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23 June 2020

ABA abandons conference keynote with ex-South Africa president De Klerk after wave of protest

Last white president complains of 'vitriolic reaction' over slated appearance as apartheid-era record is questioned

By John Malpas

FW De Klerk

FW De Klerk speaking in 2017 Tolga Sezgin; Shutterstock

The American Bar Association (ABA) has cancelled an invitation to FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, to speak at its annual conference after protests over his human rights record.

The move comes after the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa described the invitation as an insult to families of people murdered in state-sanctioned killings during the apartheid regime, according to South African online news site News24.

The ABA’s international section had announced De Klerk’s appearance on 16 June, when it pointed out that he had been awarded the 1993 Nobel peace prize along with Nelson Mandela ‘for their collaboration in efforts to establish a nonracial democracy in South Africa’.

In a session entitled Lessons Learned in the Crucible of Courage and Conscience, he was due to discuss ‘a range of subjects, including the rule of law, constitutional democracy, minority rights, social change, racism and global security’ with Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute.

The ABA yielded to mounting pressure to cancel the session over the weekend. ‘Presenting the program would not help the association advance our Goal III priority,’ the ABA International Law Section said in a statement.

The priority is to eliminate bias and enhance diversity with the stated objectives: ‘to promote full and equal participation in the association, our profession, and the justice system by all persons; and to eliminate bias in the legal profession and the justice system’.

The protests at de Klerk’s appearance were led by Lukhanyo Calata, the son of the anti-apartheid activist Fort Calata, one of four anti-apartheid activists known as the Cradock Four who were murdered by South African security police in 1985 

Calata maintains de Klerk was complicit it the state-sanctioned murders, which is strongly denied by de Klerk. 

Joining Calata was Dumisa Ntsebeza, a former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, as well as a group of academics, including some from the US, according to News24.

In a statement the FW de Klerk Foundation said the invitation to speak had elicited a ‘vitriolic reaction from activists in South Africa and the United States’ who had ‘once again made outrageous and unfounded allegations against Mr De Klerk’.

‘Mr De Klerk does not have the slightest interest in participating in any event that will cause him or his hosts embarrassment and had no hesitation in withdrawing his acceptance of the ABA’s invitation as soon as he heard of the controversy,’ it said. 

It added that the controversy was ‘symptomatic of a growing threat to liberal values everywhere that should be of the deepest concern to all those who still value freedom of speech, toleration of diverse views and the open exchange of ideas on important topics’. 

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