Our take: FW de Klerk: A divisive, pivotal part of SA’s story 

 FW de Klerk has died. He was apartheid South Africa’s final president and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for their roles in navigating the country towards democracy. Dave Steward, spokesperson for the FW de Klerk Foundation, told News24 today: “The former president died earlier this morning at his home in Fresnaye [Cape Town] after his struggle against cancer. He was 85-years-old. He is survived by his wife Elita, two children Susan and Jan, and his grandchildren.”

De Klerk was a divisive figure. Some have argued that without him, the relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy would never have happened. He made himself unpopular with many members and supporters of the ruling National Party when, in 1990, he unbanned the ANC and other liberation organisations. Days after De Klerk’s historic speech, Mandela was released from jail. It was the very public beginning of the end of formal apartheid. But, as academic and author Professor Christi van der Westhuizen wrote for The Conversation Africa today, these actions  “should not be read as a Damascene conversion to the principle of black majority rule…Rather the announcement was made by De Klerk the pragmatist. He was taking a strategic risk to regain the initiative, in a situation where the options beyond intensified military repression were rapidly shrinking.”

De Klerk was one of two deputy presidents to Mandela in 1994’s Government of National Unity, (the other was Thabo Mbeki), but left the post in 1996. He was heavily criticised for refusing to accept responsibility for brutal state crimes against anti-apartheid activists on his watch; he insisted he did not know about the atrocities. He also drew international ire by arguing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s that apartheid was not a crime against humanity – a stance he reiterated several times, including as recently as last year. After his 1997 retirement from politics, De Klerk remained a public figure. He established the FW de Klerk Foundation and Centre for Constitutional Rights, and was a popular speaker at events both at home and abroad. 

News of De Klerk’s death will no doubt elicit varied reactions from South Africans across the political spectrum. But his central role in our country’s recent history – in all its complexity – cannot be denied.

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 11 November 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.