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De Klerk told Mandela: Timing of release not negotiable

Story Highlights

• Man who helped end apartheid says he did the right thing
• F.W. De Klerk says when he told Mandela of his release, he said, "It's too soon"
• De Klerk now works with world leaders on conflict resolution
• He says he hopes his legacy is that he "made a difference for the better"
By Jeff Koinange
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here Jeff Koinange writes about his recent interview with Frederik Willem de Klerk.

PAARL, South Africa (CNN) -- Frederik Willem de Klerk -- the last leader of white South Africa and the man who turned his back on decades of entrenched racism to bring an end to apartheid -- lights up with excitement when he describes his historic decision to free Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years.

He said the two even got into an argument about the timing of Mandela's release, set for February 11, 1990. Mandela, he said, objected, saying, "We need more time to prepare."

"Let me tell you a story," de Klerk told me from his home in the scenic area of Paarl in the southwestern corner of the nation.

"Mandela was brought to my office under the cover of darkness to discuss the details of his release, and I announced to him that he would be released on the 11th, and he said to me, 'I don't want to be released on the 11th,'" de Klerk said.

"I said, 'Why not.' He said, 'It's too soon.'"

De Klerk -- known by most here simply as "F.W." -- would have none of it.

"I said, 'Mr. Mandela, you and I are going to negotiate about many things, but you've been in jail long enough. This is not negotiable, you will be released. Let's negotiate the time of the day and the place you want to be released.'"

Imagine that -- de Klerk and Mandela arguing late into the night. The rest, as they say, is history. (Watch de Klerk describe his legacy Video)

De Klerk: Positives outweigh negatives

More than 16 years after that decision, de Klerk has had time to reflect on it and everything that ensued. He is at ease with his decisions.

I caught up with him on his farm in Paarl, an hour's drive outside Cape Town. This was the first time I met the man credited with ending apartheid from the inside.

He's now 70 years old and looks great for his age, especially for a man who recently underwent triple coronary artery bypass surgery.

I found him sitting on his deck looking out over one of the most beautiful scenes, a vineyard that's been in his family since the first French Huguenots arrived here more than 200 years ago.

De Klerk immediately knew I was Kenyan from my last name, a level of knowledge and wisdom that impressed me.

He is a traveled man, not the closed-up, one-track mind of his predecessors in office. He smiled easily, talking about his time in office.

"If I were to draw a balance sheet of the positives and the negatives, then the assets by far outweigh the debts. There are so many positives, but there are big negatives," de Klerk said.

Dropping the bombshell

When de Klerk was first elected president of South Africa, there was little in his past that distinguished him from his hard-line predecessors.

He'd been a loyal functionary in the National Party, holding a series of Cabinet posts, and he seemed committed to the principle of white minority rule.

But within months of his inauguration as president, de Klerk set in motion a process that was to alter the history of the country, dropping a bombshell that caught the nation -- and the world -- by surprise.

"The government has taken the decision to release Mr. Mandela unconditionally," he announced to the country's all-white parliament late in 1989.

It was an announcement that initially wasn't popular with some whites, and many would blame him for what they called "selling out."

The black majority went on to win the country's first multiparty elections in 1994, and Mandela became the country's first black president.

De Klerk, whose National Party won 20 percent of the election, shared the portfolio of executive vice president along with Thabo Mbeki (who later succeeded Mandela and is the country's current president).

De Klerk would eventually step down and leave politics altogether, somewhat disillusioned with the way things were being run.

All the while, he was still being hounded by the fact that some white South Africans considered him a traitor.

Making a 'difference for the better'

But a dozen years later, time has been a healer in this healing land.

De Klerk insisted he's still passionate about his country.

"I feel I have a residual responsibility to continue to try and be helpful in a constructive way to ensure the new South Africa succeeds," he said.

Looking back over his career, he says he is most proud of winning the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993.

"It was a recognition that if we, if the whites and the other minorities in the country, did not say yes to fundamental change, it could not have happened," he said.

"I was proud to stand there next to Nelson Mandela and to share the prize with him, and I think it made a contribution towards reconciliation in South Africa."

The former president now runs the F.W. de Klerk Foundation as well as the Global Leadership Forum, an organization that brings together former presidents and prime ministers, offering confidential advice on conflict resolution.

He said he hopes history will in the end treat him fairly.

"I hope that when I die, the work that I do between now and whenever I die will add to that legacy -- that he made a difference for the better," de Klerk said.

De Klerk and Mandela helped change the course of South Africa.


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