The moment it became clear to me that South Africa’s grotesque and absurd system of racial apartheid was finally about to die remains vivid in my memory.

F.W. de Klerk’s office in Cape Town in early 1990. De Klerk sat directly across from me at his desk. His room smelled strongly of South African cigarettes, which he chain-smoked throughout most of his adult life.

A few months earlier, the Berlin Wall was toppled. The Soviet Union was in a state of crisis. It was clear that there was change in Africa and around the globe.

De Klerk told me there was danger that the Afrikaners would abandon the National Party in favor of the more racist Right-wing party, which had done well in whites-only recent elections.

With a serious stare, he fixed me and took another puff.

‘With respect, you have it absolutely the wrong way round,’ he said in his heavily accented English. ‘I have to move so fast that my people have no idea what I am up to.’

The long road to freedom: Mandela celebrates becoming president in 1994 with F.W. de Klerk

Mandela, celebrating her election as president in 1994 together with F.W. de Klerk

Apartheid’s time was up and De Klerk was right, of course. If he hadn’t dither, and if he was unable to get his bearings during the pivotal time in 1990, he might have found himself trapped between Right and Left, or between white and black.

De Klerk was 85 years old yesterday. He was South Africa’s former president and was instrumental in the abolishment of apartheid. He won international plaudits for the way he brought reform to South Africa, destroying the reviled regime with no civil war. He released Nelson Mandela from jail, shared the Nobel Prize with him in 1993 and, a year later, saw him elected South Africa’s first black president.

De Klerk’s place in history rests on his clear-eyed understanding that apartheid could not be reformed, but had to be entirely swept away, and quickly. Crucially, this was a decision based on pragmatism — a political priority for him, rather than a moral imperative. In his public declarations, he never once expressed any sense of the need to end apartheid.

After his cancer death in Cape Town, yesterday saw the exception of the F.W. The extraordinary footage of de Klerk Foundation shows him in his most sincere sorrow.

In faltering tones, De Klerk declared: ‘I without qualification apologise for the pain and hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in SA.’

The video was described by him as a ‘last message’, an attempt perhaps finally to settle his legacy which even yesterday was proving deeply divisive.

Statesman: With Mrs Thatcher in 1990

Stateman: In 1990, with Mrs Thatcher

While Boris Johnson praised his ‘steely courage and realism in doing what was manifestly right’, human rights lawyers were calling him ‘an apologist for apartheid’.

Even before De Klerk took the highest office in 1989, he had decided he was to be South Africa’s last white president. De Klerk understood the fact that white South Africa was in a corner.

South African’s economy was badly affected by the sanctions. Confidence in white rule had collapsed so starkly that he realised Nelson Mandela, the world’s most celebrated political prisoner, might have to be released after 27 years behind bars.

This was shocking news to most South African whites. For decades, government propaganda had placed Mandela at the apex of the global, Communist-led ‘total onslaught’ against white rule in South Africa.

Although it seems obvious that this viewpoint had to shift, it was certainly not an inevitable or sensible decision for many white South Africans 32-years ago.

So in addition to creating conditions in which constitutional negotiations could begin, De Klerk had to operate in such a way that his white supporters did not know where he was taking them — which was black majority rule.

De Klerk kept his promise and delivered the most significant speech in South African History in Cape Town’s segregated white Chamber of Parliament on February 2, 1990.

Mandela would be freed within a week. The African National Congress (ANC), and all other black political organizations were immediately unbanned and the death penalty was suspended. National Party MPs gasped with shock. Those further to Right shouted Afrikaans oaths at De Klerk (whom they used to regard as one of their own).

P.W. Botha promised reforms but was not able to deliver. De Klerk was the exact opposite. He kept his shocking plans secret from the few Cabinet ministers who were informed.

Judged against his own political record, the man born Frederik Willem de Klerk into a staunchly nationalist Johannesburg family — whose Huguenot forebears had left Europe in the 17th-century — was almost comically ill-suited to the role of dismantler of white rule in South Africa.

De Klerk (right) released Nelson Mandela (left) from jail, shared the Nobel Prize with him in 1993 and, a year later, saw him elected South Africa’s first black president

De Klerk (right) released Nelson Mandela (left) from jail, shared the Nobel Prize with him in 1993 and, a year later, saw him elected South Africa’s first black president

His ascent up the ranks of the National Party — he was a qualified attorney who was first elected as an MP in 1972 — was fuelled by the perception he always gave of being on the verkrampte, or on the hardline wing of the party.

He couldn’t look at any apartheid regulation in Parliament or Cabinet, before taking office as President. He voted against legalizing racially-mixed marriages, mixed sport and mixed residential areas.

He opposed black trade union rights, even the rights of black South Africans to have permanent residence outside their supposed ‘tribal homelands’, which many blacks had never actually visited.

F.W. was the one to suggest that South Africa could have a black president when Pik Botha, South Africa’s foreign minister suggested it in 1986. F.W. de Klerk was the one who made it clear that his outrageously defeatist predictions were false.

As late as 1987, he urged whites to report South Africans of colour to the authorities if they were suspected of living in ‘white group areas’, even though by then the police were increasingly turning a blind eye to it.

F.W. F.W.

