Of all the questions from the floor F W de Klerk might have anticipated as he prepared to speak to the Rotary Club of Westville, on Durban's sea front, a few Fridays ago, I'm willing to bet he wasn't expecting mine.
Frederik Willem de Klerk was the last president of apartheid South Africa and was deputy president under Nelson Mandela in the first post-apartheid government of national unity in 1994. He retired from active politics in 1997. In 2000 he founded the F W de Klerk Foundation among whose aims are 'the promotion of the constitution, constitutional rights and the national accord'.
When we arrived we heard that he had caused great controversy in a TV interview the night before by apologising unreservedly for the injustices of apartheid but declining to say that the original concept of 'separate development' was inherently 'morally repugnant'.
He did not appear abashed when he made his appearance. He spoke for an hour with real power and presence. There are few politicians who can hold an audience in that way today. And when a question from the floor asked for his clarification on the previous night's controversy he paused and then said, 'let me speak from the heart...'. I'm not daft enough to think that when a politician says he's speaking from the heart that necessarily means it's more than a dramatic device. But you could hear him tap into ancestral anger when he explained to the largely Anglo audience that the Afrikaaner struggle against British colonialism was his abiding political influence.
He apologised again for the pain and oppression of apartheid. It was that realisation, he stated, rather than sanctions or boycotts, that explained his 180-degree turn away from 'separation' to single South Africa 'togetherness' when he took office.
He pointed out, for example, that most of the world is lining up behind a two-state arrangement for co-existence in the Middle East as the preferred solution there, so it can't by definition be morally reprehensible. He turned against 'separation' in South Africa not because it was philosophically wrong but because it didn't work or at least it only worked by damaging too many lives. I think that's a fair summary of his position, defensible or not.
Though you could drive a herd of springboks through the gaps in some of the de Klerk arguments, it was an experience to hear him. When our politicians tell us of the 'tough decisions' they have to make they are laughable in comparison. Here was a man who, with Nelson Mandela, really did make tough decisions that affected their nation, their continent and the world.
That night I talked to a reporter from SABC who just dismissed the whole event out of hand. 'He's an absolute fruitcake and, I maintain, he makes no impact any more.' Except, he suggested, for folk like Julius Malema (currently suspended as president of the ANC youth wing) 'who needs de Klerk to keep his own supporters angry'.
Speaking to some young Zulu friends, too young to have any memory of apartheid, I wondered whether they would give de Klerk any credit for his part in ending the system. Their answer was no. 'What he did in the end doesn't let him off the bad he did for years before.' I can see their point on behalf of the millions of their parents' and grandparents' generation who tholed humiliation, violence and manufactured disadvantage while de Clerk and his colleagues were thinking about beginning to set out on their road to Damascus.
But should he get no credit at all? If I were a philosopher or a theologian I might pick away at the difference between repentance and redemption. Thankfully, I am neither.
If credit is asking too much, should he be listened to at all? Much of the former president's speech was taken up listing his concerns about challenges by today's politicians, including government ministers, to the constitution that was agreed as part of the post-apartheid settlement and their intemperate broadsides against individual judges on the constutional court who assess the lawfulness of the actions of the executive against the rights of the individuals built into the constitution.
He was concerned about investigations into the activities of high-profile figures including politicians that have been inexplicably dropped and the number of close friends of government ministers who happen to have companies doing business with the government. Sound familiar, anyone?
Richard Calland is associate professor of public law at the University of Cape Town and author of 'Anatomy of South Africa'. He agrees that de Klerk now has no constituency and no influence other than the fact of who he is. 'The only reason he gets any ventilation for his viewpoint is that he is de Klerk. The press will always pick up on what he says but mostly to revisit that 20-year-old story.'
However, Calland does think that anyone who actually cared to listen to the rest of de Klerk's speech would agree he was highlighting key lines of tension in South Africa 18 years on from the ending of apartheid.
'All the previous ANC leaders have been able to pull the right and the left – the nationalists and the socialists, if you like, to the centre-ground. Jacob Zuma needed to pull together a broader coalition if he was to defeat the incumbent president, Thabo Mbeki. His approach was to pull up the sides of the tent and let a broader group in but it is essentially unmanageable. In the government now, you have what's left of the left, social democrats, but on the right, there is a very venal nationalist group that is doing very well under Zuma. They see the constitution so painstakingly drafted and so celebrated around the world when it was signed as an obstacle.'
It has been a personal blockage for some of them when the courts have stepped in to overturn pursuit of power and wealth on several occasions in recent years. In populist rhetoric, however, they claim that the courts have been an obstruction to the pure aims of the liberation struggle. They attack the constitution and the judges who uphold it, Calland says, saying that it was a bad political compromise effectively entrenching white interests. The goal must now be to ensure, in the recent words of one minister, that 'the judiciary conforms to the transformation mandate as envisaged in the constitution'.
In short the government is fed-up being told by the judges when it is exceeding its powers. What de Klerk sees as the essential role of the judges in protecting the constitution, some members of the ANC see as inhibiting transformation. If the judges are reaching the wrong decisions it may be time to change the judges. If the prosecution are pursuing the wrong cases maybe the prosecutors should be reshuffled.
It is a phenomenon around the world that government ministers don't like being told off by judges.
But, back to my question at the Rotary Club of Westville. Picking up on that anger at British colonialism and speculating on his lack of enthusiasm for the United Kingdom as its successor I wondered if he had a view on Scottish independence and the imminent referendum. Did he have a view or even advice for Scotland – separation or togetherness?
Here's his answer in full.
I am sorry the press has gone because I would put the question like this: is it immoral for Scotland to want to be independent in the same land mass as England? Is it morally unacceptable or unjustifiable for Scotland to want to be independent? I don't think so in principle. If I were a Scot I would think deeply about the economic consequences and what our prospects should be. I can't condemn those who want to be fully indpendent. Personally I think there is also a case to be made out for even greater autonomy than Scotland enjoys at the moment but not breaking the link of centuries. If we look at the European Union at the moment we are seeing that if you drive togetherness in the form of central control too far then you bring about resistance. People say 'I don't want to be governed from Brussels'. And the Scots are saying, 'for too long we have been fully governed from London' and I have a little understanding for that emotion. But there is somewhere in between where Scotland is at the moment and full independence and totally breaking, constitutionally speaking, all these links. But where there is room for constitutional reform and a need for constitutional change, if I were a Scot, I would place myself on such a platform.
That sounds to me like independence of the heart but devolution of the intellect and I freely offer it to either camp that wants to bump up its quota of Nobel-laureate endorsements.
John Forsyth has worked for BBC Radio and TV in London and ran his own independent production company in Scotland for 10 years, supplying programmes to BBC Radio 2, 3 4, 5 Live, Radio Scotland and the World Service. He's a former political editor of Scotland on Sunday and is now a freelance journalist and editorial consultant.