White Leader Who Freed Nelson Mandela Dies

FW de Klerk shared Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 11, 2021 6:11 AM CST
South Africa's Last White President Dies
Then-South African Deputy President FW de Klerk and then-South African President Nelson Mandela pose with their Nobel Peace Prize Gold Medal and Diploma, in Oslo, Dec. 10, 1993.   (Jon Eeg/NTB Scanpix via AP, File)

"When I talk about the end of apartheid, I prefer not to claim the honor that I have ended it," former South African President FW de Klerk said in 2011. But de Klerk, who has died at age 85, certainly played a major role in the end of white minority rule and the transition to democracy. In reforms announced in a landmark 1990 speech, five months after he was elected, he lifted a ban on the African National Congress and authorized the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. The FW de Klerk foundation announced early Thursday that he had died peacefully at his Cape Town home after a struggle with mesothelioma cancer, the BBC reports. The foundation announced his diagnosis in June.

De Klerk, a former education minister, was the country's head of state from 1989, when he replaced defiant apartheid defender PW Botha, until 1994, when Mandela became the country's first Black president after the first election in which the Black majority was allowed to vote, Al Jazeera reports. De Klerk, whose National Party got 20% of the vote in 1994, served as deputy president from 1994 until 1996. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He remained a controversial figure in his homeland, where he was blamed for violence against Black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his decades in National Party governments and considered a traitor by many right-wing whites, the AP reports.

The relationship between de Klerk and Mandela was deeply strained as they negotiated the future shape of South Africa's government in the early 1990s, but Mandela praised de Klerk at the Nobel ceremony, the Washington Post reports. "He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people" and "the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants, together determine what they want to make of their future," Mandela said. (More FW de Klerk stories.)

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