South Africa’s last white president Frederik Willem de Klerk dies

South Africa’s last white president Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk has died at the age of 85.

Mr de Klerk was reported dead Thursday morning at his home in Cape Town according to a statement by the FW de Klerk Foundation.

He was head of state between September 1989 and May 1994 and in 1990 announced he was releasing anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

The move alongside further actions led to multi-party polls in 1994 which helped bring an end to apartheid-era South Africa.

FW de Klerk became one of South Africa’s two deputy presidents after the multi-party elections in 1994 that saw Mr Mandela become president.

De Klerk was a controversial figure in South Africa where many blamed him for violence against Black South Africans and anti-apartheid activists during his time in power, while some white South Africans saw his efforts to end apartheid as a betrayal.

“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.

Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another towering anti-apartheid activist, issued a similarly guarded statement about de Klerk’s death.

De Klerk “played an important role in South Africa’s history … he recognized the moment for change and demonstrated the will to act on it,” said Tutu’s foundation.

However, de Klerk tried to avoid responsibility for the enormity of the abuses of apartheid, including in his testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was chaired by Tutu. At that time, Tutu expressed disappointment that de Klerk did not fully apologize for the evils of apartheid, the statement noted.

Even posthumously, de Klerk sought to address this criticism in a video message in which he said he was sorry for his role in apartheid. His foundation released the video after announcing his death.

“Let me today, in the last message repeat: I, without qualification, apologize for the pain and the hurt, and the indignity, and the damage, to Black, brown and Indians in South Africa,” said a visibly gaunt and frail de Klerk.

He said his view of apartheid had changed since the early 1980s.

“It was as if I had a conversion. And in my heart of hearts, I realized that apartheid was wrong. I realized that we have arrived at a place which was morally unjustifiable.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that de Klerk “played a vital role in our transition to democracy in the 1990s … He took the courageous decision to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency.”

It was de Klerk who in a speech to South Africa’s parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, announced that Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years. The announcement electrified a country that for decades had been scorned and sanctioned by much of the world for its brutal system of racial discrimination known as apartheid.

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