F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president, dies at 85

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F.W. de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela and as South Africa’s last apartheid president oversaw the end of the country’s white minority rule, has died at the age of 85.

De Klerk died after a battle against cancer at his home in the Fresnaye area of Cape Town, a spokesperson for the F.W. de Klerk Foundation confirmed on Thursday.

De Klerk was a controversial figure in South Africa, where many blamed him for violence against Black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his time in power, while some whites saw his efforts to end apartheid as a betrayal.

The former president’s foundation released a pre-recorded farewell message after his death was announced Thursday, in which de Klerk says he “defended separate development” but “had a conversion” in the 1980s and realized apartheid was wrong.

Former South African president F.W. de Klerk announces his retirement from politics in this photo taken in August 1997. He has died at 85 following a battle with cancer, a spokesperson for de Klerk’s foundation said Thursday. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

“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,” a frail-looking de Klerk says in the undated video.

In a speech to South Africa’s Parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, de Klerk announced that Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years. The announcement electrified a country that for decades had been scorned and sanctioned by much of the world for its brutal system of racial discrimination known as apartheid.

WATCH F.W. de Klerk addresses South Africans in final message, released by his foundation:

Former South African president posthumously apologizes ‘without qualification’ for apartheid

In a message recorded shortly before his death, former South African president F.W. de Klerk apologized for the pain, hurt and indignity caused by apartheid to the ‘Black, brown and Indians in South Africa.’ 7:09

With South Africa’s isolation deepening and its once-solid economy deteriorating, de Klerk, who had been elected president just five months earlier, also announced in the same speech the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid political groups.

Amid gasps, several members of parliament left the chamber as he spoke.

Nine days later, Mandela walked free.

Four years after that, Mandela was elected the country’s first Black president as Black residents voted for the first time.

South African Nobel Peace Prize laureates Nelson Mandela, left, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, second from left, arrive for the 70th birthday celebrations of fellow laureate de Klerk, right, in Cape Town, in this March 2006 photo. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

By then, de Klerk and Mandela had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their often-tense co-operation in moving South Africa away from institutionalized racism and toward democracy.

The country would be, de Klerk told the media after his fateful speech, “a new South Africa.” But Mandela’s release was just the beginning of intense political negotiations on the way forward.

“There is an element of uncertainty, obviously, with regard to everything which lies in the future,” de Klerk calmly told reporters on Feb. 10, 1990, after announcing that Mandela would be released the following day.

Difficult, deadly transition

The toll of the transition was high. As de Klerk said in his Nobel lecture in December 1993, more than 3,000 died in political violence in South Africa that year alone.

As he reminded his Nobel audience, he and fellow laureate Mandela remained political opponents, with strong disagreements. But they would move forward “because there is no other road to peace and prosperity for the people of our country.”

After Mandela became president, de Klerk served as deputy president until 1996, when his party withdrew from the cabinet. In making history, de Klerk acknowledged that Mandela’s release was the culmination of what his predecessor, former president P.W. Botha, had begun by meeting secretly with Mandela shortly before leaving office.

De Klerk shakes hands with Tutu in Johannesburg on Sept. 14, 1991. Tutu years later said de Klerk deserved some credit for steering the country toward a more democratic politics. (John Parkin/The Associated Press)

De Klerk did not seem to fit easily into the role of a Nobel laureate. He remained a target of anger for some white South Africans who saw his actions as a betrayal.

“Sometimes, Mr. de Klerk does not get the credit that he deserves,” Nobel laureate and former archbishop Desmond Tutu told David Frost in an interview in 2012.

In his lifetime, Mandela, who died in 2013, had praised de Klerk’s courage in dismantling the very system that had brought him to power.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote: “To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.”

F.W. de Klerk was born in Johannesburg in 1936. He earned a law degree and practiced law before turning to politics and being elected to Parliament. In 1978, he was appointed to the first of a series of ministerial posts, including Internal Affairs.

In February 1989, de Klerk was elected the National Party leader and in his first speech called for “a South Africa free of domination or oppression in whatever form.”

Criticized ruling party

After leaving office, de Klerk ran a foundation that promoted his presidential heritage, and he spoke out in concern about white Afrikaaner culture and language as English became dominant among the new South Africa’s 11 official languages.

He also criticized South Africa’s current ruling party, the African National Congress, telling the Guardian newspaper in a 2010 interview that the ANC, once the champion for racial equality, “has regressed into dividing South Africa again along the basis of race and class.”

In a speech in Cape Town in early 2016, de Klerk warned that many white South Africans were “oblivious of the plight of less advantaged communities” and that “the attitude of many Blacks toward white South Africans is becoming harsher and more uncompromising.”

De Klerk and his second wife, Elita, are shown arriving at the national memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium in Johannesburg on Dec. 10, 2013. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

“We need to align the principles of non-racialism and non-discrimination with the need to deal with the past, and issues like affirmative action,” he said in the farewell message released Thursday.

De Klerk was viewed by many in South Africa as the last apartheid ruler and not the man who helped steer the country away from violent racial oppression.

His assertion in 2020 that apartheid was not a crime against humanity stirred up a furor in South Africa. When de Klerk attended President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address that year, some members shouted at him and demanded that he leave.

“We have a murderer in the House,” declared Julius Malema, firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party, denouncing de Klerk as an “apartheid apologist with blood on his hands.”

Ramaphosa said Thursday he and the government were saddened by the death of de Klerk. De Klerk had played a “key role in ushering in democracy” in the country, Ramaphosa said, expressing his condolences to the former president’s family.

De Klerk is survived by his second wife, and two children.



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