De Klerk, last South African apartheid president, dies

JOHANNESBURG (AP) – FW de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela and who as the last leader of apartheid presided over the end of the white minority regime, has died at the age of 85.

De Klerk, who suffered from cancer, died at his home in Cape Town’s Fresnaye neighborhood, a spokesman for the FW De Klerk Foundation said Thursday.

He was a controversial personality in South Africa, where many blamed him for acts of violence against black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his presidency, while some whites considered him a traitor for his efforts to end apartheid.

In a speech to Parliament on February 2, 1990, de Klerk announced that Mandela would be released after 27 years in prison. The announcement shook a country that for decades had suffered the derision and sanctions of much of the world due to its brutal system of racial discrimination, called apartheid.

At a time of increasing isolation and deterioration of his once solid economy, de Klerk, who had assumed the presidency five months earlier, announced in the same speech that the ban on the African National Congress and other political groups fighting against apartheid was being lifted.

At that moment, amid scandalized shouts, several parliamentarians left the premises.

Nine days later, Mandela was released.

Four years later, Mandela was elected the country’s first black president in elections in which black South Africans voted for the first time.

By then, de Klerk and Mandela had received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their sometimes contentious collaboration in the process of eliminating institutional racism and leading South Africa towards democracy.

After his landmark speech, de Klerk told reporters that the country would be “a new South Africa,” but Mandela’s release was only the beginning of tense political negotiations on the way forward. Power would pass out of hand. A new constitution would be drawn up. The way of life of many would be upset.

“There is an element of uncertainty, to be sure, regarding everything that the future holds,” de Klerk calmly told reporters on February 10, 1990, after announcing that Mandela would be released the following day.

The transition was costly. As de Klerk said in his speech upon receiving the Nobel in December 1993, more than 3,000 people were killed in the political violence that rocked South Africa. Additionally, he reminded the audience that he and Mandela, with whom he shared the award, were still political opponents, with strong disagreements, but that they would go ahead “because there is no other way to peace and prosperity in our country.”

After Mandela took office, de Klerk was vice president until 1996, when his party withdrew from the cabinet. He acknowledged that Mandela’s freedom was the culmination of the process that his predecessor, President PW Botha, began by secretly meeting with Mandela shortly before handing over power. In the late 1980s, as protests within and outside the country multiplied, the ruling party had initiated some reforms and annulled some apartheid laws.

De Klerk also secretly met with Mandela before he was released. He said about their first meeting that Mandela was taller than he thought and that he was impressed by his good looks and dignity. He also said that he understood that “we can work with this man”, but it was not easy. They argued heatedly. Mandela accused de Klerk of allowing the killing of black people during the transition. De Klerk said that Mandela could be extremely stubborn and unreasonable.

In later years, after the country’s painful political transition, de Klerk said there was no longer any bitterness between them, that they were friends, and that they had visited each other at home. Although he publicly apologized for the pain and humiliation caused by apartheid, he never achieved the recognition that Mandela did.

“Sometimes Mr. de Klerk doesn’t get the recognition he deserves,” Nobel laureate and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu told journalist David Frost in a 2012 interview.

FW de Klerk was born in Johannesburg in 1936. He graduated as a lawyer and practiced before turning to politics and winning an election to Parliament. Since 1978 he held a number of cabinet posts, including Minister of Home Affairs. In 1989 he was elected leader of the National Party and in his first speech he called for a “South Africa free of domination or oppression in any of its forms.” He became president in September of that year.

After stepping down, de Klerk created a foundation to promote his presidential heritage.

In a speech in Cape Town in early 2016, de Klerk warned that many white South Africans “were not aware of the situation of disadvantaged communities” and that “the attitude of many blacks towards white South Africans becomes more hostile and intransigent.” He added: “We must once again listen to Nelson Mandela’s call for reconciliation and the construction of the country.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *