FW de Klerk, who handed SA’s reins to Nelson Mandela, dies aged 85

Former state president FW de Klerk died at his home in Cape Town on Thursday at the age of 85.

His foundation said in a statement: “It is with the deepest sadness that the FW de Klerk Foundation must announce that former president FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer.”

He is survived by his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan and his grandchildren.

De Klerk disclosed on his 85th birthday in March that he was suffering from the cancer, which affects the lining of the lungs. He was undergoing immunotherapy to treat it. The announcement came less than a year after his son Willem died of cancer in Durbanville at the age of 53.

Referred to as “the last white ruler of South Africa,” De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with Nelson Mandela “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”

He had ruled over the final years of apartheid between 1989 and 1994.

A prominent Afrikaner, De Klerk had strongly defended the separation of the races during his long climb up the political ladder. But once he took over as president in 1989, he stunned his deeply divided nation, and the wider world.

As the leader of the National Party, which initiated and whose official policy was apartheid, he announced broad reforms and plans for a new constitution.

They included the unbanning of liberation movements, the release of political leaders from prison, and the start of negotiations for a transition to a democratic country.

Former president FW de Klerk has died at the age of 85.
Image: Alaister Russell/Sunday Times

After the handover to democratic rule, he served for two more years as deputy president to Mandela.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in the late 1990s, he acknowledged that torture, murder, rape and other crimes were committed against anti-apartheid activists. But he blamed them on rogue operations without official approval.

After stepping down from active politics, De Klerk set up two foundations: the FW de Klerk Foundation, which checks all registrations coming before parliament for their constitutionality, and the Global Leadership Foundation, a think-tank involving global leaders.

After their initial wariness of each other, De Klerk told the Sunday Times in 2015 that he and Mandela became good friends and visited each other’s homes. “When he died I was very sad about the loss of a friend but also sad to think about the degree to which his legacy of reconciliation, nation-building and uncompromising integrity is beginning to unravel.”

His decision to abandon apartheid was not sudden, he told interviewer Lin Sampson.

“I had been thinking about it since the mid-1980s. I said that the aim was a totally new and just constitutional dispensation in which every inhabitant will enjoy equal rights, treatment and opportunity in every sphere of endeavour – constitutional, social and economic.”

In retirement, though, he had become “deeply concerned about developments in South Africa and about the need to protect and promote the constitution. I am also concerned about the degree to which the SA Communist Party, without winning a single vote, has succeeded in influencing economic policy and has taken over control of the National Democratic Revolution. I am worried by increasing corruption … Like many South Africans I am very worried about the areas in which we are moving in the wrong direction, with regard to continuing inequality; the failure of our education system and unacceptable levels of unemployment, particularly among young people.”

The foundation said the family will, in due course, make an announcement regarding funeral arrangements.