, CAPE TOWN, Feb 2 – The last president of apartheid South Africa said Tuesday that his speech 20 years ago announcing the release of Nelson Mandela had "prevented a catastrophe" and altered South Africa forever.
FW de Klerk, the country\’s president from 1989 to 1994, told a conference commemorating the 20th anniversary of his historic address to parliament, "The nine days between (my speech) and the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11 changed South Africa forever."
"It is accordingly appropriate for us to celebrate the 20th anniversary of February 2, 1990 — not to honour my role or the role of any other individual or party, but because it prevented a catastrophe," he said.
De Klerk, a one-time hard-liner in the pro-apartheid National Party, had been in office less than five months when he gave the speech, which called for a democratic constitution, lifted the ban on dissident political parties and announced the release of all political prisoners, including Mandela.
The speech began the process of dismantling the apartheid regime at a time when the country was standing at the brink of civil war, facing economic collapse and international condemnation.
"When history opens a window of opportunity, it is important to jump through it," De Klerk said.