JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- F. W. de Klerk, the white South African president who opened the way for majority black rule here, resigned yesterday from the leadership of the National Party, which introduced apartheid.
"I know that the time has come for me to go," the 61-year-old politician and statesman said in announcing the move that stunned his party and the nation.
President Nelson Mandela, whom de Klerk freed from prison in 1990 and with whom he shared the Nobel Peace Prize three years later for ending apartheid, said: "I hope South Africans will not forget the role which Mr. de Klerk played in effecting the transition from a painful past."
De Klerk's resignation plunges his party into chaos, with only comparative nonentities ready to replace him, and comes as his political relevance to the "new South Africa" is under increasing question.
Explaining his decision, de Klerk, who has been a member of the National Party for 25 years and its leader for the past eight, said he wanted to give his replacement time to prepare for the 1999 elections and himself time to write his autobiography of what he called "these historic and tempestuous years."
"It is crucially important that the events of our recent history should be placed in their correct perspective," he said.
It was his role in the unfolding of that history for which de Klerk will be remembered.
He set the political stage for the transition of South Africa from a nation in which for four decades the races were separated by law and for centuries the white minority ruled the black majority to one in which equality and democracy became the new order of the day.
One by one, under his leadership, the strictures of apartheid were repealed, but it was on Feb. 2, 1990, that de Klerk announced the steps that transported him from pariah to statesman.
On that day, he freed Nelson Mandela from prison, unbanned the African National Congress and offered to negotiate a new constitution for a nonracial "new South Africa."
In 1994 the country's first free elections were held, and Mandela became president.
"When historians remember de Klerk, it will be as the man who actually began the process of democratization in South Africa," said Tom Lodge, head of the political studies department at Witwatersrand University.
"He is South Africa's Gorbachev," he said, referring to Mikhail S. Gorbachev's opening of Soviet society in ways that eventually undid the Soviet Union.
And like Gorbachev, de Klerk found his popularity waning once his party was out of power.
"His era really ended with the last election, and maybe we all should have gone," former Cabinet Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha said in a radio interview.
De Klerk spent his last months of political activity campaigning vigorously against Mandela's ANC, which he accused of introducing reverse apartheid against whites and being weak on crime, and trying to attract a wider constituency to his own party.
But the National Party's support is now at 15 percent, according to opinion polls, eight points below the 23 percent it drew in the 1994 ballot.
"It's a sinking ship," Theo Bekker, political science lecturer at Pretoria University, told the Star newspaper. "What we will see now is that eventually the NP has reached the end of the road."
"I can't see the National Party without Mr. de Klerk," said Patrick McKenzie, an NP member of Parliament. "He has really become the National Party himself."
De Klerk's stature in recent months also has been diminished by his refusal to acknowledge responsibility to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for appalling activities of government death squads during the apartheid years.
The panel has been taking testimony from the perpetrators of brutal acts on both sides in the apartheid era in exchange for amnesty.
De Klerk also has been weakened by the defection of one of his chief lieutenants, Roelf Meyer, to form a new party and frustrated by his own inability to forge the broadened opposition that he thought would be able to beat the ANC in the 2004 or 2006 elections.
Willie Breytenbach, professor of political science at Stellenbosch University, outside Cape Town, suggested that de Klerk's decision could have been influenced by his party's "very sophisticated" opinion polls, identifying the leader as "an albatross."
"He is seen as old South Africa," said Breytenbach. "He is unacceptable to a lot of 'new South Africa' people. The perception may have taken root that de Klerk has served his purpose. He was without a power base."
The National Party will choose a new leader on Sept. 9, the day de Klerk steps down.
De Klerk said he would not intervene in the succession decision, but speculation focused on Hernus Kriel, premier of the Western Cape and a former minister of law and order in the de Klerk government. He is regarded as a conservative with a strong constituency among local people of mixed race, Indians and whites -- though no following among blacks.
His selection would be likely to weaken the party's support in other provinces, making it more of a Western Cape provincial party, much as the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party finds its strength in Kwazulu-Natal.
De Klerk's departure could be a major boost for Roelf Meyer's efforts to form a new opposition party. He split from the National Party earlier this year after de Klerk rejected his proposal to disband the party and form a completely new organization.
He has had only marginal success to date in attracting disaffected NP members but could see an upswing of defectors now, or new alliances could be formed, involving the National Party.
TC "We are witnessing a shake-out of South African politics," said Breytenbach, the political scientist at Stellenbosch. "Perhaps it is the beginning of a big leadership transformation, which will only be complete when Mandela leaves the scene [in 1999].
"Then the two architects of South Africa's transition will have gone and it's going to be a completely new ball game. Unfortunately, I see less and less of the 'rainbow nation.'
"I see more and more of 'Irish coffee' -- black and white.' "
Pub Date: 8/27/97