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F.W. De Klerk, Final South African President To Lead Under Apartheid, Dies At 85

Although criticized for once being a part of the racist regime, he was also praised for helping to end it.

F.W. De Klerk, the last president of South Africa to lead the country under the apartheid system has died after a battle with cancer at age 85. His death was confirmed to the Associated Press by a spokesperson on Thursday (Nov. 11).

De Klerk will also be remembered for being the president to usher in an end to the rule by a white minority in the final struggle to end apartheid. The system in which Black South Africans lived as victims of institutionalized, legal racial segregation and denial of human rights ruled the country from 1948 to the early 1990s. While in power, many blamed him for governmental attacks on anti-apartheid activists and Black people in general, upholding the system. But early in his tenure, South Africa lifted its ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and in 1990 announced that Nelson Mandela, jailed for his efforts with the ANC to dismantle apartheid, would be released after 27 years in prison, 18 of them on the infamous Robben Island.

“De Klerk’s legacy is a big one, the Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement. “It is also an uneven one, something South Africans are called to reckon with in this moment.”

During the last years of the apartheid regime, voices from all over the world criticized the country for upholding white rule of a nation that was not only majority Black but indigenously Black as well. Several African nations were the first to issue economic sanctions followed by several countries throughout the British Commonwealth and finally in the United States (whose lawmakers had to override a veto on sanctions by President Ronald Reagan).

Because of the isolation and pressure, De Klerk began to turn the direction of South Africa toward democracy, understanding the days of apartheid rule were coming to a close.

“The national party had already accepted by the 1980s that there was an absolute need for fundamental change and we brought together the constitutional committee,” De Klerk said in a 2018 interview with South Africa History Online. “I served on it before I became president in 1989 and we struggled with the question, “how can we bring full political rights to all South Africans but in a way which would not result in a dictatorship, which would not result in a failed state”, as it had happened in so many other parts in Africa. So we didn’t suddenly come to the conclusion that we must change: it was a process.”

This all came years after his political involvement with the apartheid system in which he sat as a minister under his predecessor P.W. Botha, an ardent upholder of the system. DeKlerk’s role in that government continues to be criticized today.

Mandela, who became a global voice of human rights, began working with DeKlerk on the process of dismantling the apartheid system throughout the nation. For their work they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

“You and I have had our differences, some of them very public,” Mandela said at De Klerk’s 70th birthday celebration, according to the Foundation’s website. “Our basic respect for one another has, however, never diminished. And it was that respect for the other irrespective of all differences that made it possible for us, and our organisations, to work together and to negotiate that historic compromise that the world marvelled at.”

Four years after his release from prison, Mandela became president of South Africa, ushering in a new era of Black rule, and bringing the nation back onto the world economic stage.

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Current South African president Cyril Ramaphosa praised De Klerk as having “played a vital role in our transition to democracy in the 1990s.”

““He took the courageous decision to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency,” Ramaphosa told reporters.

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