Frederik Willem de Klerk, the former South African president who negotiated the end of apartheid with Nelson Mandela after spending years upholding the system of white minority rule, has died. He was 85.
De Klerk died at his home in Cape Town on Thursday after having been diagnosed with lung cancer in March.
After taking power in 1989, de Klerk removed a ban on the pro-democracy African National Congress, released Mandela from jail and managed the nation’s first all-race elections in 1994. He and Mandela were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for securing a smooth transition to democracy.
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,” 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, de Klerk worked as a lawyer until 1972, when he became a lawmaker for the pro-segregation National Party. Six years later, Prime Minister John Voster appointed de Klerk 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.
De Klerk came to power in 1989 after President Pieter Willem Botha suffered a stroke and the National Party leadership deemed him no longer fit to govern.
After negotiating an end to White minority rule, de Klerk gave a qualified apology for apartheid, admitting 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 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 Mandela’s government, and de Klerk became the nation’s second deputy president. He complained of being sidelined and unjustly criticized by Mandela, and in 1996 his party pulled out of the government and became the official opposition. The following year, 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. Over the past few years, de Klerk was a vocal critic of the government, accusing it of failing to uphold the rule of law and tackle corruption.
While de Klerk was well regarded abroad, many of his Black countrymen felt he didn’t take adequate responsibility for atrocities committed under his watch. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to probe apartheid-era abuses, produced evidence showing de Klerk was present at a meeting of the State Security Council, where the assassination of a pro-democracy activist was authorized. De Klerk denied doing anything illegal.
“Neither I, nor I am sure the great majority of my colleagues in former cabinets, were involved in or aware of the gross violation of human rights committed by some operatives,” de Klerk wrote in his autobiography. “We deny responsibility for actions of which we were not informed, which we would have not approved.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he’d personally told de Klerk about abuses taking place during his rule and the president couldn’t possibly have been ignorant of them. The commission omitted its finding on de Klerk from its final report in 1998, after he threatened to sue to halt publication.
De Klerk was married twice and had three children. He divorced first wife, Marike, in 1997. She was strangled at her Cape Town apartment in 2001 by a security guard who worked at her apartment complex.
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