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FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president, dies aged 85

FW de Klerk, an apartheid-era leader who helped bring about the end of white-minority rule in South Africa, has died of cancer at the age of 85, his foundation said on Thursday.

FW de Klerk, an apartheid-era leader who helped bring about the end of white-minority rule in South Africa, has died of cancer at the age of 85, his foundation said on Thursday.

De Klerk surprised many when he eased restrictions and released South African political prisoners – including one-time enemy Nelson Mandela – after taking over as president in 1989, an act that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize along with Mandela.

But for many black South Africans the country’s last apartheid leader never did enough to fully atone for the white racist regime or for the human rights abuses carried out by the security forces when he was president.

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936 into an Afrikaner political and legal family and studied law.

He worked as an attorney for several years until he was elected to parliament as a National Party (NP) candidate in 1972, before going on to hold a number of ministerial posts. One them was at the Education Ministry, where he enforced strict racial segregation in schools.

He elected president in 1989, a position he held until 1994 – the year South Africa first held an election open to all races. Mandela won that poll, becoming the country’s first non-white head of state.

De Klerk’s February 2, 1990 presidential address to parliament was a bombshell.

He lifted a decades-long ban on the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa‘s main black opposition group, and other movements. He also pledged to release Mandela “within days” and committed his government to negotiations with the black majority.

De Klerk avuncular presence on television explaining the need for reform and his wry smile set to rest the fears of many whites, even as he promised blacks a full say in the governing of the country.

The road to democratic elections in April 1994, however, proved longer and more arduous than expected, and by the time de Klerk and Mandela jointly received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, relations between them were severely strained.

Public disagreements with Mandela, threats by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi to boycott the poll, a total breakdown in the talks and rising political violence threatened the entire process.

When Mandela was inaugurated South Africa‘s first black president in May 1994, he appointed de Klerk one of two deputy presidents.

Despite the tensions in the 1990s, the Afrikaner statesman said in later years that the two were close friends, and that he and his wife would sometimes take tea with Mandela and his wife.

On Mandela’s death in 2013, de Klerk said the world had lost “a great unifier.”

De Klerk largely stayed out of the spotlight after retiring from politics in 1997.

But in early 2020, he caused outrage when he said during an interview with the state broadcasting company SABC, that apartheid was not a crime against humanity as the UN had deemed it.

He lost his battle with cancer Thursday morning at his home in Cape Town, the FW de Klerk Foundation said.

He leaves behind his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan, as well as his grandchildren, the foundation said.

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