South Africa’s last white president FW de Klerk apologises for apartheid in video released after his death

South Africa’s last segregationist president apologised for the "pain and hurt" of apartheid in a video message released after his death amid a row over his legacy.

The death of FW de Klerk, who helped dismantle apartheid and transfer power to a black-led government, triggered national mourning but also celebration among his most ardent opponents.

In a video released by his foundation, he said, voice shaking: "Let me today, in this last message to the people, say 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."

It came as opponents threatened to disrupt any potential state funeral for the former leader. His family later said a private burial had already been prepared.

Boris Johnson joined world leaders in praising him for "changing the course of history".

But Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) charged with uncovering the horrors of the white-minority regime, said Mr de Klerk had occupied a "historic but difficult space".

Former President F.W. de Klerk

Mr de Klerk appeared before the commission, but never made a full account of the torture and killings committed by his apartheid government.

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 Nelson Mandela Foundation called his legacy "big" but "uneven".

Julius Malema, leader of the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the country’s third biggest political party in an increasingly divided South Africa, tweeted four dancing emojis with the words: "Thank you, God.”

He also indicated his support for disrupting the burial.

Mr Malema said Mr de Klerk should be referred to not as a "former president" but as a "former apartheid president". He also posted videos of his "mood", showing himself dancing joyously at an old rally.

His reaction is symbolic of an increasingly polarised South Africa, which has this year been rocked by racially-tinged violence and seen, while the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party suffered its worst electoral performance since it came to power after apartheid.

April 27, 1996. President Nelson Mandela holds hands with Deputy President Frederik W. De Klerk, at South Africa's Freedom Day celebration

Credit: Walter Dhladhla /AFP

His hard-Left party received a recent boost in local elections, growing at the expense of the ANC – and even taking the ward of Robben Island from them.

Mr de Klerk staunchly followed his National Party policy for decades and was considered a member of the party’s conservative wing when he took power as president of apartheid South Africa in September 1989.

But he shocked many in the party when he lifted a ban on the ANC and engineered Mr Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison.

Many still blame him for failing to stop some of the worst violence in South Africa’s history after Mr Mandela’s release when some apartheid supporters in the state security sector helped arm Zulus loyal to their leader. Some white South Africans, meanwhile, saw his efforts to end apartheid as a betrayal.

Nevertheless, Mr de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr Mandela, and power was finally handed over peacefully to the ANC through elections held in 1994.

Some of Mr Malema’s supporters called in to local radio stations. “He never acknowledged apartheid was a crime against humanity,” said one.

South Africa has been reckoning with a return of communal violence and rising racial tensions this summer.

The ANC’s poor showing at local elections last week followed rioting and looting in July when former president Jacob Zuma was imprisoned in a corruption case, leading to the death of 354 lives. Those loyal to Mr Zuma were later blamed for orchestrating the violence.

Further rioting followed in December, with 36 people killed in a violent uprising in the city of Durban where black and Indian communities had been living peacefully side-by-side. Most of those killed were said to have been black, and killed by Indians.

Experts said that the crackdown on corruption, mixed with historic levels of inequality, stoked by the pandemic, had fuelled the unrest.

Mr de Klerk’s family said it would in due course announce the funeral arrangements.

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