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The death of F.W. de Klerk and his impact on ending Apartheid in South Africa

Written By | Nov 15, 2021

F.W. de Klerk, left, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, his successor, wait to speak in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Digital ID: (digital file from original) highsm 16040 Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-highsm-16040 (digital file from original) LC-HS503-5625 (color film transparency) Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

F.W. de Klerk, who, as South Africa’s last white president, opened the door to black majority rule by releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, died Nov.11 at the age of 85. de Klerk and Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. At the peace prize ceremony in Oslo, Mandela praised de Klerk:

“He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people, and the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants, determine what they want to make of their future.”

In his book “Tomorrow Is Another Country,” the South African journalist Allister Sparks writes:

“The new president…turned three centuries of his country’s history on its head. He didn’t just change the country; he transmuted it.”

In August 1996, de Klerk apologized to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the “pain and suffering” the apartheid regime had caused.”

In a video message released after his death, de Klerk said,

“I apologize for the pain and the indignity that apartheid has brought to persons of color in South Africa.”

I remember South Africa very well in the last years of apartheid.

In addition to writing my Washington-based column, I served as the correspondent in Washington for a group of South African newspapers.  Including Beeld in Johannesburg and Die Burger in Cape Town. I had the opportunity to visit South Africa several times and travel extensively. I met and spoke with South Africans of all races and backgrounds. In addition, spending time with the journalists who worked at the newspapers for which I was writing.

These newspapers were in the Afrikaans language, the language which emerged in South Africa among the Dutch, French and German colonists who arrived in the 1600s. Thus, they developed not only their language but a concept of themselves as a “White tribe in Africa.” Both a chosen people and a vulnerable minority where whites constituted about 15-percent.

South African history and the Boer War (1899-1902).

After discovering gold in the Afrikaner republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal, the British Empire decided to unite these states to the British colonies of Natal and Cape Colony. The Afrikaners resisted, and the British eventually sent over 400,000 soldiers from across the British Empire, while the Afrikaners had a force of only 88,000.

Afrikaner families were confined to a network of concentration camps. Often called the world’s first such facilities. Water and food were in short supply, and medical and sanitary facilities were almost nonexistent. As a result, sickness became widespread, and 28,000 Afrikaners, mainly women, and children died in the camps. As well as nearly 15,000 black Africans held in separate camps.

The 1913 Land Act, passed three years after South Africa gained its independence.

Thus marking the beginning of territorial segregation enforced by moving black Africans to reserves.

In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party won the general election under the slogan “apartheid” (literally “apartness”). By 1950, the government had banned marriages between whites and people of other races.

In addition, more than 80% of the country’s land was set aside for the white minority, and “pass laws” required non-whites to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas.

After World War ll, Afrikaners came to power in South Africa, establishing apartheid. For a visiting American who had lived in the South during the years of segregation, South Africa seemed very familiar. Segregation was everywhere; restaurants, hotels, water fountains, and restrooms.

South African law gave blacks almost no rights. Those of mixed race, categorized as “Coloreds,” had marginally more rights than Indians and Asians. Moreover, there were sharp divisions between the English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking communities within the white community.

I remember having long talks with the Afrikaner journalists and others I spent time with.

My writings described the similarities between segregation in the American South and apartheid. Explaining how this system violated the American idea of equal rights for all citizens and, as a result of an active civil rights movement, finally came to an end. At this time, apartheid in South Africa was coming under growing opposition worldwide.

A boycott movement gained strength, including banning South African athletes from international competitions. As a result, the country was being increasingly isolated.

Students at Williams and Mary during the era of segregation in the US had similar conversations.

If anyone at that time had suggested that we would see a black president in the United States, students from both the North and South would have said he was mad.

But it did happen. History often plays tricks on us.

I remember one Afrikaner journalist making this assessment:

“I know apartheid is morally wrong. The question we keep asking ourselves is how we can end it without becoming like the one-party dictatorships which we observe throughout Africa. But we must take a chance and do it. We are 5 million white people in a land of more than 20 million black people. We could maintain power indefinitely, but to do so, we would have to become a totalitarian state. But we are Western Christian people who believe in freedom. Our children do not want to live in a totalitarian state. They will leave for Australia, America, or Canada. We must end apartheid. We must take a chance on achieving a better future.”

President De Klerk took such a chance.

He freed Nelson Mandela on Feb. 11, 1990. A new constitution, which enfranchised blacks and other groups, took effect in 1994, and elections that year led to a coalition government—a government with a non-white majority. Earlier, after a by-election defeat by white conservatives in the Transvaal, De Klerk called for a nationwide referendum among white voters. White voters that, by a margin of 69 percent to 31 percent, gave him a decisive mandate to complete the reform process.

He and his party were defeated by Mandela and the African National Congress in South Africa’s first multiracial election in April 1994. Mr. de Klerk was appointed second Vice President in the ANC-led national unity government. Nelson Mandela and Frederick de Klerk shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

The time I spent in South Africa was rewarding in many ways. First, having seen segregation come to an end at home, it was good to see apartheid meet a similar fate.

Today’s South Africa is not without serious problems, just as racial issues continue in our own country. Yet, we are a long way from segregation and apartheid, and those eager to move forward to achieve truly equitable societies appear to be in a large majority in both countries.

In recent days, the term “apartheid” has been used to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Whether the use of this term is justified is a matter of continuing debate. But one thing both Israelis and Palestinians could use are leaders like F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. If they find such leaders, perhaps we can look forward to another joint Nobel Peace Prize.


Read More from Allan Brownfeld




Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.