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The complicated legacy of F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last apartheid-era president

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

South Africa's former president, F. W. de Klerk, has died at age 85. De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for his role in bringing an end to white minority rule in South Africa. But as the last leader of the apartheid era, de Klerk always remained a divisive figure. NPR's Eyder Peralta brings us this remembrance.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Frederik Willem de Klerk's statue is right in the middle of Cape Town's bustling waterfront. It's not far from his home. It's near a Ferris wheel where buskers and dance troops are set up for passers by.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: A bronze de Klerk stands right in between two other Nobel laureates, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Twenty-nine-year-old Masakona Eriel, who is walking with friends, stops in front of the Klerk statue. News reports, he says, are calling him a former president - but that's incomplete.

MASAKONA ERIEL: He's a former apartheid president. That's it. That's all I know.

PERALTA: What he knows is that F. W. de Klerk has spent a career championing apartheid, a white supremacist system designed to dehumanize Black people. Eriel's friends, Awelani Muthadzwi and Dakalo Nedzamba, who were born after apartheid, jump in. Yes, as president, he freed Nelson Mandela, but they are convinced he did it because he had no other choice. He was always pretending.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: But I feel like whatever he did then, it wasn't a bad thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This guy was pretending all along.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. No. This guy.

(CROSSTALK)

ERIEL: We need to celebrate now.

PERALTA: De Klerk hailed from a prominent Afrikaner family. His grandfather helped establish the National Party, which began instituting racial segregation in South Africa in the 1940s. By the time de Klerk became president in 1989, the African National Congress, South Africa's liberation movement, was decades into an armed struggle. And the National Party's apartheid policies had turned the country into a global pariah. South Africa was being sanctioned and pressured by the world to end white minority rule. In 1990, de Klerk delivered what came to be known as his quantum leap speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

F W DE KLERK: Today, I am able to announce far-reaching decisions.

PERALTA: He did it in front of a hostile all-white Parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE KLERK: The prohibition of the African National Congress is being rescinded. People serving prison sentences merely because they were members of one of these organizations will be identified and released.

PERALTA: De Klerk ordered the release of Nelson Mandela. Along with him in 1993, He won the Nobel Peace Prize. And in 1994, he lost the presidency to Mandela in South Africa's first democratic elections. But de Klerk was hounded by questions about his motives. Did he reform South Africa because he was backed against a wall or because he thought apartheid was immoral? Last year, in an interview with the state broadcaster, he caused a national uproar by refusing to call apartheid a crime against humanity.

HLONIPHA MOKOENA: He was a man who assumed that he was in control until he wasn't.

PERALTA: That is Hlonipha Mokoena, a historian at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. She says de Klerk gets credit for giving that quantum leap speech. Someone had to do it. But Mokoena says de Klerk's intent was never for Black South Africans to enjoy the freedom and power that they do now.

MOKOENA: Part of the reason why he felt comfortable with dismantling apartheid was because he assumed that he would be in power.

PERALTA: In the end, he wasn't. But whatever his motivation, de Klerk was a transformational figure whose actions precipitated the implosion of his National Party and the rise of Africa's most vibrant democracy. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Cape Town, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.