FW de Klerk, the former president of South Africa and the very last white person to lead the country, has died at the age of 85. He was also a key figure in the transition of democracy and was diagnosed with cancer this year.
He was the head of state between September 1989 and May 1994. In 1990, he had ordered Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, which led to historic elections that brought the anti-apartheid leader to power.
He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for helping to negotiate an end to apartheid. But his legacy divides opinion in South Africa. A statement from the former president’s FW de Klerk Foundation on Thursday reported that he died peacefully at his home in Cape Town after his struggle against mesothelioma – a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs.
The foundation also released a video recording dubbed De Klerk’s “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.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent condolences to De Klerk’s wife and children, and said the former leader’s death “should inspire all of us to reflect on the birth of our democracy”.
He was born in March 1936 in Johannesburg, into a line of Afrikaner National Party politicians. He worked as a lawyer and served in a series of ministerial posts before taking over from PW Botha as the head of the National Party in February 1989, and months later becoming president.
In a speech to parliament the next year, he announced that he was removing the ban on parties that included Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). He also announced that Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years.
The president’s work 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 watched Mandela become president.
The former president had retired from politics in 1997, saying: “I am resigning because I am convinced it is in the best interest of the party and the country.”