When asked to deliver a few soothing words during a tour of an old people’s home, Marike gratuitously shared her thoughts on South Africa’s mixed-race ‘Coloured’ popula-tion, the descendants of early white settlers and indigenous Africans. Under apartheid, the term “Coloured” was legally defined.

They were, she averred, a ‘negative group of non-persons’, South Africa’s historic ‘left-overs’. Inevitably there was much amusement in 1991, when the De Klerks’ adopted son Willem declared he was in a serious relationship with a ‘Coloured’ woman and intended to marry her.

That relationship foundered, partly, it was said, as a result of Marike’s meddling which succeeded in snuffing out the couple’s love across the racial divide.

De Klerk ground his way through the negotiations with the ANC preparing for South Africa’s first fully democratic elections.

Mandela was brought in by the president from prison to be used as a preliminary meeting point. Both men agreed that they would do business together.

De Klerk’s place in history rests on his clear-eyed understanding that apartheid could not be reformed, but had to be entirely swept away, and quickly

De Klerk’s place in history rests on his clear-eyed understanding that apartheid could not be reformed, but had to be entirely swept away, and quickly

The relationship between these two pair of stubbornly black and white nationalists was often fraught. However, there was an obvious lack of humanity.

The two men were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but the relationship remained frosty, even though they had won it.

De Klerk suffered a wound when they arrived in Oslo to receive their award. De Klerk’s fellow laureate was applauded wherever he went and booed out on the streets.

De Klerk served awkwardly as deputy president until Mandela’s election in 1994. Nelson Mandela made close friends with some prison guards. But he was much more difficult to forgive F.W. Even though apartheid was his fault, de Klerk felt guilty of the crimes.

At home, De Klerk’s long marriage to Marike collapsed after he fell in love with a family friend, Elita Georgiadis. The new love interests did not get to see each other for 2 years in an attempt to save their marriage. But he couldn’t give up on her. ‘For once in my life my heart took control,’ he recalled in his autobiography.

Towards the end of his life, De Klerk let it be known to friends that he was deeply depressed about South Africa, and particularly the President Jacob Zuma, under whose misrule cronies were enriched and the public finances looted

De Klerk, near the end his life, made known to close friends that he felt deeply sad about South Africa. He was particularly depressed over President Jacob Zuma.

Marike’s life was to end tragically. After the end of her marriage, she fell into depression and was murdered by a young guard in her Cape Town apartment. Her death was seen by many as a symbol of the lawlessness South Africa has fallen to, according to some.

De Klerk made it clear to his friends towards the end of life that he was very depressed about South Africa and especially the President Jacob Zuma. His cronies had been enriched under Zuma’s misrule and the public finances were looted.

De Klerk was an old-fashioned, paternalistic man, who seemed to see South Africans as members of tribes — which, of course, is how apartheid viewed them.

Yet, it was his determination and courage that saw the government fall and changed South African history.

His true political courage was evident to me 

By Lord Renwick Britain’s ambassador to South Africa, 1987-1991 for the Daily Mail

My phone rang at midnight the night before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. F.W. de Klerk, President of South Africa — a man on the edge of a political precipice, who was about to change his country forever.

‘Your prime minister will not be disappointed,’ he told me. He said it because I was familiar enough with him to believe his words.

I had arrived in South Africa as Margaret Thatcher’s ambassador three years earlier, in 1987, at a time when the nation was divided by apartheid and Nelson Mandela had been in jail for 24 years.

De Klerk and me became close friends over many hours in Pretoria as well as Cape Town. He would sit behind a desk, chain-smoking, while I relayed messages from Mrs Thatcher, who wanted to see Mandela released — or indeed, from Mandela himself, as I occasionally served as a go-between.

To steer South Africa out of civil war it took two men.

De Klerk was a man of great political courage, even though his exterior is quite ordinary.

During our very first meeting, he had remarked on the fact that I had previously spent time in Rhodesia and said that, if he had his way, South Africa would not make the same mistake as that country’s white minority leader Ian Smith. When I inquired, he said that it was. He said: ‘Leaving it far too late to negotiate with the real black leaders.’

He was as true to his word when he became president.

He assured us privately that he would release all of Mandela’s African National Congress comrades from jail and the man himself would be freed as soon as he was able to prepare the ground for it.

He was brought up believing in apartheid. However, his world was shifting and he realized white rule couldn’t last.

He was also a serious believer in his faith. F.W. refused to believe that the military and police could keep control of his country for another decade. told them flatly that such a course would entail shooting more people every year — something, as president, he was not prepared to do. He was required to find a political solution to the problem.

Both he and Mandela knew that compromise was inevitable. Throughout the negotiations leading to ‘one person, one vote’, the ANC leader kept assuring me that he could work things out with F.W. ‘because he listens’.

In carrying out his revolution — the abandonment of white rule — De Klerk faced strong resistance from elements of the South African army and police who were accustomed to using any means necessary to ‘take out’ their enemies.

F.W. F.W.

He said that he would only feel capable of looking at his international peers and fellow citizens if all South Africans could vote and all discriminatory laws had been repealed.

As I sometimes reminded Mandela, it was a harder task to give up power — which De Klerk was doing — than to receive it.

Later on, Mandela became president and attacked F.W. For his party’s sake, I asked for him to tell me that De Klerk would have been in jail even if he hadn’t.

Mandela laughed and agreed with this statement.