Film

In The Other Man, the Story of South Africa’s Last White President

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There’s an extraordinary old news clip in director Nicolas Rossier’s documentary The Other Man: The wife of F.W. de Klerk, former president of South Africa, is shown at a public function with her husband.

While he presses the flesh with his black supporters, she visibly recoils from their outstretched hands, pulling her own back against her body and giving a fake smile that bullhorns her disgust. It’s a powerful moment in a layered film about a complex man. Rossier has crafted a tribute that doesn’t shy away from withering critique of South Africa’s last white president, who held office from 1989 until the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

The film itself is solidly and conventionally crafted. Newsreels and stock footage alternate with fresh interviews with friends and scholars, steadfast supporters and unabashed detractors. The political life it maps out fascinates. Forged in a kiln of right-wing politics, de Klerk — successor to the virulent P.W. Botha — was initially seen by many South African whites as the last hope for maintaining their stranglehold on political and social power. Almost immediately upon taking office, the savvy de Klerk, with a long view of history, started the process of dismantling the system his own father had helped create.

His political teaming with Nelson Mandela shredded the last bit of support he had among right-wing whites, but also unleashed a wave of right-wing violence that cost countless black lives.

The film’s burning question is how much de Klerk knew of or signed off on that brutal pushback. Rossier allows space for the man’s culpability even as he convincingly shows that without de Klerk’s involvement, the struggle for black liberation would have been much harder and taken much longer.