Frederik Willem de Klerk : politician, the last President of Apartheid South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was a man whose legacy, even in his death, was as decisive as the laws he upheld for a majority of his life and tenure as head of state.
Born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1936, to an influential Afrikaner family, de Klerk enjoyed a secure and comfortable childhood. His family and the National Party (which he would later lead) had a longstanding relationship dating as far back as his paternal great-grandfather, Jan van Rooy, a senator. His childhood was laden with political influences and exposure. His father, Jan de Klerk, was involved in the country's governance, serving as a cabinet minister and the President of the South African Senate, among other roles he held for years. His brother Willem de Klerk was a political analyst and co-founded the Democratic Party.
De Klerk pursued a career in law, having graduated with both a Bachelor of Law and a Bachelor of Arts from Potchefstroom University in 1958. During his time in university, he heavily participated in extra-mural activities such as editing the student newspaper and vice-chaired the student council. Interestingly, he was a member of the Broederbond, a secret Afrikaner organization dedicated to advancing Afrikaner interests. The organization was exclusively open to males, including prominent political leaders in South Africa pre-1994. The growth of this organization was linked directly to the rise of Apartheid in the country.
Before de Klerk's ascension to the presidency, his political career had a bright and swift start. And for someone whose scholarly track record and connections were as impressive and powerful as he had was not surprising. Just days into his offer from Potchefstroom University for their law faculty in 1972, the National Party headhunted him and soon elected him into the House of Assembly. He took up a plethora of ministerial roles within the government. By 1978 he held the position of Minister Welfare and Pensions and then moved to Post and Telecommunications and became Minister of Mining, Minister of Internal Affairs, and even the Minister of National Education and Planning. By 1986 de Klerk was officially the leader of the House of Assembly. Following the resignation of P.W. Botha as South Africa's head of state, he stepped in firstly as the acting President, then elected in September of 1989.
De Klerk's credentials on paper were impressive, and his journey to the highest seat in leadership was inevitable; however, it would be naïve to disregard the influence of his affiliation with Apartheid the regime and its architects. His father was one of the creators of Apartheid also. He was only twelve years old when the government legalized the system; therefore, he quite literally was born into the concept and had connections to it at the most grassroots level. Furthermore, he grew up on conservative values; therefore, it was a no-brainer that he, too, upheld a conservative reputation as someone who was against any political or social reform in South Africa for a large portion of his career.
In a twist of events, de Klerk used his presidency to drive forward reform in South Africa. Despite doubt amongst prominent anti-apartheid activists who did not believe he would, he committed to seeing the reform process through and initiated meetings with the political prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Ultimately, he successfully lifted the ban placed on the most significant liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), and in 1990 he called for the release of important political prisoners. In February of that year, Mandela, after 27 years of imprisonment, was released.
The following year, he passed legislation that ended racially discriminatory and classificatory laws that repealed the Natives Land Act and the Population Registration Act. In addition, a new constitution ensured the government negotiated an all-race nation election, and de Klerk opened up the National Party to non-white members.
Negotiations towards democratizing South Africa dominated de Klerk's presidency. However, it did not go without suspicions of his involvement in the Boipatong Massacre, the violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and an authorized raid of the Azanian People's Liberation Army in 1993.
One of his most notable achievements was his efforts in ending Apartheid, and for this, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela.
A year before the democratic elections, he issued an apology stating, "it was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and cause misery but eventually apartheid led to just that... we deeply regret it... yes, we are sorry." This apology remains a point of controversy. On the one hand, some people felt his apology was not for the human rights he and his predecessors abused. On the other hand, white nationalists felt he betrayed their interests as the minority. He was praised the world over for dismantling the racist system of Apartheid. Yet, many still maintain that he only made that decision because it was no longer sustainable due to international pressure and the introduction of sanctions which further proves that his decision to end Apartheid was more pragmatic than ideological. So, whether he was a hero or a villain varies in the answers of the South African citizens, both young and old, and will always be a divisive topic.