FW de Klerk, the last White person to lead South Africa, has died at the age of 85. De Klerk, who was head of state between September 1989 and May 1994, passed away on Thursday morning following a struggle with cancer. While leading South Africa, he disclosed in 1990 that he was releasing Nelson Mandela, leading to South Africa’s first democratic elections that brought Mandela to power.
De Klerk shared the honors of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela after helping arrange an end to apartheid. But he has left behind a controversial legacy in a country still wounded by the system he helped end.
He was born in March 1936 in Johannesburg, into a family of Afrikaners, a White ethnic group descended mainly from Dutch colonizers. His father was a well-known apartheid senator who served briefly as interim president. De Klerk, who grew in a family of Afrikaner National Party politicians, worked as a lawyer before being elected to Parliament as a member of the National Party that set in motion apartheid.
He subsequently held several ministerial positions and then took over from PW Botha as the head of the National Party in February 1989. Months later he became president and would announce in parliament that he was removing the ban on parties that included Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). And that was when he also made it known that Mandela would be released from prison after serving 27 years.
De Klerk remained president until he handed over to Mandela after the historic elections of 1994. Indeed, it was his actions that helped bring an end to apartheid. And following the multi-party elections in 1994 that led to Mandela becoming president, De Klerk became one of the country’s two deputy presidents alongside Thabo Mbeki.
In 1997 when he retired from politics, he said he was doing so because it was in the best interest of the party and the country.
‘Big but uneven legacy’
De Klerk’s relationship with Mandela was not always smooth. On Thursday when the former White leader died, the Nelson Mandela Foundation released a statement saying De Klerk’s legacy was an uneven one.
“De Klerk’s legacy is a big one. It is also an uneven one, something South Africans are called to reckon with in this moment,” the statement said.
“De Klerk will forever be linked to [former President] Nelson Mandela in the annals of South African history. As head of state, he oversaw the release of Madiba from prison on 11 February 1990. In 1993, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize for ushering in a negotiated settlement that led to South Africa holding its first democratic election in 1994,” the statement continued.
The statement also included comments Mandela made at De Klerk’s 70th birthday celebrations.
“You and I have had our differences, some of them very public. Our basic respect for one another has, however, never diminished. And it was that respect for the other irrespective of all differences that made it possible for us, and our organisations, to work together and to negotiate that historic compromise that the world marvelled at. If we two old, or ageing, men have any lessons for our country and for the world, it is that solutions to conflicts can only be found if adversaries are fundamentally prepared to accept the integrity of one other.”
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa also released a statement on the death of De Klerk on Thursday, describing him as a committed South African who embraced the democratic constitutional dispensation and placed the long-term future of the country ahead of narrow political interests.
“Serving as Deputy President from 1994 to 1996, Mr De Klerk played an important role in the Government of National Unity, dedicating himself to the constitutional imperative of healing the divisions and conflict of our past,” Ramaphosa wrote.
But many South Africans say De Klerk failed to control violence against Black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists while he was in power, BBC reported.
Last February, controversial South African politician Julius Malema and parliamentary members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) tried to remove De Klerk from the country’s parliament. The occasion was Ramaphosa‘s state of the nation address. De Klerk was present at the invitation of the African National Congress (ANC).
Before Ramaphosa would give his speech, Malema led chants to boot out De Klerk, saying, “We have a murderer in the House, adding that the former president was an “apartheid apologist… with blood on his hands”.
The EFF leadership was triggered by an interview that De Klerk had granted before the state of the nation address. In the TV interview, the former president refused to accept that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Political commentators and leaders including Desmond Tutu right after the interview called on De Klerk to “repent” from his beliefs. Social media was also flooded with vexed posts.
The pressure paid off. Through his foundation, De Klerk apologized for insisting that apartheid was not a crime against humanity. The former president said: “I agree with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation that this is not the time to quibble about the degrees of the unacceptability of apartheid. It was totally unacceptable.”
De Klerk 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 FW de Klerk Foundation said in a statement on Thursday.
Critics say he should not be given a state funeral because of his roots in apartheid.