After Apartheid: De Klerk, an Odd Breed of Conservative South Africa's Last White President Stakes Claim to Place in History as Architect of New Order

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F W DE KLERK, South Africa's last white president, supporter then dismantler of apartheid, sucks hard on his cigarette, then agrees. It has been a radical decade - politically and privately - for a man born into the heart of the conservative, white Afrikaner establishment.

Mr de Klerk began it by negotiating himself and the Afrikaner Volk out of power, ending decades of injustice and brutal violence by finally giving black people the vote. And he has finished it with another shock for his people by ending a marriage that lasted 39 years, almost as long as apartheid, to marry another woman 16 years his junior. He is a rather odd breed of conservative, Mr de Klerk.

"I was always at the centre of my party," he says emphatically. "I was unfairly characterised conservative." He says the media image owed much to his attempt to hold on to the mainstream of white opinion when splits opened in the party over political reform. But he was, he claims, all the time beavering quietly away for change. So there it is. He was not, as his many critics complain, just a calculating Johnny-come-lately to the just cause. But which de Klerk will history remember? Is his autobiography, The Last Trek, A New Beginning - which he is in Britain to promote - simply a retirement rearguard action against those who would rob him of his rightful place in history, right up alongside the saintly President Nelson Mandela? Or is it, as the cynics say, an attempt by an embittered man to rewrite and sanitise a chequered political past, cleaning up the dirt that would besmirch the achievements he wants to be remembered for? "I am not putting up a fight for recognition of any contribution," he insists. "The ANC is not prepared to give us that full recognition but I find the international community is." But one wonders. It must hurt that no one questions President Nelson Mandela's contribution to the miraculous negotiated transfer of power in a country that seemed set for a bloodbath. But many question Mr de Klerk's, and still believe he should never have received the joint Nobel peace prize with Mr Mandela. He insists his role is recognised in the US and England and was only contentious in the Nobel prize's home country, Norway. He writes about that in the book. After confirming an open secret - that despite their public shows of unity, the relations between the two men were badly strained - he describes the evening after the Nobel award ceremony when he stood with Mr Mandela on the balcony of an hotel to watch a quaint torchlight procession in their joint honour. Then Mr De Klerk became aware that the crowd below had started to shout ANC slogans and the old anti-Afrikaner war cry: "Kill the farmer, Kill the Boer". For an encore the Norwegians joined in a rousing chorus of the ANC anthem "Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika". There is something naively Afrikaner about his observation that he "was made to feel quite unwelcome". But then he champions a people who have never really understood why the world could not see their predicament, as a small beleaguered white tribe on the dark continent. Mr de Klerk says he wrote the book to state the Afrikaner case and challenge the stereotype of his people as racist extremists. "I tried to project myself and the de Klerk family as a prototype for the normal moderate average Afrikaner family," he says, "and through my experiences to put into perspective why we did what we did. …