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F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s Last Apartheid President, Dies


South African President Nelson Mandela, left, and Deputy President F.W. de Klerk chat outside Parliament after the approval of South Africa's new constitution May 8, 1996. (AP Photo, file)
F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s Last Apartheid President, Dies
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F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president who oversaw the end of the country’s white minority rule, has died.

A spokesman for the former president’s organization said Thursday that Frederik Willem de Klerk died in his Cape Town home after a fight with cancer. He was 85.

De Klerk surprised the world when he ended apartheid and peacefully handed over power to a Black-led government under Nelson Mandela.

De Klerk was a controversial person in South Africa. Many blamed him for violence against Black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his time in power. Some white South Africans saw his cooperation to end apartheid as an act of disloyalty.

“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.

South African President F.W. de Klerk, right, marks the end of South Africa's rule of Namibia during independence celebrations, in Windhoek, Namibia, March 21, 1990. (AP Photo/John Parkin/File)
South African President F.W. de Klerk, right, marks the end of South Africa's rule of Namibia during independence celebrations, in Windhoek, Namibia, March 21, 1990. (AP Photo/John Parkin/File)

In February 1990, de Klerk announced in a speech to parliament that Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years. The country had long been denounced around the world for its system of apartheid.

With South Africa’s economy seriously weakened from international sanctions, de Klerk also lifted a ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid political groups.

Negotiations to create a non-racial democracy after Mandela's release were held during a time of increased political violence. The talks nearly broke down and the country came close to a violent race war. But the process continued peacefully in what many political experts called a "political miracle."

In this photo taken on Dec. 09, 1993, Nelson Mandela, President of South African African National Congress (C) and South African President Frederik de Klerk (R) display in Oslo their Nobel Prizes. (AFP)
In this photo taken on Dec. 09, 1993, Nelson Mandela, President of South African African National Congress (C) and South African President Frederik de Klerk (R) display in Oslo their Nobel Prizes. (AFP)

In 1993 de Klerk shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, who would win the presidency the following year. It was the first time Black South Africans could vote in Africa's biggest economy.

After the vote, the National Party shared power in a "Government of National Unity" in which de Klerk served as a deputy president. But the relationship between de Klerk and Mandela was often tense. De Klerk pulled out of the government in 1996, saying the ANC no longer valued his opinion.

Later in life, de Klerk said there was no longer conflict between him and Mandela and that they remained friends. Although he publicly apologized for the pain that apartheid caused, he was never seen as a hero like Mandela.

Years after the end of apartheid, de Klerk continued to defend the political system. He said the goal of apartheid was to separate the development of white and Black South Africans. But in reality, the violent apartheid system forced millions of the country’s Black majority into “homeland” communities with high rates of poverty. And the system left most of South Africa’s land in the hands of the white minority population.

South African Nobel Peace Laureates Nelson Mandela (L) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2nd L) arrive for the 70th birthday celebrations of fellow laureate former President FW de Klerk (R) in Cape Town, March 17, 2006. (REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)
South African Nobel Peace Laureates Nelson Mandela (L) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2nd L) arrive for the 70th birthday celebrations of fellow laureate former President FW de Klerk (R) in Cape Town, March 17, 2006. (REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)

De Klerk admitted later in life that the goal of “separate but equal failed.”

In 2020, de Klerk angered many South Africans when he said he did not think apartheid was a crime against humanity. When he attended President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation speech in parliament that year, some members shouted at him and demanded that he leave.

Later, de Klerk said he accepted that apartheid was a crime against humanity and apologized for his earlier comments. But he is still seen by many South Africans as the last apartheid leader, not the leader who helped lead the country away from violent racial discrimination.

Upon his death, opposition leader Julius Malema criticized media reports that said de Klerk was a former president of South Africa. “He is a former apartheid president,” Malema said in a tweet.

Others on social media said de Klerk should not be given a state funeral.

I’m Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted this story based on reports from The Associated Press and Reuters. Bryan Lynn was the editor.

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Words in This Story

apartheid n. a former social system in South Africa in which black people and people from other racial groups did not have the same political and economic rights as white people and were forced to live separately from white people​

controversial adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument​

legacy n. something (such as property or money) that is received from someone who has died​

reckon v. to think or suppose (something) : to believe that (something) is true or possible​

sanction n. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country, by not allowing economic aid for that country, etc.​

miraclen. an unusual or wonderful event that is believed to be caused by the power of God​

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