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Updated Feb 20, 2020

In an interview held two weeks ago with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster, former president F. W. de Klerk said he “was not fully agreeing” with the host’s description of South African apartheid as a crime against humanity, igniting fierce debate. The De Klerk Foundation later issued an apology, where the last white leader of South Africa expressed regret for “the confusion, anger, and hurt” his comments incurred.

De Klerk’s comments would have gone relatively unnoticed had it not been for a public stunt by Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party, who called out De Klerk publicly as he attended President Cyril Ramaphosa’s annual State of the Nation address. Fueled in part by social media and rival political parties’ interests, De Klerk’s comments were berated as “whitewashing” by the ruling African National Congress as well as prominent journalists and political commentators, with former president Thabo Mbeki sending a copy of a United Nations convention describing apartheid as a “crime against humanity” to De Klerk personally.

Opposition party figures such as the Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille have responded to the recent outrage as an example of “racial nationalism” being exploited by the likes of Malema and other radical movements for cynical politicking. Similar sentiments were echoed by white South Africans, who feel the country should “move on” and focus more readily on present issues of corruption, a stagnant economy, and poverty.

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