FW de Klerk, the former president of South Africa and the last white man to lead the country, has died at the age of 85.
De Klerk, who was also a key figure in the nation’s transition to democracy, was diagnosed with cancer this year, a spokesperson said.
He was head of state from September 1989 to May 1994.
In 1990 he announced he would release anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, leading to multi-party polls in 1994.
Mr. de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr. Mandela for helping to negotiate the end of apartheid. But he was a divisive figure in South Africa.
A statement from the former president’s FW de Klerk Foundation on Thursday said he died peacefully at his Cape Town home following his fight against mesothelioma cancer.
The foundation announced the diagnosis – a cancer affecting the lining of the lungs – in June.
Mr. de Klerk leaves behind his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan and his grandchildren, the note states.
The former president was born in March 1936 in Johannesburg to a lineage of Afrikaner politicians.
He worked as a lawyer and held a number of ministerial posts before taking over from PW Botha as head of the National Party in February 1989.
In a famous speech to parliament the following year, he announced that he was lifting the ban on parties that included Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC).
He also announced that Mr. Mandela would be released after 27 years.
His actions helped put an end to apartheid-era South Africa and he became one of the country’s two vice presidents following the 1994 multi-party elections that saw Mandela become president.
He retired from politics in 1997 saying: “I resign because I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the party and the country”.
Although the relationship between Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela was often punctuated by bitter disagreements, the new president described the man he succeeded to as a person of great integrity.
However, many black South Africans accused him of failing to curb the violence during his time in power.
Last year, he got involved in a queue in which he was accused of downplaying the gravity of apartheid. He later apologized for “poking” on the matter.
The reactions here in South Africa echo the divisions that have haunted FW de Klerk for decades. Some see him as a decent man, a rare politician who has taken the unusual step of negotiating a path – for himself and his party – out of power and, in doing so, has helped to distance the country from the racial civil war that many feared it would engulf South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But others, including Nelson Mandela, were more cautious, seeing de Klerk as a political opportunist, a conservative Afrikaaner, who realized that with the Cold War over and biting international sanctions, he had no alternative but to negotiate with the black majority.
In recent years, a younger generation of South Africans – some encouraged by populist politicians – have tried to question the compromises that accompanied South Africa’s transition to democracy and argued that De Klerk and other apartheid leaders should be held accountable. of death squads who targeted members of the liberation movement.
De Klerk apologized for the elements of apartheid, but until his death he still struggled to recognize that the actions of the apartheid regime – in treating millions of black South Africans as second-class citizens, in limiting their education and in banishing them to black “homelands” – was a crime against humanity.