South Africa's Last Apartheid President, Who Freed Nelson Mandela from Prison, Dies at 85

"De Klerk's legacy is a big one. It is also an uneven one, something South Africans are called to reckon with in this moment," the Mandela Foundation said of his death

Frederik Willem de Klerk
Photo: Roger Askew/Shutterstock

F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last apartheid president and the leader who freed Nelson Mandela from prison after nearly 30 years, helping usher in major democratic reforms alongside the country's Black majority, has died. He was 85.

On Thursday, the FW de Klerk Foundation announced that he had died of mesothelioma cancer at his home in Fresnaye, Cape Town. He first disclosed he was sick with cancer in March.

De Klerk served as the last white president of South Africa, from 1989 to 1994, and went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for their roles in helping end the country's notorious apartheid system of legalized racial segregation, which among other restrictions enforced limited voting powers for Black people.

According to The New York Times and other accounts, de Klerk's shifting views on apartheid and the need for change were personally driven by his religious faith.

At the same time, South Africa was under major international pressure to reform its government and its society had been marred by years of political violence.

The de Klerk Foundation's statement on Thursday highlighted how he was behind key reforms that helped South Africa make the transition from an apartheid state to a democracy, including the un-banning of anti-apartheid groups like African National Congress; the 1990 release of Mandela and other political prisoners; and the end of the state of emergency and a moratorium on the death penalty.

"FW de Klerk's actions and speech marked the official end of segregation policies and the official start of the negotiations that led to a constitutional democracy with equal rights for all South Africans," the statement read.

De Klerk's other milestones include sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993.

Mandela, who died in 2013, became his successor and the first Black South African president. For a time, de Klerk served as a deputy in his government — though, as he later wrote in his memoir, he and Mandela had a strained relationship in private.

De Klerk was a conservative politician whose party long supported the apartheid system that for decades segregated whites and Blacks. His call for a South Africa that was "free of domination or oppression in whatever form," as he said in 1989, was seen as both surprising and pragmatic, though he insisted the reforms he sought were still intended to protect the county's white minority.

He also faced personal scandals during his career, including admitting to an affair in the '90s and contending with reports that his son was dating someone of mixed race, despite his role in the white-minority government.

According to CNN, Klerk took part in ratifying a new constitution for the post-apartheid era that began with Mandela's election in 1994.

"De Klerk's legacy is a big one. It is also an uneven one, something South Africans are called to reckon with in this moment," the Mandela Foundation said of his death, according to the Associated Press.

De Klerk is survived by his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan and his grandchildren, the foundation said.

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