"F.W." was first elected to the South African Parliament in 1969 as the member for Vereeniging, and entered the cabinet in 1978. He became Transvaal provincial National Party leader in 1982. After a long political career and with a very conservative reputation, in 1989 he placed himself at the head of verligte ("enlightened") forces within the governing party, and led a successful palace coup against then president P.W. Botha.
His lifting of the ban on the ANC and other organisations in February 1990 paved the way for the negotiations which led to the end of Apartheid and white minority rule. On February 10 of that year, de Klerk also announced that Nelson Mandela would be released the next day. De Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.
In April 1994 racially inclusive elections were held for the first time ever. De Klerk ran a largely ceremonial and uncompetitive presidential campaign against Mandela, in which Mandela was soundly elected. He went on to serve for two years as deputy president in Nelson Mandela's government, but announced his retirement from politics in August 1997 in order to dissociate the National Party from the policies he had once implemented.
Conservative South African opinion was scandalised by his messy divorce (October 1998) from the former Marika Willemse and prompt re-marriage to Elita Georgiades, but the whole country was shocked by the death (December 2001) of his ex-wife of 38 years, apparently at the hands of a young security guard during the course of a robbery.