FW de Klerk: A short biography - Foundation

Includes images from the life of the former president, and quotes

FW de Klerk

Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk was born in Johannesburg on 18 March 1936, the son of Senator Jan De Klerk, a senior Cabinet Minister. His school years were spent mainly in Krugersdorp, where he matriculated at Monument High School.

He attended the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and graduated in 1958 with BA and LLB degrees (cum laude). During his university years he was actively involved in student affairs.

After finishing his studies Mr De Klerk joined a firm of attorneys in Vereeniging that he helped to develop into one of the leading law firms outside South Africa’s major metropolitan areas. At the same time, he played a prominent role in numerous community activities. In 1972 he was offered the Chair of Administrative Law at Potchefstroom University but had to decline because of his decision to enter active politics.

In November 1972 he was elected as Member of Parliament for Vereeniging. In 1978 and shortly after his 42nd birthday, after only five and a half years as a back bencher, he was appointed to the Cabinet. During the following 11 years he was responsible for the following portfolios consecutively:

  Posts and Telecommunications and Social Welfare and Pensions;

  Sport and Recreation;

  Mining and Environmental Planning;

  Mineral and Energy Affairs;

  Internal Affairs, as well as the Public Service, and

  National Education, (the portfolio that he held when he was elected as State President).

On 1 July 1985 Mr De Klerk became Chairman of the Minister’s Council in the House of Assembly. He became Leader of the House of Assembly on 1 December 1986. Mr De Klerk was elected to the key post of Leader of the National Party in the Transvaal on 6 March 1982. On 2 February 1989, the caucus of the National Party chose him as the national Leader of the Party. On 15 August 1989, after the resignation of President PW Botha, Mr De Klerk became Acting State President, and after the general election of 6 September, was inaugurated as State President on 20 September 1989.

Mr De Klerk served as State President until President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration on 10 May 1994. During this period he initiated and presided over the inclusive negotiations that led to the dismantling of apartheid and the adoption of South Africa’s first fully democratic constitution in December 1993.

After leading the National Party to the second place in South Africa’s first fully representative general election of 27 April 1994, Mr De Klerk was inaugurated as one of South Africa’s two Executive Deputy Presidents – together with Mr Thabo Mbeki. He served in this capacity until the end of June 1996 when his Party, under his leadership, decided to withdraw from the Government of National Unity.

He was Leader of the Official Opposition until his retirement from active party politics on 9 September 1997.

Mr De Klerk has received numerous national and international honours and honorary doctorates. In 1981 he was awarded the South African Decoration for Meritorious Service. In 1992, he received the Prix du Courage Internationale (The Prize for Political Courage) and was co-recipient of the UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize. He was also awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Spain during the same year.

In July 1993, together with Mr Nelson Mandela, Mr De Klerk received the Philadelphia Peace Prize and on 10 December the same year was the co-recipient, also with Nelson Mandela, of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In January 1999 Mr De Klerk published his autobiography "The Last Trek – a New Beginning" (Macmillan) and the same year established the FW de Klerk Foundation, which is dedicated to upholding the South African Constitution, promotion of peace in multi-communal societies as well as preservation of FW de Klerk’s presidential heritage and South Africa’s constitutional transformation from apartheid to a non-racial constitutional democracy.

In 2004, Mr De Klerk brought together a number of respected former national leaders to join him as founding members of GLF Global Leadership Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aims to play a constructive role in the promotion of peace, democracy and development in countries across the world. He was also the Honorary Chairman of the Prague Society for International Co-operation in the Czech Republic; a Member of the Assembly of the Parliament of Cultures in Istanbul and was involved with Forum 2000, a think-tank initiated by former President Vaclav Havel and Nobel laureate Eli Wiessel.

In addition, he served as an Honorary Member of the Peres Center for Peace’s International Board of Governors and on the advisory board of the Global Panel in Germany.

Throughout Mr De Klerk made numerous speeches around the world and actively participated as an elder and respected statesman in international conferences on the promotion of harmonious relations in multi-communal societies, the future of Africa and South Africa and the challenges facing the world during the new millennium.

In 2020 FW de Klerk was diagnosed with mesothelioma – a cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs. After a courageous battle against the disease, he passed away on 11 November 2021.

Up until the time of his death he lived in Fresnaye, Cape Town. He enjoyed reading, the outdoor life and golf as well as spending time with his family.


Awards received:

1981 South African Decoration for Meritorious Service 1989 Newsmaker of the Year, Johannesburg Press Club 1989 Newsmaker of the Year, Pretoria Press Club

1990 Newsmaker of the Year, Pretoria Press Club

1991 Man of the Year, Institute of Management Consultants 1991 Marketing Man of the Year, FEDHASA

1991 Houphouet---Boigny Prize for Peace, UNESCO 1992 Prix du Courage Politique Internationale, France 1992 Prince of Asturias Prize, Spain

1993 Philadelphia Liberty Medal 1993 Nobel Peace Prize

1994 Co-recipient with President Nelson Mandela as Newsmaker of the Year, Johannesburg Press Club

2002 Order of Mapungubwe: Gold Academic Awards:

1990 Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy, D.Phil (hc), University of Stellenbosch 1990 Honorary Doctorate in Law, LL.D (hc), University of Potchefstroom

1991 Honorary Doctorate in Law, Bar---Ilan University, Tel---Aviv, Israel

1991 Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy, National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan, Province of China

