The last white president of South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk, died this Thursday morning (11), aged 85, as a result of mesothelioma — a type of cancer that affects the tissue surrounding the lungs — diagnosed in March,
According to a statement from the foundation that bears his name, De Klerk died at his home in Cape Town, the capital of South Africa. He is leaving his wife, Elita, and children Jan and Susan.
He was the last white man to be head of state in the country, and he ruled from 1989 to 1994, when Nelson Mandela’s party took power.
The two leaders shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for working together to end apartheid, South Africa’s nearly 50-year regime of racial segregation.
Despite the honor received, De Klerk’s role in the transition to democracy is the target of several challenges in the country. Part of the black population in the country disapproved of him for having been unable to contain political violence in the turbulent years before the 1994 elections. The more conservative and radical whites, in turn, saw him as a traitor to nationalist and supremacist causes.
Never having hidden his racist past, De Klerk surprised South Africans when, in 1993, he apologized for apartheid. “It was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and cause misery, but segregation and apartheid led to just that and I deeply regret it,” he said at the time.
The transition from being a servant of the racist regime to one of those responsible for its end also occurred as a result of international pressure and sanctions. The metamorphosis earned him comparisons to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: both were men who reached the pinnacle of power before changing or dismantling the systems they had been symbols of for decades.
In his autobiography, De Klerk describes how his first months in the presidency coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe.
“Within a few months, one of our main strategic concerns for decades was gone,” he wrote. At the time, the specter of an alleged communist threat haunted white South Africans and was used as a pretext for some of the regime’s actions.
With the end of that threat, De Klerk said, “a window suddenly opened, creating an opportunity for a much more adventurous approach than previously thought.”
The Berlin Wall had fallen less than three months ago when De Klerk delivered a speech to Parliament in February 1990, ending the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) —the party that now governs the country— and announcing Mandela’s release , leader of the legend, after 27 years in prison.
De Klerk kept the decision a secret from nearly all cabinet ministers, fearing that if it leaked out, it would provoke a backlash from right-wing whites, causing new political turmoil in the country.
In 2006, during De Klerk’s 70th birthday celebration, Mandela recalled the episode and praised him for taking a leap into the unknown. “You have demonstrated a courage that few have had in similar circumstances,” he said.