Former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last white man ever to rule the country, has died Thursday of mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, at his home near Cape Town. He was 85.
De Klerk was South Africa’s last president from the apartheid-era, a time where rights were awarded according to skin color, while Nelson Mandela sat in jail for 27 years, before being released to eventually become the first head of a non-discriminatory state.
Mandela and de Klerk shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, even though before his accession to power, de Klerk had defended racist policies. However, after taking office, the Afrikaner leader backed the removal of apartheid policies—including the ban on opposition political parties and the release of political prisoners like Mandela.
In his autobiography, Mandela described his predecessor as a pragmatist “who saw change as necessary and inevitable.”
“Although I would not take back my criticisms, I would say that he had made a genuine and indispensable contribution to the peace process,” Mandela also wrote. Mandela died in 2013, at the age of 95.
Despite his actions regarding apartheid, De Klerk remained a deeply controversial figure in his country. He was accused of failing to stop violence among Black South Africans during his time in power. According to the New York Times, Herman J. Cohen, president George H.W. Bush’s top Africa advisor, recognized that de Klerk was not morally opposed to apartheid but “had decided it wasn’t going to work.”
By the time he took office as president, apartheid policies had made South Africa an international pariah, which prompted de Klerk to argue that the country needed to take a new path. De Klerk later publicly apologized for apartheid, noting that he hoped the “victims of our policies will find it in their hearts to forgive us.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa praised the man for his courage but also recalled what apartheid meant to the country's majority. “We are saddened because he did play a key role in ushering in democracy in our country,” Ramaphosa said.
“He was the leader of a party that was largely discredited, in relation to the role that the National Party played in enforcing apartheid. But he had the courage to step away from the path that his party, which he led, had embarked upon from 1948, and we will remember him for that. And, of course, the policies that the apartheid regime implemented have wreaked a lot of havoc on millions of South Africans and it was the havoc that many of our people will never forget, and have suffered from,” Ramaphosa added.
De Klerk stunned the world in February of 1990, five months into his presidency, and less than three months after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when he opened the way for an end to more than four decades of apartheid. He lifted the ban against the African National Congress (ANC) and released Mandela after 27 years in jail.