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South Africa's last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, dies at 85

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

South Africa's former president, F.W. de Klerk, has died at the age of 85. When de Klerk took office in 1989, Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, and apartheid was still in place. De Klerk freed Mandela and put a referendum before South Africa's white voters to end that country's system of white supremacy. The vote was an overwhelming yes. De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993. NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us now from de Klerk's hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. Eyder, thanks for being here.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: We know well how Nelson Mandela changed the course of South Africa's history, but many might not know de Klerk's role in shaping those same events.

PERALTA: Yeah. So look; he was president from 1989 to 1994, and he spent his career defending apartheid, which was a white supremacist system that dehumanized Black South Africans. It separated people by race. It kept the majority in South Africa from participating in society, things as simple as going to a beach, right? And at the time that he was president, South Africa had become a global pariah. The country was facing sanctions and a tainted reputation. So de Klerk came to the conclusion that this system had run its course, and he did two huge things. He decriminalized the African National Congress, which is South Africa's liberation party, and he released Nelson Mandela. This essentially ended white minority rule in South Africa and ended the apartheid era. And de Klerk went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. And in 1994, he lost the presidential race to Mandela.

But the big question that always haunted him was whether he ever really accepted the immorality of apartheid or whether he had done this just because of the situation his country was in.

MARTIN: Right. So what was the answer to that question? I mean, did he ever come to the understanding of the moral wrong that it was, or was it just economically not viable for the country anymore?

PERALTA: It always felt like he was torn. And this was just - it was on full display just a few years ago when he gave an interview to the state broadcaster here. F.W. de Klerk in this interview refused to call apartheid a crime against humanity. And let's listen to a bit of that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

F W DE KLERK: I'm not justifying apartheid in any way whatsoever.

MANELISI DUBASE: But why can't you agree with it? Because it did wreak havoc to millions of South Africans.

DE KLERK: It did, and I apologize for that. I profusely apologize for that. But there's a difference between calling something a crime. Like, genocide is a crime. Apartheid cannot be. That's why I'm saying this.

PERALTA: So this created a huge controversy in South Africa. People called on de Klerk to apologize, to never be given the respect that a former president receives here in South Africa. And he relented. He apologized. And he said that apartheid was immoral. But that question always hung over him.

MARTIN: How are people remembering him there?

PERALTA: It's early days. I spoke to Hlonipha Mokoena, who is a South African historian at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, and she had mixed feelings.

HLONIPHA MOKOENA: He was a man who assumed that he was in control until he wasn't - is that part of the reason why he felt comfortable with dismantling apartheid was because he assumed that he would be in power, he would control the process right up until the end.

PERALTA: You know, she said that he's dying of old age while others in the apartheid struggle did not reach the age that he reached.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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