FW de Klerk: South Africa’s last apartheid president dies at 85

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To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, FW De Klerk, South Africa's last president of apartheid, was also a key figure in the nation's transition to democracy

FW de Klerk, the former president of South Africa and the last white person to lead the country, has died.

The 85-year-old had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

He came to power in 1989 under apartheid, a system of legalised racism, but later became a key figure in the transition to democracy.

He ordered Nelson Mandela's release from prison, leading to historic polls where the anti-apartheid leader became the first black president.

De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for helping to negotiate an end to apartheid. But his legacy divides opinion in South Africa.

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Following his death, the FW de Klerk Foundation released a video recording – dubbed his "final message" – in which he talks about apartheid.

"Let me today, in the last message repeat: I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt, and the indignity, and the damage, to black, brown and Indians in South Africa," he says.

The foundation said De Klerk had died peacefully at his home following his struggle against mesothelioma – a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said De Klerk's death "should inspire all of us to reflect on the birth of our democracy".

Ending apartheid

After working for more than a decade as a lawyer, De Klerk won a parliamentary seat for the National Party, which had introduced the system of apartheid in 1948.

He served in several ministerial posts before taking over as the head of the party in February 1989, and months later becoming president.

De Klerk had been a firm believer in apartheid, but after coming to power he publicly called for a non-racist South Africa.

In a famous speech to parliament in 1990, he announced that he was removing the ban on parties that included Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) and said he was ordering Mandela's release from prison after 27 years.

His actions helped bring an end to apartheid-era South Africa, and he became one of the country's two deputy presidents after the multi-party elections in 1994 that saw Mandela become president.

De Klerk retired from politics in 1997, saying: "I am convinced it is in the best interest of the party and the country."

'Uneven legacy'

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.

In a statement on Thursday, the Nelson Mandela Foundation said De Klerk would "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," it added.

Image source, ReutersImage caption, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk in 2006

Many have blamed De Klerk for violence committed against black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his time in power.

Last year, he became embroiled in a row in which he was accused of playing down the seriousness of apartheid, after saying he was "not fully agreeing" with a presenter who asked him to confirm that it was a crime against humanity. De Klerk later apologised for "quibbling" over the matter.

Human rights lawyer Howard Varney on Thursday described him as an "apologist for apartheid", while the Fort Calata Foundation – which campaigns for justice for people killed by the former white-minority regime – called him an "apartheid criminal".

In the video message released following his death, De Klerk said he had on many occasions "apologised for the pain and the indignity that apartheid has brought to persons of colour in South Africa".

In his message, Mr Ramaphosa praised De Klerk for the "vital role" he played in South Africa's transition to democracy, despite "severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency".

South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said De Klerk's contribution to the country's transition to democracy could not be overstated.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said De Klerk would be remembered for his "steely courage and realism in doing what was manifestly right".

The reactions here in South Africa echo the divisions that have stalked FW de Klerk for decades. Some see him as a decent man, a rare politician who took the unusual step of negotiating a path – for himself and for his party – out of power, and in doing so, helped to steer the country away from the racial civil war that many feared would engulf South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But others, including Nelson Mandela, were more guarded, seeing de Klerk as a political opportunist, a conservative Afrikaaner, who realised that with the Cold War over and international sanctions biting, he had no alternative but to negotiate with the black majority.

In recent years, a younger generation of South Africans – some encouraged by populist politicians – have sought to question the compromises that accompanied South Africa's transition to democracy, and have argued that De Klerk and other apartheid leaders should be held responsible for the death squads that targeted members of the liberation movement.

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