F.W. de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela and as South Africa’s last apartheid president oversaw the end of the country’s white minority rule, has died aged 85.
Frederik Willem de Klerk died after a battle against cancer at his home in the Fresnaye area of Cape Town, a spokesman for his foundation confirmed on Thursday.
De Klerk was a controversial figure in South Africa where many blamed him for violence against black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his time in power, while some white South Africans saw his efforts to end apartheid as a betrayal.
Photo: AFP / FW Der Klerk Foundation
“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 Mandela Foundation said of his death.
Retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, another towering anti-apartheid activist, issued a similarly guarded statement about De Klerk’s death.
De Klerk “played an important role in South Africa’s history ... he recognized the moment for change and demonstrated the will to act on it,” Tutu’s foundation said.
De Klerk tried to avoid responsibility for the enormity of the abuses of apartheid, including in his testimony at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was chaired by Tutu.
At that time, Tutu expressed disappointment that De Klerk did not fully apologize for the evils of apartheid, the statement said.
Even posthumously, De Klerk sought to address this criticism in a video message in which he said he was sorry for his role in apartheid. His foundation released the video after announcing his death.
“Let me today, in the last message repeat: I, without qualification, apologize for the pain and the hurt, and the indignity, and the damage, to black, brown and Indians in South Africa,” said a visibly gaunt and frail De Klerk.
He said his view of apartheid had changed since the early 1980s.
“It was as if I had a conversion, and in my heart of hearts, I realized that apartheid was wrong. I realized that we have arrived at a place which was morally unjustifiable.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that De Klerk “played a vital role in our transition to democracy in the 1990s... He took the courageous decision to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency.”
It was De Klerk who in a speech to South Africa’s parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, announced that Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years. The announcement electrified a country that for decades had been scorned and sanctioned by much of the world for its brutal system of racial discrimination known as apartheid.
With South Africa’s isolation deepening and its once-solid economy deteriorating, De Klerk, who had been elected president just five months earlier, also announced in the same speech the lifting of a ban on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid political groups.
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