FW de Klerk dead: How will South Africas last white president be remembered?

Former South African president FW de Klerk dies aged 85

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FW de Klerk died on Thursday morning at his home in Cape Town, South Africa, the FW de Klerk Foundation said in a statement. The 85-year-old had been diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer – which affects the lining of the lungs – in June this year. The foundation said he was “survived by his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan and his grandchildren”.

Who was FW de Klerk?

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born on 18 March 1936 in Johannesburg, into a line of Afrikaner politicians.

He studied law at the conservative Potchefstroom University, working as a lawyer for 11 years before winning a seat in parliament for the ruling National Party in 1972.

He took over as head of the National Party after PW Botha – remembered for being a purveyor of racial segregation – suffered a stroke.

In 1989, Mr de Klerk was sworn in as president of South Africa under the apartheid regime which had been in place in some form since the 1940s.

Was he really anti-apartheid?

In his younger years and early stages of his presidency, Mr de Klerk supported apartheid.

He believed in the legal architecture separating races in the country, including separate residential areas, schools and institutions for different race groups.

But as his time in power began, Mr de Klerk became increasingly aware of an appetite for change within the country, and the necessity for a controlled shift in dynamics.

He publicly called for a non-racist South Africa, and late in 1989, he freed Walter Sisulu and other political prisoners as a preliminary move ahead of his more sweeping reforms.

On February 2, 1990, President de Klerk lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and released Nelson Mandela nine days later.

The remainder of his term in office was dominated by the negotiations that were to eventually lead to majority rule under Nelson Mandela in 1994.

But the four years between Mr Mandela’s release and the ANC forming a government were brutal and bloody, as the ANC and rival Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) battled for power.

Allegations were made against Mr de Klerk for adding fuel to this fire, claiming he had conspired with security forces in an attempt to unsettle the anti-apartheid factions.

Nelson Mandela himself made this accusation in his book, Long Walk to Freedom.

De Klerk strongly denied the allegations, claiming he had no power over those taking violent actions against the move to democracy, but later admitted in a 2004 interview that security forces had conducted undercover activities.

White extremists were also growing in discontent, fearing an end to the lifestyle they enjoyed under apartheid.

In response, Mr de Klerk sensed the threat and offered a “whites only” referendum in 1992, in which a majority of white voters endorsed further reform.

Change was now unstoppable. In 1993, Mr de Klerk was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela.

Mr de Klerk served as deputy president after the first all-race vote in 1994 and retired from politics in 1997 saying: “I am resigning because I am convinced it is in the best interest of the party and the country.”

Although the relationship between De Klerk and Mandela was often punctuated by bitter disagreements, the new president described the man he succeeded as someone of great integrity.

When Nelson Mandela died in 2013, De Klerk paid tribute to the country’s first black president.

He said: “He was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard, beyond everything else he did.

“This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy.”

What will his legacy be?

Certainly, serving as the man in power when the brutal apartheid regime was finally dismantled and having the courage to do so will be at the heart of Mr de Klerk’s legacy and will be the primary note in the history books.

But his true nature might not be remembered by some as quite so black and white.

Just last year, he was heavily criticised for a comment made during an interview with the national broadcaster, in which he said he didn’t “fully agree” that apartheid was a crime against humanity.

The comment opened up old wounds in the country, where racial inequalities are still rife and the dynamic is still fraught.

Mr De Klerk went on to acknowledge that it was a crime, and to apologise profusely for his role in it, but he insisted that apartheid was responsible for relatively few deaths and that it should not be put in the same category of “genocide” or “crimes against humanity”.

The fallout was huge. The ANC condemned Mr De Klerk’s argument as “a blatant whitewash [which]… flies in the face of our commitments to reconciliation and nation-building”.

Opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) called him an “apartheid apologist… with blood on his hands”.

In his second statement, withdrawing his first, Mr De Klerk acknowledged that his comments about apartheid had been “totally unacceptable”.

But the damage was done. Young South Africans, facing a legacy of inequality and poverty, have less respect for those who dismantled apartheid with each passing generation.

Some black South Africans have taken to arguing that Mr Mandela himself was a sell-out and that the painful and hard-won compromises that led to the emergence of a democratic “rainbow” nation, now need to be re-examined.

FW de Klerk: A visionary, a reactionist, a complicated legacy.

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