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Fredrik Willem de Klerk
1936 -



Fredrik Willem de Klerk (born 1936) was state president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994. He abruptly pointed his country in a new direction in 1990 by opening negotiations with previously outlawed anti-apartheid organizations.

In 1989 Fredrik Willem de Klerk was described by one observer of South African politics as "strongly loyal to National Party interests and a cautious, not bold, mover," an opinion shared by most analysts. Thus few were prepared for the dramatic news of February 11, 1990, when de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela, the South African resistance leader, from prison after 27 years. At the same time, de Klerk restored to legality the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party, and other opposition groups. These moves, far from cautious, thoroughly revolutionized the political landscape of South Africa.

Brief Overview of South African History

De Klerk's actions as President went against a long tradition of suppression. In the early nineteenth century, England seized control from the Dutch of the Cape Colony at the southern tip of Africa. The Dutch-speaking inhabitants were displaced in power and influence by English-speaking settlers. In numerous ways, but especially in its more liberal treatment of African people, British rule angered many Dutch. Between 1836 and 1838, several thousand Dutch Boers (farmers) emigrated from the Cape Colony to establish new societies in the interior of South Africa, beyond the reach of British authority.

This mass emigration, known as the Great Trek, created two sorts of enemies for the Dutch, who began calling themselves Afrikaners. The first enemy was the British, from whose power they were attempting to escape. The second was a number of powerful Black African states, the Zulu being the best known, whose lands they were invading. Over the next 150 years, the Afrikaners struggled against both.

By the 1960s, the Afrikaners seemed to have triumphed. The historic campaign to remove British power, the major confrontation being the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902, ended successfully with the election of a purely Afrikaner National Party government in 1948. As a result, South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth in 1960.

National Party Established Apartheid

The National Party's policy of apartheid, which virtually eliminated Black African participation in government and reduced Black Africans to a powerless, cheap labor supply, appeared to have ended the Black African threat by the mid-1960s. Afrikaners, convinced that their success was the result of their unity of thought and action, brought schools, newspapers, television, and radio under government control to mold the minds of young Afrikaners. The Dutch Reformed Church, of which almost all Afrikaners were members, provided scriptural and moral support for apartheid. Opposing views were censored. Dissenters were branded traitors and treated accordingly.

Black Protest Revived

Black protest revived in the 1970s. Strikes by Black workers, the uprising of school-children in Soweto and other Black townships in 1976, intensified sabotage by the ANC, and a growing campaign by people in other countries to isolate South Africa economically put intense pressure on the Nationalist government.

The response of National Party leaders was defiance. President John Vorster and his successor, P. W. Botha, suppressed dissent vigorously and assured the outside world that pressure would make Whites more resistant to change, not less. Botha instituted mild reforms. For example, in 1983 a new constitution was approved by White voters that gave a small bit of influence to people of Asian and mixed descent, though none to Black Africans. It also gave enormous power to the state president.

Largely because they had been denied any role in the new constitution, Blacks rose again in 1984. Demonstrations and riots were ruthlessly suppressed. Killings increased, rising into the thousands by 1986. Botha eased some "petty apartheid" laws, but left the system's basic structure intact. He declared a state of emergency, which suspended what civil liberties were left and led to the detention without trial of unknown numbers, perhaps thousands, of Black and White dissidents.

South Africa's economy suffered enormously, both from the effects of sanctions and from plunging investor confidence. The Rand, the basis of the currency, lost nearly two-thirds of its value. But Botha maintained his resistance to fundamental change. Into this situation stepped F. W. de Klerk.

De Klerk's Early Years

De Klerk was born on March 18, 1936, in Johannesburg. J. G. Strijdom, a prime minister of South Africa in the 1950s who instituted many apartheid laws, was his uncle. De Klerk attended Potschefstroom University, a center of Afrikaner Nationalist thought. He was a member of one of the more conservative branches of the Dutch Reformed Church. While teaching law, he was elected to Parliament in 1972, representing the town of Vereeniging. All this activity was in the province of Transvaal, a focal point of Afrikaner political power and the location of most of the mineral wealth that is the basis of the South African economy.

He joined Vorster's cabinet in 1978, serving successively as minister of post and telecommunications, social welfare and pensions, sport and recreation, mineral and energy affairs, and internal affairs. De Klerk eventually became the chief of the Transvaal branch of the party.

De Klerk Replaced Botha As Party Leader

In January of 1989, P. W. Botha suffered a stroke that forced him to resign as head of the National Party, though he remained state president. De Klerk replaced him as party leader. An extraordinary episode occurred in August when de Klerk, without Botha's knowledge, announced a meeting to talk about the South African situation with Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda. Botha publicly chastised de Klerk and then suddenly resigned the presidency. De Klerk succeeded as acting president. In September of 1989, the National Party won parliamentary elections, though by a decreased margin. De Klerk thus became state president, which set the stage for the extraordinary events of February 11, 1990.

