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South Africa’s Last Apartheid President Leaves Behind a Conflicted Legacy

FW de Klerk Dies at 85, Oversaw Apartheid and Transition to Democracy

Former South African President F.W. de Klerk arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria, South Africa, May 25, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File

On November 11, the FW De Klerk foundation announced that South Africa’s last apartheid president, Frederik Willem De Klerk, had died at age 85, after a struggle with mesothelioma. De Klerk’s conflicted legacy triggered mixed reactions over his passing. He played a large role in a racist and oppressive apartheid regime characterized by gross human rights abuses against the majority black South Africans but then used his presidency to bring an end to apartheid rule and usher democracy into South Africa.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged De Klerk’s contradictory legacy, and noted how the apartheid regime espoused and implemented policies that wreaked havoc on millions of South Africans, which many will never forget. Sello Hatang, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said De Klerk’s legacy is “an uneven one, something South Africans are called to reckon with in this moment.”

De Klerk was president from 1989 to 1993, and deputy president to South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, from 1994 to 1996. In February 1990, De Klerk lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other opposition groups and freed Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. In 1993, de Klerk received a joint Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for their work in dismantling apartheid and ushering in democracy.

In 1994, South Africa’s new government introduced the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Commission was tasked with documenting crimes during the apartheid era, making recommendations for reparations, and determining where amnesty for some individuals was appropriate.

The TRC, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, found that apartheid was a crime against humanity and that the previous government was responsible for most of the human rights violations during the period 1960 to 1994. The Commission also found that the ANC and other liberation movements had committed gross abuses during the armed struggle against apartheid. In his August 1996 submission to the TRC, De Klerk denied authorizing the commission of gross human rights violations during apartheid. De Klerk successfully challenged the findings in court, and a section naming him as a perpetrator of abuses was removed. In February 2020, he refused to acknowledge that apartheid was a crime against humanity, despite the United Nations declaring it such in 1966.

The Desmond Tutu foundation said it was “sad that Mr. De Klerk missed the many chances he had to fully reconcile with all South Africans by acknowledging the full extent of the damage caused by apartheid.” In his last message to the people of South Africa, published by his foundation after his death, De Klerk said, “I without qualification apologize for the pain and the hurt and the indignity that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians.”

Unfortunately, De Klerk’s belated apology from the grave still failed to acknowledge apartheid as a crime against humanity, or the full extent and lasting negative social, economic, and political impact of apartheid’s racist policies and gross human rights abuses.

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