FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid leader to free Nelson Mandela, dies aged 85

De Klerk released Mandela, his later successor, from prison and laboriously negotiated with him a transition to democracy, ending a decades-long segregationist system that kept South Africa’s white minority in power over the black majority for generations.

The two men shared the peace prize in 1993 for their work to end politics, but de Klerk, who had served in governments defending apartheid and who, after his retirement, seemed reluctant to condemn him unequivocally, remained a divisive figure in the south. Africa long after he left politics.

De Klerk died at his home in Fresnaye of mesothelioma cancer, the FW de Klerk Foundation said Thursday.

A deeply conservative politician whose party had long supported apartheid, de Klerk stunned his political clan and became an unlikely agent of change in South Africa during his five years in office in the country.

He effectively announced the beginnings of a new country in a landmark speech at the state opening of Parliament in 1990, revealing a stunned nation that would free Mandela, legalize anti-apartheid groups, end a state of national emergency and negotiate to end end to racial problems. inequality in the country.

De Klerk’s political transformation, sparked by worsening racial tensions and the looming possibility of civil war, led to him being labeled a “traitor” by some conservative lawmakers.

It also marked the beginning of long and tense negotiations, during which de Klerk and Mandela developed a complex relationship that at times resembled friendship, but which more often turned tense, bitter, and antagonistic.

In 1993, de Klerk and other leaders ratified a new constitution that formally ended decades of racial segregation in South Africa.

De Klerk lost South Africa’s first fully democratic, multiracial election to Mandela, before taking a seat in the new government.

But after retiring from politics, he made a series of mixed comments about the era he helped end, and he leaves a complicated legacy in South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu paid tribute to his compatriot on Thursday, saying he “recognized the moment of change and demonstrated the will to act accordingly.”

“The former president occupied a historic but difficult space in South Africa,” said a statement from Tutu’s office. “Although some South Africans found it difficult to accept the worldwide recognition of De Klerk, Mandela himself praised him for his courage in seeing the process of political transformation in the country.”

The nation’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said in a measured statement that De Klerk’s decision to end apartheid was a “courageous decision.”

“The passing of Vice President De Klerk, weeks before the 25th anniversary of our democratic Constitution, should inspire all of us to reflect on the birth of our democracy and on our shared duty to remain faithful to the values ​​of our Constitution,” he said.

De Klerk at a school campaign rally in 1994, the year he lost South Africa's first multiracial election.

‘A convert’

Born Frederik Willem de Klerk and raised in a family of prominent Afrikaner politicians (his father Jan de Klerk was a conservative political heavyweight in the 1960s and briefly became acting president in 1975), FW de Klerk worked as a lawyer before of holding various positions. ministerial positions as a politician.

He had been considered more of an obstructor than a revolutionary, given his lineage and staunch conservatism.

But the brutal realities of apartheid had sparked violence, displacement and growing opposition, and de Klerk finally recognized that a change of course was necessary.

He described himself as a “convert” in an interview with CNN in 2012. “The target was separate but the same, but separate but still missed,” he added. “We should have gone with the flow much earlier when the winds of change blew across Africa.”

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (left) with FW de Klerk (center) and Nelson Mandela in 2004.

However, de Klerk created a complicated legacy both during his time in power and after his retirement.

In the same 2012 interview, de Klerk caused anger by questioning whether apartheid was a morally disgusting policy. “I can only say that in a qualified way … there were many aspects that are morally indefensible,” he said.

Last year, his foundation issued an apology after De Klerk claimed that apartheid was not a crime against humanity during an interview with South African public broadcaster SABC.

He told CNN that he and Mandela were “close friends” in 2012. “There is no animosity between us. Historically, there was,” he said.

“He still has an aura around him. He is truly a very worthy and very admirable person,” added de Klerk, shortly before Mandela’s death the following year.

De Klerk occasionally reentered political discourse after leaving office. He met Mandela while he was part of the delegation that helped award South Africa the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a major event that allowed the nation to be the center of global attention for a month.

He also freely expressed his thoughts on modern South African politics; in 2012 he told CNN that “the transition is taking time” in South Africa, adding: “I am convinced that it is a solid democracy and it will continue to be, but it is not a healthy democracy.”

After Jacob Zuma stepped down as president in 2018 and was replaced by Ramaphosa, de Klerk said the nation was in “good hands.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that “De Klerk will be remembered for his courage and steely realism in doing what was manifestly right and leaving South Africa a better country”, adding that he was “saddened” by his death.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin added that “his vision, along with Nelson Mandela’s, shaped a new South Africa.”

De Klerk’s first wife, Marike de Klerk was murdered in 2001, three years after their divorce. She has occasionally suffered from health problems in the past, and her foundation revealed her mesothelioma cancer diagnosis.

He is survived by his wife, three children and grandchildren.


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