Press Release: Obituary for Frederik Willem de Klerk

Frederik Willem de Klerk, who served as State President of South Africa from 1989 to 1994 and as Deputy President from 1994 to 1996, has died at the age of 85.

De Klerk’s was preeminently a political life. The son of a Nationalist Party cabinet minister, he showed remarkable leadership qualities from a young age when he was elected as president of the Afrikaner Studente Bond (ASB). Nowhere was this more in evidence than when attempts were made to bridge the divisions between NUSAS and the ASB in the late 1950s. De Klerk dominated the proceedings. Sadly, nothing of substance came out of those meetings, but it was hardly de Klerk’s fault, as Nusas itself was battling with its own deep divisions.

But few, if any, would then have predicted his own role in the events which would take place some thirty years later, when he would emerge as an honoured international figure and, together with Nelson Mandela, be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

De Klerk was a controversial figure in life and will, no doubt, continue to be a controversial figure in death.

After the momentous announcements of 2 February 1990 - of the unbanning of the ANC, the PAC and the SACP, coupled with the release of political figures – many of his own political supporters, initially shocked and dismayed, became fierce critics. Some regarded his actions as treasonous, and the epithet of volksverraaier was bandied about.

Nevertheless, de Klerk continued with his programme of “political normalization”, beginning with the legislative dismantling of apartheid. With the establishment of CODESA, real political engagements between former sworn enemies began to take place, culminating in the first democratic elections and leading, eventually, in 1996 to the adoption of our Constitution.

In a moving farewell to the Nation, which was released on 11 November, de Klerk spoke in a forthright way about his own “conversion”, a process which had already begun in the early 1980s, and which would culminate in the realization of the moral bankruptcy of apartheid. Those who know of de Klerk’s particular religious background would know the allusion to St Paul. This may indeed have been the driving force behind his political development.

Recent criticism of de Klerk has tended to ad hominem attacks, the worst example being the outbursts at his presence in the Visitors’ Gallery in the National Assembly by a group of unruly parliamentarians. More serious criticism which needs to be addressed is the argument which seeks to minimize, or even dismiss, his role in bringing about the political revolution which occurred in the 1990s. Often, criticism has centered around his supposed expediency in undertaking the initiatives which brought about this political transformation of South Africa.

But this is to miss the point entirely.

Whatever may have been the driving force behind de Klerk’s initiative in breaking the mould of South African politics, he possessed both the wisdom and the intelligence to read the writing on the wall. This in no way detracts from the courage he possessed to initiate and see through the changes he proposed. It is this courage which we remember and honour today, which defines his greatest public moment, and which brings to mind figures such as de Gaulle and Gorbachev, who were also faced with deep political and moral dilemmas.

The late Helen Suzman had no doubt about de Klerk’s moral courage, and often spoke of his extraordinary role in ending apartheid. They had been life-long political adversaries; they ended as friends. And it is a fitting tribute to that friendship that FW de Klerk, along with former president Thabo Mbeki, and then President Kgalema Motlanthe, acted as pallbearers at her funeral.

The HSF extends its sincere condolences to his widow, Elita, and his children.


Francis Antonie
Helen Suzman Foundation