1994 Honorary Doctorate, Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, Belgium

1994 Honorary Fellowship Award of the College of Medicine of South Africa 1995 Honorary Doctorate, LLD University of South Africa

1995 Honorary Doctorate, LLD University of Zululand

2007 Honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, Salisbury University USA 2014 Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy, University of Haifa, Israel



Our goal is a New South Africa, a totally changed South Africa, a South Africa that has rid itself of the antagonisms of the past..." Parliament, 6 February 1989

"The government will continue with the process of reform and is committed to taking decisive steps in the direction of a new South Africa in which all of the people will be fully represented in the institutions of government." Reaction to the election victory of 6 September 1989

"I think we both reached the same conclusions: that it would be possible for us to do business with each other." Comment after his first meeting with Nelson Mandela, 13 December 1989

"Walk through the open door; take your place at the negotiating table together with the government and other leaders who have important power bases..." Parliament, 2 February 1990

"Today we have closed the book on apartheid ...It does not happen often that in one generation a nation gets the opportunity to rise above itself..." Reaction to the result of the white referendum, 18 March 1992

"I have repeatedly examined myself, before God and my conscience. And I wish to say here, today, that I am more convinced now than ever that I have made the right choices." Parliament, 20 December 1993 following the adoption of the Interim Constitution.

"Mr Mandela has walked a long road and now stands at the top of the hill... a man of destiny knows that beyond this hill lies another and another. The journey is never complete. As he contemplates the next hill, I hold out my hand to Mr Mandela - in friendship and in cooperation." Concession speech, 4 May 1990

"The new constitution tolls the bell for multiparty cooperation at the executive level." Reaction to the adoption of the 1996 Constitution, 8 May 1996

"God Almighty created windows of opportunity for us. We are thankful that he also gave us the strength and courage to use them." Farewell speech to Parliament, 9 September 1997

"27 April did not constitute the victory of some South Africans over others. It was a glorious victory for us all. On 27 April all of us - whatever our race - enjoyed far greater rights and freedoms than any of us had previously enjoyed before. It was our proudest moment as South Africans - regardless of our race, our gender or our background. To the astonishment of the whole world, we had succeeded in overcoming centuries of bitterness, conflict, repression and division to reach an historic agreement on the future of our country." Speech by FW de Klerk, 27 April 2014

"In die eerste plek moet ons aanvaar dat die toekoms van ons taal in ons eie hande lê. Dit is ons wat sal besluit of Afrikaans voortleef en floreer, en of dit sal agteruitgaan en uitsterf. Ons is nie van die regering afhanklik vir ons oorlewing nie… Tweedens het ons `n grondwetlike reg om ons kinders in die taal van ons keuse te onderrig. Ons moet Afrikaans kies." Speech by FW de Klerk, Paarl, 11 August 2011

"The new South Africa is founded on the premise that no-one - no majority, no minority, no individual

-  should ever again be able to unjustly deprive anyone - whether a majority, a minority or an individual

-  of any fundamental right." Speech by FW de Klerk, London, 25 October 2011

"The simple fact is that there is nothing in the Constitution that stands in the way of achieving success with social and economic transformation. On the contrary, the Constitution demands that we should all work for a society based on human dignity, the achievement of equality and the enjoyment of human rights." Speech by FW de Klerk, Durban, 11 May 2012

"The facts show clearly that property rights and free markets promote the general prosperity of everyone much more effectively than government intervention and control." Speech by FW de Klerk, Durban 31 May 2012.

"Just as 2 February 1990 was not the result of a Damascus conversion - neither was it forced on us by the ANC, by sanctions or any other external factors... We were motivated overwhelmingly by our own determination to break out of the deep injustice that characterised our relationship with the great majority of South Africans." Speech by FW de Klerk, 31 January 2020 to mark the 30th anniversary of the 2 February 1990 speech

"We realised that the circumstances for successful negotiations would never again be so favourable - and we knew that with the passage of time the balance of forces would inexorably shift against us. So on 2 February 1990, we opened the way to constitutional negotiations. We leapt through the window of opportunity that had been blown open by the winds of change from Eastern Europe." Speech by FW de Klerk, 31 January 2020

"I implore the ANC to turn back... The ANC will find us - and all other South Africans of good will - waiting for them on the constitutional high road." Speech by FW de Klerk, 13 January 2020

"The adoption of the UN Declaration of Universal Hyman Rights in 1948 was ... one of the most important advances in human history. Within 70 years it led to a world that is better, kinder and fairer for billions of people. "

"...the ANC’s battle cry was not “Reform!” - it was “Amandla!”

"But above all, we genuinely wanted to find a just and lasting solution to the vexatious problems that had divided us for generations. We wanted to create a better country for all our children. "

"My apology is not just words and lip service. It is grounded in a deep and growing understanding of the pain, humiliation and damage that apartheid has caused for a majority of all South Africans."

"We cannot accept a situation where some South Africans, because of their race, are regarded as morally inferior and as targets for perpetual discrimination because of the role that their ancestors played in the past."

"None of us can determine the nature of the worlds into which we are born or the injustices that we inherit from the past. All that we can do is to wrestle with the political forces of our time and try to leave the world a freer, a more just and a better place than we found it." Speech by FW de Klerk to the Cape Town press Club, 5 October 2020

Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation, 11 November 2021