South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk, dies aged 85

De Klerk negotiated a peaceful transfer of power to a black-led government under the late Nelson Mandela.

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FW de Klerk facing criminal charges for apartheid
Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk

Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, died on Thursday aged 85, his foundation announced. De Klerk, who negotiated a peaceful transfer of power to a black-led government under the late Nelson Mandela, died after a battle with cancer.  

“It is with the deepest sadness that the FW de Klerk Foundation must announce that former president FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer…” the foundation said.

“Former President FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer…” the foundation added.

He had announced his diagnosis on his 85th birthday, on March 18 this year.

“He is survived by his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan and his grandchildren…the family will, in due course, make an announcement regarding funeral arrangements…” the foundation said.

Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk

De Klerk was feted globally for his role in scrapping apartheid and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993; his role in the transition to democracy remains highly contested more than 20 years after the end of apartheid.

Though no longer active in South African politics, he prompted anger among supporters of then-president Jacob Zuma in 2016 when he accused them and their leader of seeking to advance their personal interests and of endangering the country’s constitutional democracy.

He again drew criticism last year when he told a national broadcaster that he did not believe apartheid was a crime against humanity, as declared by the United Nations. The backlash triggered by his remarks forced him to withdraw from a virtual seminar with the American Bar Association (ABA) in the United States, where he had been due to speak on issues such as minority rights and racism.

“The allegation that de Klerk was involved in gross violations of human rights is baseless…” his foundation said in July 2020 when he withdrew from the event.

Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk and Nelson Mandela

He is most remembered for his famous speech delivered on February 2, 1990, announcing the lifting of a ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements. In the same speech he ordered the release from prison of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in jail.

Born in the economic hub of Johannesburg, into a family of Afrikaners, a white ethnic group descended mainly from Dutch colonizers, his father was a leading apartheid senator who served briefly as interim president.

De Klerk studied law, before being elected to parliament as a member of the National Party that instituted apartheid. He then held several ministerial positions before he became president in 1989, a position he held until he handed over the reigns to Mandela after the first democratic elections in 1994.

Key dates in the life of FW de Klerk, whose time in power marked the end of the racist apartheid regime.

– March 18, 1936: Frederik Willem de Klerk is born in Johannesburg into a family of Afrikaners, a white ethnic group descended mainly from Dutch colonizers. His father is a top senator who serves briefly as interim president.

– 1954-1958: Studies law at university; joins the Broederbond, a secret and ethnically exclusive Calvinist male Afrikaner organisation that wields huge influence in South Africa.

– 1959: Marries fellow student Marike Willemse, who will be a key ally in his political career and a politician in her own right. 

– 1972: Elected to parliament as a member of the National Party that promotes Afrikaner interests in South Africa.

– 1978-1989: Holds a succession of ministerial posts.

– 1989-1994: In office as South Africa’s president.

– February 2, 1990: Legalises the banned African National Congress and orders the release of its iconic figurehead Nelson Mandela after 27 years in jail.

– 1991: Ends the apartheid regime in place since 1948.

– 1993: He and Mandela jointly receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their roles in South Africa’s “miracle” transition to democracy.

– September 9, 1997: Retires from active politics.

– 1998: Divorces Marike de Klerk and marries Elita Georgiades, the wife of a Greek shipping tycoon with whom he had been having an affair. – 2000: Sets up the FW de Klerk Foundation to promote inter-community relations.

– December 4, 2001: Marike de Klerk is brutally murdered by a security guard at her home in Cape Town.

– February 2020: Sparks fury when he denies apartheid was a crime against humanity, retracting his comments days later.

– March 18, 2021: Announces he has cancer.

– November 11, 2021: He dies at his home.

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