Latest news updates: F W de Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa, dies at 85
F W de Klerk, the last South African president of the apartheid era, who has died at the age of 85, presided over one of the most extraordinary political events of the late 20th century: the voluntary handover of power by the white minority regime in conditions of remarkable peace.
De Klerk, who died at home in Cape Town on Thursday, shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratic president, for dismantling apartheid.
But, decades on from that peaceful transition, South Africans still have cause to reflect on de Klerk’s legacy, who to the end remained reluctant to acknowledge the depth of the apartheid system’s crimes.
With more boldness and imagination than any previous Afrikaner leader, de Klerk transformed the political landscape of South Africa when in 1990 he released Mandela from decades in prison. He also legalised the African National Congress party that took power four years later.
De Klerk had the courage and vision to do what no other white politician could even contemplate. He not only admitted that apartheid, South Africa’s grotesque experiment in social engineering, had not worked, but followed this perception through to its logical conclusion: that black majority rule was inevitable, and that whites would do best to accept it while they still had the power to press for a reasonable bargain.
De Klerk often said that he acted when he did to avoid the threat of the kind of racial war that engulfed Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe.
Though a devoutly religious man — De Klerk was a “Dopper”, a member of the Gereformeerde Kerk, theologically the most conservative of South Africa’s Dutch Reformed churches — his decision to abolish apartheid appears to have been more pragmatic than moral.
He acknowledged the futility of trying to keep South Africa under white control in the face of massive migration of black jobseekers to the cities from the scattered, impoverished “homelands” that had been decreed by apartheid. But he was a slow convert to the cause of reform.