The Impact of Exchange: Changing Race Relations in South Africa

Frederik de Klerk & Nelson Mandela - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 1992 (Copyright: World Economic Forum)


Today is Election Day in South Africa, 20 years after the country’s first all-race vote and the 5th national election since the fall of apartheid. Many are part of a generation of “born frees” – citizens born after apartheid that are voting for the first time.

On this day, we remember a South African visitor that came through our doors for a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program (formerly under the U.S. Information Agency) in 1976. He was a member of the South African Parliament under apartheid and had been serving for seven years.

He said that this visit convinced him that race relations could not be left to run their course.

Twelve years later, he became President of South Africa.

This man’s name was F.W. de Klerk.

During his visit to Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans, he came face-to-face with racism. In a New York Times article, he said the lesson of his journey was that:

”the negative effects of racism isn’t limited to South Africa and that it was a problem in the hearts and minds of people; also, that in a country with a great conflict potential, with a much more complicated population structure” – and here he meant South Africa – ”that it is necessary to manage the conflict potential which arises from a multiracial society, as we believe, in a non-discriminatory manner.”

F.W. de Klerk was replaced by Nelson Mandela in the first all-race election in 1994. He is the last white South African to serve as president and the last president to serve under apartheid. In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela both were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending apartheid in South Africa.

We are honored to have met so many incredible individuals who walk through these doors on exchange programs. Hopefully projects like this will continue to exist to help better international understanding.

Here is the full congressional testimony honoring F.W. de Klerk after his retirement that mentions his U.S. visit and the full article in the New York Times on de Klerk, published in 1989.