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FW de Klerk: the South African president who helped to dismantle apartheid dies aged 85

The white minority Afrikaner leader freed Nelson Mandela and transformed the country

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Then South African President Nelson Mandela, left, and FW de Klerk, right, pose with their Nobel Peace Prize gold medal and diploma in Oslo, December, 1993. Photo: Jon Eeg/AP

Then South African President Nelson Mandela, left, and FW de Klerk, right, pose with their Nobel Peace Prize gold medal and diploma in Oslo, December, 1993. Photo: Jon Eeg/AP

South African Nobel Peace Laureates Nelson Mandela, left, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, centre, arrive for the 70th birthday celebrations of fellow laureate former president FW de Klerk, right, in Cape Town, March 17, 2006. Photo: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

South African Nobel Peace Laureates Nelson Mandela, left, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, centre, arrive for the 70th birthday celebrations of fellow laureate former president FW de Klerk, right, in Cape Town, March 17, 2006. Photo: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

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Then South African President Nelson Mandela, left, and FW de Klerk, right, pose with their Nobel Peace Prize gold medal and diploma in Oslo, December, 1993. Photo: Jon Eeg/AP

FW de Klerk, who as South Africa’s last white president opened the door to black majority rule in sub-Saharan Africa’s most prosperous nation by releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, died yesterday at his home in Cape Town. He was 85 .

The FW de Klerk Foundation, which announced his death, said it came after his battle with mesolthelioma cancer.

A son of a politically prominent family within South Africa’s white Afrikaner minority, Mr de Klerk saw himself as a moderate reformer who hoped to preserve the old white-dominated political order even while loosening the reins of repression.

Mr de Klerk unleashed a process of rapid transformation that he could not control and which inevitably led to the toppling of the old regime.

Still, under his stewardship the changes came without large-scale bloodshed, which many observers hailed as near-
miraculous.

Although he and Mr Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the two men became bitter antagonists during the gruelling negotiations over the shape of South Africa’s future government. At the peace prize ceremony in Oslo, though, Mr Mandela graciously praised his fellow Nobel winner.

“He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people,” said Mr Mandela, and “the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants, together determine what they want to make of their future”.

Born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936, Frederick Willem de Klerk was the youngest chief executive in South African history when he took power in 1989. His predecessor, PW Botha, was a deeply conservative leader and former defence minister who fit firmly into the traditional mould of Afrikaner heads of state.

At first glance, Mr de Klerk did as well. His father, Jan de Klerk, was a cabinet minister in the original National Party government that took power in 1948 and implemented apartheid, codifying long-standing racial repression and disenfranchising blacks as non-citizens. The younger de Klerk’s uncle, Johannes Strijdom, was prime minister in the 1950s.

Descendants of Dutch, French and German colonists who first settled in the southern tip of Africa in 1652, Afrikaners developed their own language, culture and shared sense of grievances, embodied in the platform of the National Party.

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They saw themselves as a “white tribe in Africa” – both a chosen people and yet a uniquely vulnerable minority in their own homeland, in which they and other whites constituted about 15pc of the population.

Trained as a lawyer near Johannesburg at Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, Mr de Klerk came of age during the heyday of apartheid, when millions of blacks were consigned to impoverished rural “homelands” and those who sought to live and work in South Africa’s thriving cities needed special passes.

In 1969 he married Marike Willemse – his college sweetheart, with whom he had three children – and entered the whites-only parliament in 1972.

Mr de Klerk served as one of Mr Botha’s right-hand men for more than a decade as party leader in the Transvaal, the northern province that was part of the Afrikaner
heartland.

But by the mid-1980s, the apartheid government came under increasing pressure from large-scale black unrest at home and from international sanctions, and business confidence hit an all-time low.

Mr Botha attempted to institute a programme of half-hearted political reforms, but it only inflamed black resistance. Meanwhile, Mr de Klerk was quietly beginning to question apartheid’s efficacy.

“I took a leap in my own mind, more decisively than many of the National Party politicians, that power-sharing with blacks was the right course for a new political dispensation,” he told journalist Allister Sparks years later.

