Frederik Willem de Klerk was the state president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994 and deputy president from 1994 to 1996. Widely credited with being a key advocate for dismantling apartheid in South Africa, de Klerk helped free Nelson Mandela from incarceration and was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with him “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”
However, de Klerk’s role in dismantling apartheid is one that continues to be controversial, with critics arguing that he was motivated primarily by avoiding political and financial ruin in South Africa rather than a moral objection to racial segregation. De Klerk publicly apologised for the pain and humiliation caused by apartheid during his later years, but many South Africans contend he never fully recognised or condemned its horrors.
Here are 10 facts about F. W. De Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa.
1. His family have been in South Africa since 1686
De Klerk’s family are of Huguenot origin, with their surname coming from the French ‘Le Clerc’, ‘Le Clercq’ or ‘de Clercq’. They arrived in South Africa in 1686, a few months after the Revocation of the Nantes edict, and participated in various events in the history of Afrikaners.
2. He came from a family of prominent Afrikaner politicians
Politics runs in the de Klerk family DNA, with both de Klerk’s father and grandfather serving in high office. His father, Jan de Klerk, was Cabinet Minister and the President of the South African Senate. His brother, Dr. Willem de Klerk, became a political analyst and one of the founders of the Democratic Party, now known as the Democratic Alliance.
3. He studied to be an attorney
De Klerk studied to be an attorney, receiving a law degree, with honours, from Potchefstroom University in 1958. Soon afterward he began to establish a successful law firm in Vereeniging and became active in civic and business affairs there.
While at university, he was editor of the student newspaper, vice-chair of the student council and a member of the Afrikaanse Studentebond Groep (a large South African youth movement).
4. He married twice and had three children
As a student, de Klerk began a relationship with Marike Willemse, the daughter of a professor at the University of Pretoria. They were married in 1959, when de Klerk was 23 and his wife was 22. They had three children together called Willem, Susan and Jan.
De Klerk later started an affair with Elita Georgiades, the wife of Tony Georgiades, a Greek shipping tycoon who had allegedly given de Klerk and the National Party financial support. De Klerk announced to Marike on Valentine’s Day in 1996 that he intended to end their marriage of 37 years. He married Georgiades a week after his divorce to Marike was finalised.
5. He was first elected as a Member of Parliament in 1972
In 1972, de Klerk’s alma mater offered him a chair position in its law faculty, which he accepted. Within a matter of days, he was also approached by members of the National Party, who requested that he stand for the party at Vereeniging near the Gauteng province. He was successful and was elected to the House of Assembly as a Member of Parliament.
As a Member of Parliament, he earned a reputation as a formidable debater and took a number of roles in the party and government. He became information officer of the Transvaal National Party and joined various parliamentary study groups including those on Bantustans, labour, justice and home affairs.
6. He helped to free Nelson Mandela
De Klerk made a famous speech to Parliament in February 1990. In his speech, he announced to the all-white parliament that there would be a “new South Africa”. This included un-banning the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party from parliament. This led to protests and boos.
He then quickly moved to release various important political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela was released in February 1990 after enduring 27 years in prison.
7. He helped create the first fully democratic elections in South African history
When de Klerk took office as president in 1989, he continued negotiations with Nelson Mandela and the ANC liberation movement, which had been formed in secret. They agreed to prepare for a presidential election and draw up a new constitution for equal voting rights for every population group in the country.
The first general election where citizens of all races were allowed to take part was held in April 1994. It marked the culmination of a 4-year process that ended apartheid.
8. He helped end apartheid
De Klerk sped up the reform process that former president Pieter Willem Botha had started. He initiated talks about a new post-apartheid constitution with representatives of what were then the country’s four designated racial groups.
He frequently met with black leaders and passed laws in 1991 that repealed racially discriminatory laws that affected residence, education, public amenities and health care. His government also continued to systematically dismantle the legislative basis for the apartheid system.
9. He jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993
In December 1993, de Klerk and Nelson Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”
Though united by the aim of dismantling apartheid, the two figures were never entirely politically aligned. Mandela accused de Klerk of allowing the killings of black South Africans during the political transition, while de Klerk accused Mandela of being stubborn and unreasonable.
In his Nobel lecture in December 1993, de Klerk acknowledged that 3,000 people died in political violence in South Africa that year alone. He reminded his audience that he and fellow laureate Nelson Mandela were political opponents who had a shared goal of ending apartheid. He stated that they would move forward “because there is no other road to peace and prosperity for the people of our country.”
10. He has a controversial legacy
De Klerk’s legacy is controversial. Before he became president in 1989, de Klerk had supported the continuation of racial segregation in South Africa: as education minister between 1984 and 1989, for example, he upheld the apartheid system in South Africa’s schools.
While de Klerk later freed Mandela and took steps against apartheid, many South Africans believe de Klerk failed to recognise the full horrors of apartheid. His critics have claimed that he opposed apartheid only because it was leading to economic and political bankruptcy, rather than because he was morally opposed to racial segregation.
De Klerk made public apologies for the pain of apartheid during his later years. But in a February 2020 interview, he caused uproar by insisting on “not fully agreeing” with the interviewer’s definition of apartheid as a “crime against humanity”. De Klerk later apologised for the “confusion, anger and hurt” his words may have caused.
When de Klerk died in November 2021, the Mandela Foundation released a statement: “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.”