Early life and education
F. W. de Klerk was born on 18 March 1936 in Mayfair, a suburb of Johannesburg. His parents were Johannes "Jan" de Klerk and Hendrina Cornelia Coetzer – "her forefather was a Kutzer who stems from Austria". He was his parents' second son, having a brother, Willem, who was eight years his senior. De Klerk's first language is Afrikaans and the earliest of his distant ancestors arrived in Southern Africa in the late 1680s.
De Klerk's family had played a leading role in Afrikaner society; they had longstanding affiliations with South Africa's National Party. His paternal great-grandfather,
Jan van Rooy, had been a senator, while his paternal grandfather, Willem, had been a clergyman who fought in the Anglo-Boer War and who stood twice, unsuccessfully, as a National Party candidate. His paternal aunt's husband was J. G. Strijdom, a former Prime Minister. His own father, Jan de Klerk, was also a Senator, having served as the secretary of the National Party in Transvaal, president of the senate for seven years, and a member of the country's cabinet for fifteen years under three Prime Ministers. In this environment, de Klerk was exposed to politics from childhood. He and family members would be encouraged to hold family debates; his more conservative opinions would be challenged by his brother Willem, who was sympathetic to the more liberal, "enlightened" faction of the National Party. Willem became a political analyst and later split from the National Party to found the liberal Democratic Party.
The name "de Klerk" is derived from Le Clerc, Le Clercq and De Clercq, and is of French Huguenot origin (meaning "clergyman" or "literate" in old French). De Klerk noted that he is also of Dutch descent, with an Indian ancestor from the late 1600s or early 1700s. He is also said to be descended from the Khoi interpreter known as Krotoa or Eva.
De Klerk's upbringing was secure and comfortable.
When de Klerk was twelve years old, the apartheid system was officially institutionalised by the South African government; his father had been one of its originators. He therefore was, according to his brother, "one of a generation that grew up with the concept of apartheid". He was inculturated in the norms and values of Afrikaner society, including festivals like Kruger Day, loyalty to the Afrikaner nation, and stories of the "age of injustice" that the Afrikaner faced under the British. He was brought up in the Gereformeerde Kerk, the smallest and most socially conservative of South Africa's three Dutch Reformed Churches.
The de Klerk family moved around South Africa during his childhood, and he changed schools seven times over seven years. He eventually became a boarder at the Monument High School in Krugersdorp, where he graduated with a first-class pass in 1953. He was nevertheless disappointed not to get the four distinctions he was hoping for.
University and legal career: 1954–
Between 1954 and 1958, de Klerk studied at Potchefstroom University, graduating with both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Law. He later noted that during this legal training, he "became accustomed to thinking in terms of legal principles". While studying there, he became editor of the student newspaper, vice-chair of the student council, and a member of the
Afrikaanse Studentebond's national executive council. At university, he was initiated into the Broederbond, a secret society for the Afrikaner social elite. As a student, he played both tennis and hockey and was known as "something of a ladies' man". At the university, he began a relationship with Marike Willemse, the daughter of a professor at the University of Pretoria. The couple married in 1959, when de Klerk was 23 and his wife 22.
After university, de Klerk pursued a legal career, becoming an articled clerk with the firm Pelser in Klerksdorp. Relocating to Pretoria, he became an articled clerk for another law firm, Mac-Robert.
In 1962, he set up his own law partnership in Vereeniging, Transvaal, which he built into a successful business over ten years.
During this period, he involved himself in a range of other activities. He was the national chair of the Junior Rapportryers for two years, and chair of the Law Society of Vaal Triangle. He was also on the council of the local technikon, on the council of his church, and on a local school board.
Early political career: 1972–
In 1972, his alma mater offered him a chair in its law faculty, which he accepted. Within a matter of days he was also approached by members of the National Party, who requested that he stand for the party at Vereeniging. De Klerk's candidature was successful and in November he was elected to the House of Assembly. There, he established a reputation as a formidable debater. He took on a number of roles in the party and government. He became the information officer of the Transvaal National Party, responsible for its propaganda output, and helped to establish a new National Party youth movement. He joined various party parliamentary study groups, including those on the Bantustans, labour, justice, and home affairs. As a member of various parliamentary groups, de Klerk went on several foreign visits, to Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom, and United States. It was in the latter in 1976 that he observed what he later described as the pervasive racism of U.S. society, later noting that he "saw more racial incidents in one month there than in South Africa in a year". In South Africa, de Klerk also played a senior role in two
select committees, one formulating a policy on opening hotels to non-whites and the other formulating a new censorship law that was less strict than the one that had preceded it.
In 1975, Prime Minister John Vorster predicted that de Klerk would one day become leader of South Africa. Vorster planned to promote de Klerk to the position of a deputy minister in January 1976, but instead the job went to Andries Treurnicht.
In April 1978, de Klerk was promoted to the position of Minister of Social Welfare and Pensions. In this role, he restored full autonomy to sporting control bodies which had for a time been under the jurisdiction of the government. As minister of Post and Telecommunications he finalised contracts that oversaw the electrification of that sector. As Minister of Mining he formalised a policy on coal exports and the structuring of Eskom and the
Atomic Energy Corporation. He then became Minister of the Interior, he oversaw the repeal of the Mixed Marriages Act.
In 1981, de Klerk was awarded the Decoration for Meritorious Service for his work in the government.
As education minister between 1984 and 1989 he upheld the apartheid system in South Africa's schools, and extended the department to cover all racial groups.
For most of his career, de Klerk had a very conservative reputation, and was seen as someone who would obstruct change in South Africa. He had been a forceful proponent of apartheid's system of racial segregation and was perceived as an advocate of the white minority's interests.
While serving under P. W. Botha's government, de Klerk was never part of Botha's inner circle.