While the sweeping nature of de Klerk's actions on that date surprised almost everyone, elements of his background aided his ability to discard the rigidity of Afrikaner nationalism. First, his brother, Willem de Klerk, was a founder of the anti-apartheid Democratic Party, which advocated a nonracial democracy for South Africa. Willem de Klerk described F. W. de Klerk as "open-minded," "pragmatic," and "very much inclined to find solutions for South Africa." Perhaps hinting that his views might have had some effect on F. W. de Klerk's, Willem de Klerk noted that their relationship was "basically sound."

Second, at the outset of his presidency de Klerk seemed to associate himself less with the security and military branches of the government, which have always favored greater repression, and more with the economic and foreign policy offices, which are more interested in South Africa's standing abroad.

Finally, there is de Klerk's undoubted loyalty to the National Party. As South Africa faced hard times in the 1980s, so did the party. Even P. W. Botha believed that South Africa must "adapt or die," and his halting steps toward reform split the party between those who wanted to strengthen and those who wanted to reform apartheid. Having inherited this fragmentation, de Klerk may have believed that the way to save the party was to attract reformers, many of them English-speaking, who had hitherto supported other groups.

On May 7, 1990, de Klerk and a government delegation had their first formal meeting with Mandela and representatives of the ANC, who had once been denounced by the government as terrorists. Both leaders reported the meeting to have been amicable, and each stated his regard for the integrity of the other. Mandela reported that "we are closer to one another." Both leaders were well aware that years of repression had produced many dangerous forces that could at any time sabotage the results of that meeting and its hope for South Africa's future. But de Klerk's role as the catalyst in changing the course of South Africa's history seemed secure. Additional evidence came September 24, 1990, when at a meeting with President George Bush he became the first South African head of state to visit the White House.

De Klerk Became Second Vice President

De Klerk worked with Mandela to abolish apartheid and grant constitutional voting rights to all South Africans. In 1993 the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize. In April 1994, they saw their efforts come to fruition as they campaigned against each other in the first all-race election in South Africa. In this election, with Black South Africans casting the majority vote, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. De Klerk became the second vice president in Mandela's Government of National Unity. In 1996 the government adopted a new constitution that guaranteed equal rights. De Klerk was concerned, however, that the constitution would not protect minority group rights. The National Party, still led by him, broke away from Mandela, saying that South Africa needed a strong multi-party system. In August 1997, de Klerk resigned as head of the National Party and quit politics. At the news conference, he stated, "I am resigning because I am convinced it is in the best interest of the party and the county."


Frederik Willem de Klerk (born 18 March 1936) was the last State President of apartheid-era South Africa, serving from September 1989 to May 1994. De Klerk was also leader of the National Party (which later became the New National Party) from February 1989 to September 1997. De Klerk is best known for engineering the end of apartheid, South Africa's racial segregation policy, and supporting the transformation of South Africa into a multi-racial democracy by entering into the negotiations that resulted in all citizens, including the country's black majority, having equal voting and other rights. He shared the Prince of Asturias Awards in 1992 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with Nelson Mandela for his role in the ending of apartheid.

He was one of the Deputy Presidents of South Africa during the presidency of Nelson Mandela until 1996, the last white person to hold the position. In 1997, he retired from politics.

Early career

Born in Johannesburg to parents Jan de Klerk and Corrie Coetzer, De Klerk came from a family environment in which the conservatism of traditional white South African politics was deeply ingrained. His great-grandfather was a Senator, his grandfather stood twice for the white parliament unsuccessfully, and his aunt was married to NP Prime Minister J. G. Strijdom. In 1948, the year when the NP swept to power in whites-only elections on an apartheid platform, F. W. de Klerk's father, Johannes "Jan" de Klerk, became secretary of the NP in the Transvaal province and later rose to the positions of cabinet minister and President of the Senate. His brother Willem is a liberal newspaperman and one of the founders of the Democratic Party. De Klerk matriculated from Monument High School in Krugersdorp. De Klerk graduated in 1958 from the Potchefstroom University with BA and LL.B degrees (the latter cum laude). Following graduation, De Klerk practiced law in Vereeniging in the Transvaal. In 1959 he married Marike Willemse, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

"F.W.", as he became popularly known, was first elected to the South African Parliament in 1969 as the member for Vereeniging, and entered the cabinet in 1978. De Klerk had been offered a professorship of administrative law at Potchefstroom in 1972 but he declined the post because he was serving in Parliament. In 1978, he was appointed Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and Social Welfare and Pensions by Prime Minister Vorster. Under Prime Minister P.W. Botha, he held a succession of ministerial posts, including Posts and Telecommunications and Sports and Recreation (1978-1979), Mines, Energy and Environmental Planning (1979-80), Mineral and Energy Affairs (1980-82), Internal Affairs (1982-85), and National Education and Planning (1984-89). He became Transvaal provincial National Party leader in 1982. In 1985, he became chairman of the Minister's Council in the House of Assembly.

Ending apartheid

Photo: Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992.

As Minister of National Education, De Klerk was a supporter of segregated universities, and as a leader of the National Party in Transvaal, he was not known to advocate reform. However, after a long political career and with a very conservative reputation, in 1989 he placed himself at the head of verligte ("enlightened") forces within the governing party, with the result that he was elected head of the National Party in February 1989, and finally State President in September 1989 to replace then president P.W. Botha when the latter was forced to step down after a stroke.

