F.W. de Klerk: A thumbnail biography

As president of the Republic of South Africa from 1989-94, F.W. de Klerk took the crucial steps that dismantled the apartheid system of systematic racial segregation that had turned South Africa into an international pariah, and introduced wide-ranging reforms that paved the way to today’s democratic and multiracial society. The last white to hold the country’s presidency, he handed over to Nelson Mandela after the first openly competed and racially inclusive elections in April 1994. Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg in March 1936 into a politically involved Afrikaaner family. He was the son of a senator and minister as well as the nephew of a prime minister during the 1950s. After studying and practicing law, he declined a law professorship in 1972 in favor of taking up a seat in Parliament for Vereeniging. During the late 1970s and 1980s, he held a succession of ministerial posts under John Vorster and P.W. Botha, along with serving as leader of the National Party in the Transvaal, the country’s largest province. Not previously known as a major reformer since he supported segregated universities as education minister, he assumed the party leadership in February 1989. After Botha suffered a stroke, de Klerk became the country’s president that September. In his first speech as party head, de Klerk called for negotiations leading to a non-racist South Africa. One year later, in February 1990, he released Nelson Mandela after 27 years’ imprisonment – an act previously mooted in party circles – along with many other political prisoners. He also lifted the ban on various political parties including the African National Congress (ANC) and suspended the death penalty. This initiated a lengthy process of constitutional and legislative overhaul and political transition that also sparked widespread violence and defections from de Klerk’s National Party. For their efforts, he and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for 1993. After Mandela’s election the following year, de Klerk served as deputy president before resigning in 1996. Now retired from active politics, De Klerk heads the F.W. de Klerk Foundation, which aims to advance and solidify the new South Africa’s development, and the Global Leadership Foundation, which offers advice to developing countries. He is also a frequent visitor to Greece, along with his Athenian wife Elita Georgiades, whom he married in 1998.

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