Last apartheid president dead at 85

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FW de Klerk, who dramatically dismantled the apartheid system in South Africa and freed Nelson Mandela from prison, has died aged 85.

FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, has died aged 85, his foundation has announced.

The former president’s death was confirmed by the FW de Klerk Foundation, which said in a statement that he passed away at his home in Fresnaye, a suburb of Cape Town, after being diagnosed with cancer.

“It is with the deepest sadness that the FW de Klerk Foundation must announce that former president FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer,” it said. “Mr De Klerk was 85 years old. He is survived by his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan, and his grandchildren.”

Mr de Klerk was head of state between September 1989 and May 1994 and helped push democracy in South Africa.

In 1990 he announced he was releasing anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, leading to multi-party polls in 1994.

As the new democracy matured, many inside the country came to see him as a symbol for the failure of white South Africa to acknowledge the full horrors of apartheid and to bring perpetrators to justice.

De Klerk ensured his place in history when on February 2, 1990, he announced Mandela’s release from 27 years in jail and lifted the ban on black liberation movements, effectively declaring the death of white-minority rule.

“I would hope that history will recognise that I, together will all those who supported me, have shown courage, integrity, honesty at the moment of truth in our history. That we took the right turn,” De Klerk said.

Although he and Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the two men became bitter antagonists during the gruelling negotiations over the shape of South Africa’s future government.

At the peace prize ceremony in Oslo, though, Mandela graciously praised his fellow Nobel winner.

“He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people,” said Mandela, and “the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants, together determine what they want to make of their future.”

Twenty years after that speech, De Klerk said freeing Mandela had “prevented a catastrophe”.

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936. His father, Jan de Klerk, was a minister in the National Party (NP) government that instituted apartheid. His uncle, JG Strijdom, was a prime minister notorious for stripping mixed race people of voting rights.

De Klerk followed in their footsteps. After practising law for 11 years, he won a seat in parliament for the NP in 1972 and climbed the political ladder through cabinet until he became the party’s leader in February 1989.

Just six months later, after PW Botha was forced to resign, De Klerk became president of South Africa.

“When he became head of the National Party, he seemed to be the quintessential party man, nothing more and nothing less,” Mandela wrote of him. “Nothing in his past seemed to hint at a spirit of reform.”

Yet Mandela sensed an opening and sent him a letter outlining a negotiated end to apartheid.

Less than two months later, De Klerk announced Mandela’s unconditional release and the end of the ban on the African National Congress.

De Klerk helped negotiate a new constitution, transforming South Africa into a non-racial democracy. He served for two years as Mandela’s deputy.

Despite relinquishing power and ushering in democracy, De Klerk never moulded to the new South Africa.

He appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, apologising for apartheid. He also stormed out and accused the panel of bias.

As Mandela became a global icon, De Klerk in a 2012 speech insisted: “He was by no means the avuncular and saint-like figure so widely depicted today.”

In his later years, De Klerk called on the ANC government to take accountability for rampant poverty and joblessness.

But he would bristle at efforts to hold him accountable, and never accepted responsibility for the torture, rapes, and killings committed by the whites-only government.

He tried to make excuses for apartheid’s network of “bantustans”, intended to confine black South Africans to supposed ethnic homelands.

And in 2020, he sparked a national furore by refusing to call apartheid a crime against humanity.

He always backtracked, especially if the scandals rippled into international headlines. But even when he found the right words, he was never able to strike the right tone in modern South Africa.

For all he gave the country, what he couldn’t give was a sense of remorse. De Klerk and his first wife, Marike, who married in April 1958, had three adopted children. The couple divorced in 1998 after he admitted to an affair with Elita Georgiades, the wife of a Greek shipping tycoon.

De Klerk and Georgiades married the same year.

Originally published as Former South African president FW de Klerk, who freed Nelson Mandela, has died