Former South Africa President FW de Klerk dies aged 85

De Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa and key actor in the country’s transition to democracy, has died.

Former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last leader under apartheid and key actor in the country’s transition to democracy, has died, his foundation announced.

He was 85 years old.

“FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer,” the FW de Klerk Foundation said in a statement on Thursday.

The former president left a final apology, in a video message released after his death, for the pain inflicted on non-white ethnic groups during the apartheid era.

“I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to Black, Brown and Indians in South Africa,” said de Klerk, who had previously expressed regret several times for the 1948-91 policy.

De Klerk and South Africa’s first Black President Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for leading the “miracle” transition from minority-white rule in the country.

South African Deputy President FW de Klerk and South African President Nelson Mandela pose with their Nobel Peace Prize Gold Medals and Diplomas in Oslo on December 10, 1993 [File: AP Photo]

End of white-minority rule

In February 1990, de Klerk delivered a speech at the country’s Parliament, announcing sweeping reforms that marked the beginning of the negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy.

The reforms lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid organisations, and authorised the release of political prisoners, including Mandela. It also put a moratorium on the death penalty.

The speech marked the official end of segregation policies and the start of the negotiations that led to constitutional democracy with equal rights for all South Africans.

Amid gasps, several members of parliament left the chamber as he spoke. Nine days later, Mandela walked free.

Four years after that, Mandela was elected the country’s first Black president as Black South Africans voted for the first time.

By then, de Klerk and Mandela had been awarded the Nobel prize for their often-tense cooperation in moving South Africa away from institutionalised racism and towards democracy.

Speaking from Johannesburg, Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller described Mandela and de Klerk’s relationship as one of mutual respect.

“They were part of very important talks that led to the end of apartheid and a peaceful transition in South Africa,” Miller said.

“This was the apartheid leader that said apartheid would come to an end. He continued to have a good relationship with the African National Congress, in fact becoming a member later on.”

Still, Miller explained that some young people in South Africa today look back with disappointment at the role de Klerk’s national party played during apartheid. Some believe the late leader only ended white-minority rule because he was forced to and regard him as “nothing less than an apartheid criminal”.

“South Africa was suffering from international sanctions, there were financial difficulties and protests and violence within the country. There almost was no choice but to end apartheid, according to some critics,” she said.

“FW de Klerk won’t necessarily be missed by many people but he’s acknowledged for the role he played in terms of the democratic transition. However, there are also people today who say he never paid for what he was responsible for.”

Contested legacy

Born in the economic hub of Johannesburg, into a family of Afrikaners, a white ethnic group descended mainly from Dutch colonisers, de Klerk’s father was a leading apartheid senator who served briefly as interim president.

He studied law, before being elected to Parliament as a member of the National Party that instituted apartheid.

De Klerk then held several ministerial positions before he became present in 1989, a position he held until he handed over the reins to Mandela after the first democratic elections in 1994.

But de Klerk’s role in the transition to democracy remains highly contested, with many Black people being angered by his failure to curb political violence in the turbulent years leading up to the 1994 multi-racial elections,

Critics took to Twitter to say he should not get a state funeral due to his roots in the old apartheid regime.

In his lifetime, Mandela, who died in 2013, had praised de Klerk’s courage in dismantling the very system that had brought him to power.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote: “To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.”

Though long retired from active politics, however, de Klerk prompted anger among supporters of then-president Jacob Zuma in 2016 when he accused them and their leader of seeking to advance their personal interests and of endangering democracy.

De Klerk again drew criticism last year when he told a national broadcaster that he did not believe apartheid was a crime against humanity, as declared by the United Nations.

The backlash triggered by his remarks forced de Klerk to withdraw from a virtual seminar with the American Bar Association in the United States, where he had been due to speak on minority rights and racism.

De Klerk had announced his cancer diagnosis on his 85th birthday, on March 18 this year.

He is survived by his wife Elita, children Jan and Susan, and grandchildren.

“The family will, in due course, make an announcement regarding funeral arrangements,” the foundation added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies