South Africa's last apartheid leader F.W. de Klerk dies at 85

JOHANNESBURG • Former South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk, who negotiated the end of apartheid with Mr Nelson Mandela after spending years upholding the system of white minority rule, has died. He was 85.

Mr de Klerk died at his home in Cape Town yesterday after having been diagnosed with lung cancer in March.

After taking power in 1989, Mr de Klerk removed a ban on the pro-democracy African National Congress, released Mr Mandela from jail and managed the nation's first all-race elections in 1994. He and Mr Mandela were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for securing a smooth transition to democracy.

Mr de Klerk "had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people through the imposition of the system of apartheid", Mr Mandela said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

"He had the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants in the process, together determine what they want to make of their future."

Born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936, Mr de Klerk worked as a lawyer until 1972, when he became a lawmaker for the pro-segregation National Party. Six years later, then Prime Minister John Vorster appointed him as minister of post and telecommunications, the first of several Cabinet positions he held. During his tenure as education minister, he pushed for racial segregation in universities.

Mr de Klerk came to power in 1989 after president Pieter Willem Botha had a stroke and the National Party leadership thought him no longer fit to govern.

After negotiating an end to white minority rule, Mr de Klerk gave a qualified apology for apartheid, admitting that it was unjust and oppressive.

"Like any other people in the world at any time in history, we were the products of our time and circumstances," he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, The Last Trek - A New Beginning. The former government feared that if apartheid was abolished, "our people would be swamped by the vast black majority, and that this would inevitably lead to the extinction of our own hard-won right to national self-determination".

After the 1994 elections, the National Party joined Mr Mandela's government, and Mr de Klerk became the nation's second deputy president. In 1997, Mr de Klerk quit politics and went on the international speaking circuit.

He also started a foundation that aims to promote democracy and uphold the rights enshrined in the Constitution negotiated at the end of apartheid rule.

While Mr de Klerk was well regarded abroad, many of his black countrymen felt he did not take adequate responsibility for atrocities committed under his watch.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to probe apartheid-era abuses, produced evidence showing Mr de Klerk was present at a meeting of the State Security Council, where the assassination of a pro-democracy activist was authorised. Mr de Klerk denied doing anything illegal.

Mr de Klerk was married twice and had three children. He divorced his first wife Marike in 1997.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2021, with the headline South Africa's last apartheid leader F.W. de Klerk dies at 85. Subscribe