South Africa: Apartheid Leader and Ex-Presidents Unite Against Zuma

Mandela and de Klerk
Nelson Mandela shakes hands with F.W. de Klerk, the outgoing president, as he takes over as South Africa's first black president at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, on May 10, 1994. De Klerk was the last leader of South Africa during apartheid, a system of racial segregation and white-minority rule. Peter Andrews/Reuters

South Africa's last president under apartheid has united with the two successors of Nelson Mandela to launch a series of national dialogues on threats to the country's democracy under current President Jacob Zuma.

F.W. de Klerk—who was president from 1989 to 1994 and was succeeded by Mandela—told South African broadcaster eNCA that he was "deeply disappointed" in Zuma, who has been dogged by scandals in recent months.

De Klerk was joined by Thabo Mbeki —who led South Africa from 1999 and 2008—and Kgalema Motlanthe, who took over after Mbeki's resignation and was president until he was succeeded by Zuma in 2009.

The trio united to form the National Foundations Dialogue Initiative, which they described as a means of engaging South African citizens in addressing the country's political malaise, South Africa's Mail & Guardian reported.

President Zuma has faced fresh calls to resign following his controversial sacking of the popular ex-finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, in March. The move precipitated a credit downgrade for South Africa to junk status and prompted criticism from within the governing African National Congress (ANC). Zuma's deputy Cyril Ramaphosa described the decision as "totally unacceptable."

The country's highest court also ruled in March 2016 that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution by using state funds to build a swimming pool and cattle ranch at his private residence in Nkandla, near South Africa's east coast.

Speaking at the launch in Braamfontein Friday, Zuma's immediate predecessor Motlanthe said that South Africa risked a "democracy deficit" in which "the act of violating the constitution, which amounts to the ultimate profanity against our very mode of existence, is reduced to banality."

Mbeki, Mandela's successor as president, added that anyone who undermined the constitution was essentially subverting "the will of the people," the BBC reported.

The initiative is being backed by several foundations, including those affiliated with de Klerk and Mbeki, as well as the foundation led by prominent clergyman Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah.

De Klerk's involvement in the dialogue has provoked a blunt response from some South Africans. He served as the final president under apartheid, a system of racial segregation and white-minority rule that existed for more than four decades in South Africa.

In cooperation with Mandela, de Klerk oversaw South Africa's transition to a non-racial democracy for which the two men won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Several members of the leftwing opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, interrupted the launch by displaying placards reading: "F.W. de Klerk is a killer."

De Klerk told eNCA that no atrocities had been executed by his orders during apartheid and that he had been cleared of wrongdoing by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 1995.

Zuma is serving his second term as president and cannot run for the third term in South Africa's next election in 2019. He is expected to be replaced as ANC leader at a party conference later in 2017, though the party has closed ranks around the president and rejected calls for him to step down immediately in the wake of the recent cabinet reshuffle.

A South African High Court ordered Zuma on Thursday to explain the rationale behind his cabinet reshuffle following a challenge brought by the opposition Democratic Alliance. The ANC criticized the judgement as signifying the "unfettered encroachment of the judiciary into the realm of the executive."