F.W. de Klerk, South African President Who Freed Nelson Mandela, Dead at 85

De Klerk
Getty Images

The news of the former president's death was released Thursday and confirmed by his family.

F.W. de Klerk, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and South African president who freed Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison in February 1990, has died at 85, according to BBC.

He died at his home in Fresnaye from mesothelioma cancer, the FW de Klerk Foundation said Thursday. He was diagnosed with the illness earlier this year.

Following news of his death, his foundation released a video tribute to the former South African president which featured an apology to those affected by apartheid.

"I, without qualification, apologize for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to Black, Brown and Indians in South Africa," de Klerk said.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu paid tribute to de Klerk on Thursday, saying in a statement he "recognized the moment for change and demonstrated the will to act on it."

"The former President occupied an historic but difficult space in South Africa," a statement from Tutu's office said. "Although some South Africans found the global recognition of Mr. De Klerk hard to accept, Mr. Mandela, himself, praised him for his courage in seeing the country's political transformation process through."

Current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement that de Klerk "played a key role in ushering in democracy in our country. He was a leader of a party that was largely discredited in relation to the role that the National Party played in enforcing apartheid. But he had the courage to step away from the path... And we will remember him for that.

“The policies that the apartheid regime espoused and implemented have caused a lot of havoc on millions and millions of South Africans. And it was the havoc that many of our people will never forget, and have suffered from," Ramaphosa added. “But as a human being, it is important for us as South Africans to pay our condolences and to allow him to go and rest... our hearts are with the declared family.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation released a statement saying that Madiba and de Klerk will be forever linked in the history books.

De Klerk was South Africa’s last white president and the final president of the apartheid regime. He was elected in 1989 and lost his position in May 1994 when Mandela was the Rainbow Nation’s first democratically elected president that year.

Following his loss in 1994, he became a key figure in the transition to democracy, allowing Mandela and his party, the ANC, to take over the government and easing racial tensions as apartheid ended. Mandela even appointed de Klerk as his deputy president but he would eventually quit due to the small role he had and quit politics in 1997, just two years into his term.

De Klerk, who succeeded PW Botha as president of South Africa, hailed from a prominent Afrikaner family and was seen as the likely successor to Botha’s reign during the 1980s when he took office. He was a staunch supporter of the apartheid plan of ultimate separation of races and was thought to carry their then four-decade-old plan out during his tenure. However, amid growing outcry from the rest of the world, including sanctions placed on South Africa by foreign governments and a changing global and political landscape, de Klerk was reportedly stunned by the treatment of Black South Africans and wanted to change course which shocked his cabinet and supporters.

Botha had began holding talks with Mandela, who had been in prison since 1964, during the final years of his term before he resigned. It was De Klerk, however, who would take action and eventually free the world’s most famous political prisoner.

De Klerk would also legalize anti-apartheid groups, end a national state of emergency and negotiate to end racial inequality in the country, CNN reported.

In 1993, he and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to end the harsh apartheid regime and promote democracy.

While being labeled a “traitor” by many of his supporters, he spent much of his post-political life avoiding the limelight and in a 2012 CNN interview, he considered himself a "convert.”

"The goal was separate but equal, but separate but equal failed," he added. "We should have gone much earlier with the flow when the winds of change blew across Africa."

The relationship he and Mandela had was one which the former political prisoner called as out of necessity in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”

“To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner,” Mandela wrote.

Mandela also wrote, “Despite his seemingly progressive actions, Mr. de Klerk was by no means the great emancipator. He was a gradualist, a careful pragmatist. He did not make any of his reforms with the intention of putting himself out of power. He made them for precisely the opposite reason: to ensure power for the Afrikaner in a new dispensation.”

In his own autobiography, “The Last Trek – A New Beginning,” de Klerk called out Mandala’s attitude toward him when he would make speeches, especially at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

“It was ironic that we had both traveled so far to be granted the world’s highest accolade for peace and reconciliation — while the relationship between us was characterized by so much vitriol and suspicion.”

De Klerk is survived by his wife, Elita, and his children Jan and Susan.

Related Stories