By Promit Mukherjee and Emma Rumney
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) -South Africa’s last white president Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk, who negotiated a peaceful transfer of power to a Black-led government under Nelson Mandela, died on Thursday aged 85 after a battle with cancer, his foundation said.
De Klerk won praise worldwide for his role in scrapping apartheid and he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993. The following year Mandela won South Africa’s first multi-racial elections with his African National Congress (ANC).
In a message of condolence, President Cyril Ramaphosa paid tribute to de Klerk’s “vital role” in South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s.
“He took the courageous decision (as president) to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency,” Ramphosa said.
Mandela’s foundation said in a separate statement that de Klerk would “forever be linked to Nelson Mandela in the annals of South African history”.
However, de Klerk’s role in the transition from minority white rule to democracy remains highly contested.
Many Blacks were angered by his failure to curb political violence in the turbulent years leading up to the 1994 elections, while right-wing white Afrikaners, who had long ruled the country under de Klerk’s National Party, viewed him as a traitor to their causes of white supremacy and nationalism.
De Klerk’s foundation said he had died peacefully at his home in Cape Town on Thursday morning after a battle with mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the tissue lining the lungs.
“He is survived by his wife Elita, his children Jan and Susan and his grandchildren,” it said, adding the family would in due course announce the funeral arrangements.
PRAISE AND CRITICISM
“May FW de Klerk rest in peace and rise in glory,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of the struggle against white minority rule and seen by many as South Africa’s moral conscience, said in a statement released by his office.
John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s second biggest party after the ANC, said de Klerk’s success in bringing the majority of white voters with him over the need to abolish apartheid helped ensure that “the transition happened peacefully”.
The DA is the main rival of the ANC but has struggled to shed its image as a party of white privilege.
Julius Malema, who heads the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the country’s third biggest political party, was much more critical, saying de Klerk should be referred to not as a “former president” but as a “former apartheid president”.
Critics of de Klerk took to Twitter to say he should not get a state funeral due to his roots in the old apartheid regime.
Mandela, who died in 2013, had acknowledged in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” de Klerk’s key role in the transition to multi-racial democracy.
“To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner,” he wrote.
Though long retired from active politics, de Klerk prompted anger among supporters of then-president Jacob Zuma in 2016 when he accused them and their leader of seeking to advance their personal interests and of endangering South African democracy.
De Klerk again drew criticism last year when he told a national broadcaster that he did not believe apartheid was a crime against humanity, as declared by the United Nations.
The backlash triggered by his remarks forced de Klerk to withdraw from a virtual seminar with the American Bar Association (ABA) in the United States, where he had been due to speak on minority rights and racism.
(Additional reporting by Nqobile Dludla and Wendell RoelfEditing by Gareth Jones)