"F.W.", as he became popularly known, was first elected to the South African Parliament in 1969 as the member for Vereeniging, and entered the cabinet in 1978. De Klerk had been offered a professorship of administrative law at Potchefstroom in 1972 but he declined the post because he was serving in Parliament. In 1978, he was appointed Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and Social Welfare and Pensions by Prime Minister Vorster. Under Prime Minister P.W. Botha, he held a succession of ministerial posts, including Posts and Telecommunications and Sports and Recreation (1978-1979), Mines, Energy and Environmental Planning (1979-80), Mineral and Energy Affairs (1980-82), Internal Affairs (1982-85), and National Education and Planning (1984-89). He became Transvaal provincial National Party leader in 1982. In 1985, he became chairman of the Minister's Council in the House of Assembly.
In his first speech after assuming the party leadership he called for a non-racist South Africa and for negotiations about the country's future. He lifted the ban on the ANC and released Nelson Mandela. He brought apartheid to an end and opened the way for the drafting of a new constitution for the country based on the principle of one person, one vote. Nevertheless, he was accused by Anthony Sampson of complicity in the violence between the ANC, the Inkatha Freedom Party and elements of the security forces. In Mandela: The Authorised Biography Sampson accuses De Klerk of permitting his ministers to build their own criminal empires.
His presidency was dominated by the negotiation process, mainly between his NP government and Mandela's ANC, which led to the democratisation of South Africa.
In 1990, De Klerk gave orders to roll back South Africa's nuclear weapons programme; the process of nuclear disarmament was essentially completed in 1991. The existence of the programme was not officially acknowledged before 1993.
After the first free elections in 1994, De Klerk became vice-president in the government of national unity under Nelson Mandela, a post he kept until 1996. In 1997 he also gave over the leadership of the National Party and retreated from politics.
In a 2007 radio interview, jailed policeman Eugene de Kock claimed that De Klerk had hands "soaked in blood" and had ordered political killings and other crimes during the anti-apartheid conflict. This was in response to Mr. De Klerk's recent statements that he had a "clear conscience" regarding his time in office.
On 4 December 2001, Marike de Klerk was found stabbed and violently strangled to death in her luxuous Cape Town flat. De Klerk, who was currently on a brief visit to Stockholm, Sweden to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Nobel Prize foundation, announced he would immediately return to mourn his dead ex-wife. The atrocity was reportedly condemned strongly by South African president Thabo Mbeki and Winnie Mandela, among others, who openly spoke in favour of Marike de Klerk. On 6 December, 21 year old security guard Luyanda Mboniswa was arrested for the murder. On 15 May 2003 he received two life sentences for murder as well as three years for breaking into Marike de Klerk's apartment.
In 2004 De Klerk announced that he was quitting the New National Party and seeking a new political home after it was announced that the NNP would merge with the ruling ANC. That same year, while giving an interview to US journalist Richard Stengel, De Klerk was asked whether South Africa had turned out the way he envisioned it back in 1990. To which his response was: "There are a number of imperfections in the new South Africa where I would have hoped that things would be better, but on balance I think we have basically achieved what we set out to achieve. And if I were to draw balance sheets on where South Africa stands now, I would say that the positive outweighs the negative by far. There is a tendency by commentators across the world to focus on the few negatives which are quite negative, like how are we handling AIDS, like our role vis-à-vis Zimbabwe. But the positives — the stability in South Africa, the adherence to well-balanced economic policies, fighting inflation, doing all the right things in order to lay the basis and the foundation for sustained economic growth — are in place.
In 2006 he underwent surgery for a malignant tumour in his colon, discovered after an examination on 3 June. His condition deteriorated sharply, and he underwent a second operation after developing respiratory problems. On 13 June it was announced that he was to undergo a tracheotomy. He has since recovered and on 11 September 2006 gave a speech at Kent State University's Stark Campus in North Canton, OH. In 2006, he underwent triple coronary artery bypass surgery
In 2000 De Klerk established the pro-peace FW de Klerk Foundation of which he is the chairman. De Klerk is also chairman of the Global Leadership Foundation, an organisation he established after retiring from office. Formally inaugurated in March 2004, the Global Leadership Foundation works to "promote good governance - democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law - and to contribute to the prevention and resolution of conflict through mediation.
In January 2007 De Klerk was a speaker promoting peace and democracy in the world at the "Towards a Global Forum on New Democracies" event in Taipei, Taiwan, along with other dignitaries including Poland's Lech Walesa and Taiwan President Chen Shui-Bian.
FW de Klerk is an Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society and Honorary Chairman of the Prague Society for International Cooperation.. He has also received the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse from the College Historical Society for his contribution to ending apartheid.
See also: Huguenots in South Africa