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De Klerk Resigns as Leader of S. Africa's National Party

By Ann M. Simmons
Los Angeles Times
NAIROBI, Kenya

F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president and the man who led the dismantling of apartheid, resigned as leader of the opposition National Party on Tuesday and stepped out of the political limelight.

In a surprise announcement, de Klerk, 61, told a packed news conference in Cape Town, South Africa, that he is retiring because "it is in the best interest of the party and the country."

Ending a career that spanned almost a quarter-century, de Klerk - who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with President Nelson Mandela for his role in bringing democracy to South Africa - also threw into question the future of the party that institutionalized racial discrimination and nurtured it for 46 years.

"This party must continue with new, fresh ideas, with new, young leadership which can take us forward," he said. "A significant obstacle for the National Party is the perception that it is still linked to a guilt-laden past That symbol is removed now."

De Klerk urged his followers to continue supporting the National Party, or NP, which he said remains the only one that can "take care of your interests." Under de Klerk, the National Party had opened its doors to all races.

It was de Klerk - the scion of an Afrikaner family - who in 1990 lifted a 30-year-old ban on Mandela's African National Congress, or ANC, and nine days later freed Mandela from prison, where he had served 27 years of a life sentence for sabotage against the white-led government.

Mandela, hearing Tuesday's news, was gracious. "I only hope South Africans will not forget the role de Klerk played in effecting a smooth transition from our painful past to the dispensation South Africa enjoys today," he told reporters.

A statement from Mandela's African National Congress called de Klerk's decision a "recognition of the obvious reality that the captains of apartheid cannot easily transform themselves into co-architects of the new South Africa."

"I think he realized that his time had come to get out of the political race with honor," said Mark Malan, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa.

De Klerk's party is in disarray today, plagued by political infighting that has led to a host of defections by some moderate members. Some observers read his departure as a sign that the NP may revert to its traditional hard line.

When de Klerk became president in 1989 after having served as a member of Parliament and as education minister - presiding over a school system that spent 10 times more on white children than on blacks - supporters assumed he would protect the apartheid regime. Instead, the former lawyer shocked the nation by announcing that white domination had to end for South Africa to enjoy real peace.

Within a year, he legalized 60 anti-apartheid groups, including the ANC, and freed hundreds of political prisoners. After liberating Mandela, he removed the notorious legislative pillars of apartheid and began talks on a transition to democracy, effectively negotiating himself out of power.

Mandela's party defeated de Klerk's in a landslide in the 1994 national election, the first to include voting by all races and the one that marked the end of 350 years of minority rule. De Klerk became one of two deputy presidents in Mandela's government of unity. But he pulled his party out of the coalition once South Africa's new constitution was approved in May 1996.

De Klerk set out on a crusade to remake the party. But "it was never clear what he was trying to do," said Laurie Nathan, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town.

"How does he play the role of national leader committed to reconciliation, and at the same time advance the interests of his political party?"

De Klerk had hoped to broaden his party's appeal to lure South Africans unhappy with the ANC. When he conceded defeat to Mandela in 1994, de Klerk, ever the consummate politician, vowed that his party would make another run for the presidency in 1999. But his efforts to enlarge the party failed.

Like most other white leaders of the apartheid era, de Klerk refused to apply for amnesty for crimes committed in the name of white rule. Last spring, he enraged the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel created to record the ordeal of the system's victims, by blaming torture and other atrocities on low-ranking officials.

He has maintained that he did not know about such deeds perpetrated by police death squads and other security forces.

Analysts said de Klerk's likely successor, due to be picked Sept. 9, is either Hernus Kriel, the Western Cape provincial premier and a leader of the party's right wing, or NP executive director Marthinus van Schalkwyk.

De Klerk will keep his position until that selection is made and then plans to work on his autobiography, he said.