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FW de Klerk, last apartheid president in South Africa, dies at 85

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FW de Klerk, who as president of South Africa dismantled the apartheid system that he and his ancestors helped set up, died Thursday at his home near Cape Town. He was 85 years old.

His death was confirmed by the FW de Klerk Foundation, which said in a statement that he was undergoing treatment for cancer.

A member of an eminent Afrikaner family, M. de Klerk had vehemently defended the separation of races during his long political ascent. But once he took office as president in 1989, he stunned his deeply divided nation, and the entire world, by reconsidering South Africa’s racist ways, a step that led him to share the Nobel Peace Prize winner with Nelson Mandela, whom he released from prison. .

South Africa had become such an outcast in the eyes of the world in the 1980s, with its internal strife and tarnished reputation so disruptive to the economy, that Mr de Klerk argued that the country’s future depended on a new course.

“He did not say that apartheid was bad or immoral, but that he decided that it was not going to work,” said Herman J. Cohen, who spoke to Mr. de Klerk during this meeting. tumultuous period as State Department leader in Africa. adviser in the administration of President George HW Bush.

With its web of insidious laws distributing rights, privileges and even the size of prison meals based on skin color, apartheid was not easy to defeat; ending it required years of legislative action and significant national angst. But when Mr de Klerk announced in 1990 the lifting of the 30-year ban on the African National Congress and the release from prison of its most prominent leader, Mr Mandela, it sparked a transformation so powerful it quickly pushed to the margins.

Mr Mandela is said to be trampling on Mr de Klerk in the presidential elections just four years after being freed. Even when Mr Mandela invited Mr de Klerk into his transitional government as second vice president, Mr de Klerk struggled with his diminished role and ultimately resigned.

He then sought to transform the National Party, which his grandfather had helped create, from a white-dominated organization to a multiracial organization with the weight of the ANC, but those efforts failed. Frustrated by internal party tensions and criticism from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has investigated the country’s past, Mr de Klerk announced his retirement from politics in 1997.

He and Mr Mandela shared the price of peace in 1993, cited for their joint efforts to remake the country, although their relationship is less harmonious than it seems. Mr. de Klerk complained in his autobiography, “The Last Trek – A New Beginning”, that he felt underestimated and was sometimes openly attacked by Mr. Mandela during the celebrations surrounding the award.

“I was bubbling over,” he wrote of a frank speech Mr Mandela gave in Sweden after the awards ceremony. “It was only with the greatest mastery of myself that I once again managed to bite my tongue and not once and for all break the illusion that there was a cordial relationship between me. and Mandela. “

He added: “It was ironic that we both traveled so far to achieve the world’s highest honor for peace and reconciliation – when the relationship between us was characterized by so much vitriol and suspicion. “

In his own autobiography, “Long March to Freedom”, Mr. Mandela described his relationship with Mr. de Klerk as one born out of necessity. “To make peace with an enemy,” he wrote, “you have to work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes his partner.

Although the two would become symbols of racial harmony, with their likenesses sold in South African stores on T-shirts and as salt and pepper shakers, Mr. Mandela was wary in his praise of Mr. de Klerk’s role. in the end of apartheid.

“Despite his seemingly progressive actions,” Mandela wrote, “Mr. de Klerk was by no means the great emancipator. He was a progressive, a cautious pragmatist. He did not make any of his reforms with intent. to put himself out of power He did them for precisely the opposite reason: to secure power for the Afrikaners in a new dispensation.

As a new generation of black South Africans found their voice, Mr de Klerk’s legacy came under increasing criticism. In a final message – a video released by his foundation hours after his death – he clarified his position on apartheid. In particular, he addressed those who he said did not believe his apology for the pain and indignity caused by racist policies, and apologized again, “wholeheartedly”.

“Let me in this last post share with you the fact that since the early 1980s my point of view has changed completely,” said Mr de Klerk, looking frail, his voice trembling. “It was as if I had had a conversion and in my heart I realized that apartheid was bad.”

He is survived by his wife, Elita, and children Jan and Susan, his foundation said.

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936, into a family rooted in Afrikaner politics, descendants of Dutch and Huguenot settlers who arrived in southern Africa in the 17th century. His father, Jan de Klerk, a school principal, became a member of the cabinet of three prime ministers and president of the Senate. His uncle, Hans Strijdom, a strong supporter of apartheid, served as Prime Minister in the 1950s.

His grandfather, also named Willem, was a proud Afrikaner, having been arrested for treason by the British before becoming a minister and a founding member of the National Party.

“Politics”, wrote M. de Klerk in his autobiography, “was in my blood”.

A lawyer by training at Potchefstroom University for Christian higher education, Mr. de Klerk became a member of PW Botha’s cabinet and BJ Vorster’s administration before that. At times he sided with the hard-line racialists within his party, and he was one of the cabinet ministers who went to see Mr. Botha in 1986 and demanded that the foreign minister Roelof F. Botha is ordered to retract from a prediction that South Africa may one day have a black president.

In his book “Move Your Shadow”, Joseph Lelyveld, a former editor of the New York Times who had spoken of South Africa as the newspaper’s correspondent, recalls interviewing Mr. de Klerk, then a young cabinet member. , about the death in police custody of a white man accused of sympathizing with the ANC, Mr. de Klerk said he was angry when he learned of the death. Why? “I knew how it would be used against us,” he said.

Admirers of Mr de Klerk have described these moves as an indication that he was a shrewd politician who knew that moving South Africa away from apartheid could only come from someone well respected by the conservatives of the country. Others saw it as less visionary and more practical, aware that the grip of whites over the black majority was crumbling.

Mr. de Klerk has not forgotten that by dismantling apartheid he was undoing much of the work that his ancestors had struggled for decades to put in place.

Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting from Johannesburg.


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