In his first speech after assuming the party leadership he called for a non-racist South Africa and for negotiations about the country's future. He lifted the ban on the ANC and released Nelson Mandela. He brought apartheid to an end and opened the way for the drafting of a new constitution for the country based on the principle of one person, one vote. Nevertheless, he was accused by Anthony Sampson of complicity in the violence between the ANC, the Inkatha Freedom Party and elements of the security forces. In Mandela: The Authorised Biography Sampson accuses De Klerk of permitting his ministers to build their own criminal empires.

His presidency was dominated by the negotiation process, mainly between his NP government and Mandela's ANC, which led to the democratisation of South Africa.

In 1990, De Klerk gave orders to roll back South Africa's nuclear weapons programme; the process of nuclear disarmament was essentially completed in 1991. The existence of the programme was not officially acknowledged before 1993.

After the first free elections in 1994, De Klerk became vice-president in the government of national unity under Nelson Mandela, a post he kept until 1996. In 1997 he also gave over the leadership of the National Party and retreated from politics.

In a 2007 radio interview, jailed policeman Eugene de Kock claimed that De Klerk had hands "soaked in blood" and had ordered political killings and other crimes during the anti-apartheid conflict. This was in response to Mr. De Klerk's recent statements that he had a "clear conscience" regarding his time in office.

Later life

In 1998, De Klerk and his wife of 38 years, Marike de Klerk, were divorced following the discovery of his affair with Elita Georgiades, then the wife of Tony Georgiades, a Greek shipping tycoon who had allegedly given De Klerk and the NP financial support. Soon after his divorce, De Klerk and Georgiades were married and, during their honeymoon, he addressed the Literary and Historical Society in University College Dublin. His divorce and re-marriage scandalised conservative South African opinion, especially among the Calvinist Afrikaners. In 1999 his autobiography, The Last Trek-A New Beginning, was published.

On 4 December 2001, Marike de Klerk was found stabbed and violently strangled to death in her luxuous Cape Town flat. De Klerk, who was currently on a brief visit to Stockholm, Sweden to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Nobel Prize foundation, announced he would immediately return to mourn his dead ex-wife. The atrocity was reportedly condemned strongly by South African president Thabo Mbeki and Winnie Mandela, among others, who openly spoke in favour of Marike de Klerk. On 6 December, 21 year old security guard Luyanda Mboniswa was arrested for the murder. On 15 May 2003 he received two life sentences for murder as well as three years for breaking into Marike de Klerk's apartment.

In 2004 De Klerk announced that he was quitting the New National Party and seeking a new political home after it was announced that the NNP would merge with the ruling ANC. That same year, while giving an interview to US journalist Richard Stengel, De Klerk was asked whether South Africa had turned out the way he envisioned it back in 1990. To which his response was: "There are a number of imperfections in the new South Africa where I would have hoped that things would be better, but on balance I think we have basically achieved what we set out to achieve. And if I were to draw balance sheets on where South Africa stands now, I would say that the positive outweighs the negative by far. There is a tendency by commentators across the world to focus on the few negatives which are quite negative, like how are we handling AIDS, like our role vis--vis Zimbabwe. But the positives — the stability in South Africa, the adherence to well-balanced economic policies, fighting inflation, doing all the right things in order to lay the basis and the foundation for sustained economic growth — are in place."

In 2006 he underwent surgery for a malignant tumour in his colon, discovered after an examination on 3 June. His condition deteriorated sharply, and he underwent a second operation after developing respiratory problems. On 13 June it was announced that he was to undergo a tracheotomy He has since recovered and on 11 September 2006 gave a speech at Kent State University's Stark Campus in North Canton, OH. In 2006, he underwent triple coronary artery bypass surgery.

In 2000 De Klerk established the pro-peace FW de Klerk Foundation of which he is the chairman. De Klerk is also chairman of the Global Leadership Foundation, an organisation he established after retiring from office. Formally inaugurated in March 2004, the Global Leadership Foundation works to "promote good governance - democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law - and to contribute to the prevention and resolution of conflict through mediation."

In January 2007 De Klerk was a speaker promoting peace and democracy in the world at the "Towards a Global Forum on New Democracies" event in Taipei, Taiwan, along with other dignitaries including Poland's Lech Walesa and Taiwan President Chen Shui-Bian.

FW de Klerk is an Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society and Honorary Chairman of the Prague Society for International Cooperation. He has also received the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse from the College Historical Society for his contribution to ending apartheid.

In October 2008 De Klerk spoke at Brigham Young University concerning the global politics and role of the United States as the world's last remaining superpower.

The De Klerk Name

The name 'De Klerk' (literally meaning "the clerk" in Dutch) is derived from Le Clerc, Le Clercq, and De Clercq and is of French Huguenot origin, as are a great number of other Afrikaans surnames, reflecting the large number of French Huguenot refugees who settled in the Cape beginning in the seventeenth century as refugees escaping religious persecution.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008