelligent, heroic man – had the full support of his peers. De Klerk – also strong, principled, intelligent and heroic – was, basically, on his own, caught between two factions.
There is one other way that heroism can be evaluated: in what it accomplished. It may not add anything to de Klerk’s personal heroism, but it can be said, I believe, that of all the heroic acts of history, F. W. de Klerk’s staved off the most misery, defused the most violence, saved the most lives.
A mass black uprising in South Africa was inevitable. At least a million lives would have been lost before it was over. That fact may well have been the prime motivation behind de Klerk’s decision to end apartheid. If only there had been a hero like de Klerk in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia, in 1994 Rwanda – a powerful Nazi, Soviet, Hutu – who had said no, wait, turn back. But, as I said at the beginning, de Klerk’s was a rare kind of heroism.
(Addendum -- December 11, 2013)
It occurs to me that de Klerk’s intervention, which prevented what appeared to be inevitable bloody nationwide civil strife, is not at all like the intervention that could have been at least attempted but, as far as we know, never was, by a decent and brave Nazi, Stalinist or Hutu.
The violence that was perpetrated in Germany, the USSR and Rwanda was state-sponsored and directed against a group not in power. (When it comes to Stalinist Russia, I am thinking more about the mass murder, deportations and enforced famines targeting various ethnic groups, than the purges within the government and Moscow elite.) Any claim that the victimized people were a danger to the state was a chimera, at least in Germany and the USSR. The dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin would have remained secure without the holocaust or Stalin’s terror in Russia’s peasant provinces. If pressure from within the power structure had curbed the genocide that was planned, those in power would have remained in power. (In Rwanda, going by the little I know about it, a Tutsi rebellion, which had some outside support, might well have been an existential threat to Hutu rule.)
In South Africa, the situation was quite different. It was unclear who would end up in charge after the slaughter of millions of blacks and whites in a civil conflagration – it all depended on to what degree the international community weighed in on the side of the ANC. Although the white power structure had been oppressing the black population for years, and although its reaction to black protest was disproportionately vicious, it harbored no plans for genocide. If there was any genocide being contemplated in South Africa, it was on the part of the most radical elements of the black rebellion.
What de Klerk did was to cede power. His reasons may have been simple or complex, his primary impulse may have been altruistic or foresightedly Machiavellian, but what he did – voluntarily cede power, not only personal power, but the power held by the community of interests, relationships and traditions to which he belonged – was, as far as I know, not a rare act, but an unprecedented one.