HE was the leader of an administration that represented 350 years of racist rule in southern Africa.

But ex-President FW de Klerk, who died yesterday aged 85, was also the man who freed Nelson Mandela from jail.


In doing so he also freed South Africa from apartheid — the hated regime of white supremacy that consigned the country’s black population to second-class citizens.

And last night his office issued a remarkable video of de Klerk denouncing the horrors of apartheid from beyond the grave.

In it, looking close to death, he said: “I, without qualification, apologise 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 life-long smoker, the former president died peacefully at his home in Cape Town from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs.

He was a controversial figure who divided opinion, and while inextricably linked with Mandela, the two were often at loggerheads.

Legendary anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “The former President occupied an historic but difficult space in South Africa.

“Although some South Africans found the global recognition of Mr de Klerk hard to accept, Mr Mandela himself praised him for his courage in seeing the country’s political transformation process through.”

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in March 1936 in Johannesburg, into a line of Afrikaner politicians, descended from French Huguenots who fled to South Africa. 

Softly-spoken FW worked as a lawyer before following his father and grandfather into politics in 1972.

He spent years as Education Minister, running a school system that spent ten times more on white kids than black ones.

When de Klerk took control of the ruling National Party in 1989 he was expected to continue defending the apartheid regime that had made South Africa a pariah around the world.

But he knew the winds of change were blowing across Africa and in a speech to parliament in February 1990 he shocked the nation by revealing that Mandela would be released.

At the same time, he lifted a ban on opposition parties, including Mandela’s African National Congress. Amid gasps, several members of parliament left the chamber as he spoke.

De Klerk had kept the decision to release Mandela a closely-guarded secret, fearing a leak and backlash from right-wing white South Africans.

But nine days later Mandela walked free after 27 years in prison, many of them spent in appalling conditions in solitary confinement on Robben Island, four miles off Cape Town.

Labour MP Roy Hattersley remembered: “Mr Mandela was charming, wise and had the grandeur of a king. While Mr de Klerk had star quality, he belonged in a minor constellation.”

As he watched Mandela walk to freedom, it became clear de Klerk’s own days in power were numbered.

His decision helped bring an end to the country’s international isolation and paved the way for Mandela’s election victory in 1994, with black South Africans being allowed to vote for the first time.

When de Klerk celebrated his 70th birthday in 2006, Nelson Mandela praised him for taking that plunge into the unknown, saying: “You have shown courage that few have done in similar circumstances.”

Mandela wrote in his autobiography that nothing in Mr de Klerk’s past “seemed to hint at the spirit of reform” and it was not until he retired from politics that de Klerk apologised for apartheid.

He said: “History has shown that as far as the policy of apartheid was concerned, our former leaders were deeply mistaken in the course upon which they embarked.”

Many in South Africa say that while de Klerk did bow to inevitable change, his role was overplayed and over-credited. Critics in his own party accused him of being an opportunist.

Tellingly, de Klerk’s autobiography included just one paragraph on the 1960 massacre in Sharpeville township, where police fired on a crowd of black people demonstrating against apartheid, killing or wounding 250.

And the 1976 Soweto uprising, when police killed nearly 200 protestors, barely made a mention and it took until the day of his death for him to issue his full apology for apartheid.

In 1993 de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their often-tense co-operation in moving South Africa from institutionalised racism to true democracy.

But the relationship between the two men was rarely cordial. En route to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize, de Klerk stopped off in London.

He recalled: “I had finally received the British Foreign Office’s ultimate stamp of approval — my first invitation to meet the Queen. She was strongly supportive of the transition process.” But when he arrived in Norway, dinner with Mandela and his daughter Zindzi was difficult.

De Klerk said: “The atmosphere was stiff, particularly from Mandela’s side. Before my arrival, he had chosen once again to attack me in interviews. Apparently he was not pleased by the decision to include me in the award.

“In private conversations, the chairman of the Nobel Committee let me know how controversial their decision to grant the award to me as well as Mandela had been.

“My reception was reserved by comparison with the effusive welcome accorded to Mandela.”

After receiving their joint award, the two men went on to the first-floor balcony at Oslo’s Grand Hotel to watch a torch-lit procession, when the crowd started shouting ANC slogans.

De Klerk remembered: “I heard some shouting, ‘Kill the farmer! Kill the Boer!’ Others were shouting, ‘De Klerk go home!’

Forever be linked to Nelson Mandela

“Mandela was smiling warmly and waving. It was a very unpleasant situation. However, we stood our ground and faced the crowd.

“Next day we flew to Stockholm. Mandela made a blistering attack on me and the National Party. I was seething.”

After multi-party elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela was voted in as South Africa’s first black president, while de Klerk became one of two deputy presidents in a National Unity Government.

He retired from active politics in 1997, then the following year came the exposure of his affair with Elita Georgiades, wife of a Greek shipping tycoon who had allegedly given de Klerk and the NP financial support.

In 1999 de Klerk and Marike, his wife of 38 years, divorced following the discovery of his affair. When de Klerk went on to marry his lover, conservative South African opinion was scandalised.

No wonder he urged publishers of jilted Marike’s life story to suppress a chapter dealing with his infidelity.

On December 3, 2001, Marike was found stabbed and strangled to death in her Cape Town flat. De Klerk, who was abroad, immediately returned to mourn his ex-wife.

A 21-year-old security guard was later jailed for life for her murder, as well as three years for breaking into Marike’s apartment.

In retirement de Klerk did not abandon politics and founded the FW de Klerk Foundation to promote peaceful activities in multi-community countries and travelled the world as an advocate for democracy.

In 2004 he quit the New National Party because of a planned merger with the ANC.

And when Nelson Mandela died in 2013, De Klerk paid tribute to the country’s first black president. “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.”

In 2015 he waded into the row at Oxford University, criticising the demand of activists that a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College should be removed.

He said: “Students have always been full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Last night the Nelson Mandela Foundation said FW De Klerk, “will forever be linked to Nelson Mandela in the annals of South African history.

“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.”

But South African actress Pearl Thusi – who starred in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on BBC TV – said: “If FW de Klerk gets a state funeral that will be huge middle finger to the people who suffered under the apartheid regime in this country.”


TRIBUTES FOR MAN WHO CHANGED WORLD POLITICS

LAST night tributes poured in for a statesman who had a hand in changing world politics.

Former Labour PM Tony Blair said: “He demonstrated great courage to end apartheid. The path was never smooth but his legacy is immense.”

And ex-PM Sir John Major added: “F W de Klerk was a man who realised that apartheid was morally and politically wrong, and acted to bring it to an end.

“He freed political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, ended racial segregation and faced down hostility in his own party.

“He worked with Mr Mandela to fully dismantle apartheid and return South Africa to democracy and the community of nations.

“He deserves to be remembered as a brave politician who helped change the future of his country for the better.”

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