Mr de Klerk was also motivated by his religious beliefs. A member of the smallest and most strictly Calvinist branch of the Dutch Reformed Church, he developed the sense that God had called upon him to unite and save the people of South Africa from a prolonged and bloody conflict.

After Mr Botha suffered a stroke, Mr de Klerk took over as party leader in February 1989; he forced Mr Botha from the presidency in August with the support of the cabinet. One month later, he won a general election and earned a solid governing majority.

As president, Mr de Klerk moved slowly but decisively. In October 1989, he released six of Mr Mandela’s comrades from life sentences. He met three times with Mr Mandela, who had served 27 years for seeking to overthrow the regime. Mr Mandela came away believing Mr de Klerk was “a man we could do business with”. 

From their first meeting, Mr Mandela noticed that Mr de Klerk was listening to him. “This was a novel experience,” Mr Mandela recalled in his autobiography. “Mr de Klerk seemed to be making an attempt to truly understand.”

The result came a few weeks later in a historic televised address on February 2, 1990. Mr de Klerk declared that the election had “placed our country on the road of drastic change”, and announced that he planned to free Mr
Mandela.

He also said he would end the ban on the long-outlawed African National Congress, which was the main organisation seeking to overthrow apartheid, and open talks about the country’s future.

“The new president, short, rotund, balding, polished but without much charisma, head cocked to one side like a sparrow and bobbing on his right foot as he spoke, turned three centuries of his country’s history on its head,” Allister Sparks wrote in his book, Tomorrow is Another Country.

“He didn’t just change the country, he transmuted it.”

After releasing Mr Mandela, Mr de Klerk’s government began repealing many of the apartheid laws, but he remained strongly opposed to a “winner takes all” system of majority rule. “Don’t expect me to negotiate myself out of power,” he told Western diplomats. Yet he proceeded to do just that.

After 18 months of talks about talks, the two sides launched the Convention for a Democratic South Africa outside Johannesburg in December 1991.

They signed a Record of Understanding in September 1992, which broke the deadlock over how to go about drafting a new constitution.

Mr de Klerk had wanted multiple race-based assemblies, each with veto power, but agreed to accept a single elected assembly to create a new political system and serve as a transitional legislature for the new government. He also settled for a government of national unity with a multiparty cabinet for a fixed period of five years.

There were times when the two sides engaged in bitter recriminations. Mr Mandela denounced Mr de Klerk as “the head of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime”. Mr de Klerk argued that he faced the difficult balancing act of placating hardliners inside his cabinet and ruling party, while making adequate compromises to keep Mr Mandela and the activists at the table.

After a by-election defeat by white Conservatives in the Transvaal, Mr de Klerk called for a nationwide referendum among white voters that, by a margin of 69pc to 31pc, gave him a decisive mandate to complete the reform process. He and his party were defeated by Mr Mandela and the ANC in South Africa’s first multiracial election in April 1994.

Mr de Klerk was appointed second vice-president in the ANC-led national unity government, a position with almost no power.

Two years later, when the government adopted a new constitution calling for the elimination of multiparty rule in 1999, Mr de Klerk resigned and led his deeply divided party into opposition.

He resigned as party leader the next year and faded from public view, except for an embarrassing episode in 1998 when he announced he was divorcing his wife of 39 years. One week later he married his mistress, Elita Georgiades. Details of the affair and the divorce became public when the first Mrs de Klerk published her autobiography.

For years Mr de Klerk insisted that apartheid was in its origins “an honourable vision of justice” that over time had proven unworkable and unjust. He characterised the system as a mere mistake rather than a machine of brutal repression that had denied the vast majority of South Africans the most basic human rights. But in August 1996, he apologised to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the “pain and suffering” the regime caused.

Still, the legacy of the apartheid years trailed him. In 2007 Eugene de Kock, an apartheid-era police commander who headed a death squad that targeted anti-government activists, said Mr de Klerk’s hands were “soaked in blood”. He accused de Klerk of approving gross human rights violations, a charge the former president vehemently denied. “I have not only a clear conscience; I am not guilty of any crime whatsoever,” de Klerk said. (© Washington Post)

 

Glenn Frankel, a former ‘Washington Post’ foreign correspondent and editor, is the author of several books

© Washington Post


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