A mixed legacy

November 21, 2021

FW de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa, had an important role in his country’s transition to democracy

A mixed legacy

Frederik Willem de Klerk, who formally dismantled the apartheid system established by his ancestors, and which he presided over in South Africa, breathed his last at his home near Cape Town on November 11. He was 85.

De Klerk was born in Johannesburg in 1936. In addition to his Afrikaner heritage, he was a descendant of Dutch and Huguenot settlers who arrived in southern Africa in the 17th Century. Jan de Klerk, his father, was a cabinet member under three prime ministers. He also served as the president of the Senate. Hans Strijdom, an uncle, was a pro-apartheid prime minister in the 1950s. His grandfather, Willem, was a minister and a founding member of the National Party.

De Klerk studied law at Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education. Before becoming a cabinet member under PW Botha, he served in the administration of BJ Vorster and sometimes supported racial hardliners in the party. As a cabinet minister, he stood up to Roelof F Botha in 1986 and requested that he retract his prediction that there may one day be a black president in South Africa.

Belonging to a prominent Afrikaner family, he rabidly defended the separation of the races throughout his long political career. In 1989, he astounded both his nation and the world by re-evaluating South Africa’s racist practices, a move that led to him sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, whom he had freed from prison.

By the 1980s, the world saw South Africa as a pariah. Considering the internal unrest and the country’s tainted reputation, he underlined the need for a new course.

Despite the peace prize, many South Africans questioned his commitment to bringing an end to apartheid. He seemed to skirt the issue of how objectionable segregation had been. Due to his role as the right-hand man of PW Botha— his predecessor, it was nearly impossible for most black South Africans to see him as anything other than one of the many repressive white leaders.

Apartheid had complex laws — from rights and privileges to the size of prison meals based on skin colour. Unshackling from it or ending it was not easy. It required centuries of legislative action and significant national anguish.

In 1990, De Klerk lifted the 30-year ban on the African National Congress. He released one of its most prominent leaders, Nelson Mandela, from prison. This set a profound transformation in motion and quickly pushed him out of the limelight.

In 1990, de Klerk lifted the 30-year ban on the African National Congress. He released one of its most prominent leaders, Nelson Mandela, from prison. This set a profound transformation in motion and quickly pushed him out of the limelight. Four years after winning his freedom, Mandela won the presidential elections. Meanwhile, FW de Klerk was asked to serve in his transitional government as second deputy president. He, however, struggled with his faded role and eventually called it quits.

Later, he tried to transform the National Party from a predominantly white group into a multiracial one backed by the African National Congress (ANC). It had been created with the help of his grandfather. However, those efforts came to nothing. He became exasperated by internal party tensions and denunciation from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which scrutinised the country’s past. In 1997, the last leader of apartheid-era South Africa retired from politics.

Together, he and Mandela were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their joint efforts to remake the country. However, their relationship was much less cordial than it appeared. In his autobiography, The Last Trek — A New Beginning, De Klerk complained that he not only felt underappreciated but also disrespected by Mandela during the award celebrations.

“I was seething,” he wrote of an outspoken speech Mandela made in Norway after the prize ceremony. “It was only with the greatest self-control that I once again managed to bite my tongue and not shatter once and for all the illusion that there was a cordial relationship between me and Mandela.”

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

Into the bargain, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described his relationship with the late former president as a consequence of necessity. FW de Klerk’s legacy faced further criticism as a new generation of black South Africans found their voice.

Following his death, the FW de Klerk Foundation released a video in which he clarified his stance on apartheid, particularly addressed to those who did not accept his apology for racism, and apologised once again, “without qualification”. He is survived by his wife, Elita, and his children, Jan and Susan.

Having dismantled apartheid, and as the last white president to lead the country, FW de Klerk was well aware that he had undone much of the work his ancestors had devoted decades to accomplish.

The writer is a freelance contributor

A mixed legacy