FW de Klerk, who died in Cape Town on Thursday at 85, worked with Nelson Mandela to achieve a peaceful transition of power in South Africa after decades of racial discrimination, suppression and resistance. As the country threatened to fall apart in a spiral of racial hatred and ethnic violence, few expected the last president of the minority white regime and the leader of the black resistance movement to find common ground that would lead to a multicultural democracy with a liberal constitution and strong institutions.
South Africa’s many current problems (violence, unemployment, corruption, inequality, capture of institutions, among others) underline the miracle of what was achieved between Mandela’s release from prison and the first democratic elections of 1994.
The world knows Mandela’s story, his political genius and his rare human virtues. He is rightly acknowledged as one of our era’s greatest leaders. His struggle, and that of his comrades, though, would have been that much more difficult, its outcome even less certain, if de Klerk had not done the unthinkable – negotiating the handover of power, with all the might of the state and its military, to a people whom his government and race had been suppressing for decades.
Today many criticize de Klerk for the violence of the last years of apartheid, while others accuse Mandela of leaving too much power in the hands of whites. The truth is that both took great risks in a dangerous, unpredictable situation in order to come to an honorable compromise, to keep extremists in check, to create a viable polity. De Klerk was branded a traitor by diehard Afrikaners who refused to relinquish power.
Both men shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The following year, the last white president served as vice president in the government of South Africa’s first black president. There was tension between them, as each represented his people and both were strong characters. But there was also a strong bond of mutual respect. They knew that together they had achieved the inconceivable for their country.
Together they showed the daring, the determination, but also the humility and generosity, which can overcome even the deepest divisions.