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De Klerk's moves played to a world audience

There is little in the personal and political history of Frederik de Klerk to suggest he would be the South African leader to make the bold gestures that have set his country on a course of uncertainty and hope. De Klerk, the ninth - and possibly the last - white man to lead South Africa since it was formed in 1910, had always stayed well in the safe middle ground of the tightly structured organization that is the ruling National Party.

Until his selection as party leader a year ago this month, he had never taken a single initiative toward change.

But when he assumed the presidency in September, he was obliged to confront a series of daunting realities, from the state of the country's economy to continued criticism from abroad.

In his inauguration speech, he urged his fellow white South Africans to join him in creating "a totally changed South Africa."

De Klerk may be an example of what historians have come to call the "Nixon in China" syndrome, in which a leader has accumulated the political credentials and capital to act against expectations.

One South African official suggested recently in private that de Klerk also was exhilarated by the possibility of achieving a notable role in history as the man who presided over his country's transition from apartheid.

When de Klerk outlined his intention last week to free Nelson Mandela and make legal such opposition groups as the African National Congress, he was keenly aware of the world audience and its high expectations toward his remarks.

In 1985, de Klerk's predecessor, Pieter Botha, faced similar high expectations from abroad for a much-anticipated speech he was to give at a party congress in Durban.

De Klerk is said by several South Africans to have pressed Botha into making the defiant speech he gave, which produced deep disappointment and fueled the international movement to impose economic sanctions against Pretoria.

The negative reaction to Botha's address is said to have had a profound effect on de Klerk.

In making the speech, Botha was following the instincts of generations of South African leaders to look inward to the concerns of their own Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch and Huguenot settlers who arrived in the Cape Town area in the 17th century.

While his predecessors were always preoccupied with their conservative constituencies, de Klerk may be the first South African leader to cast his vision more broadly, seeking approval from the world community.

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city, on March 18, 1936, to a family prominent in Afrikaner politics.

His father was the headmaster of a school who became the National Party's secretary in the Transvaal province, a post similar to the one the son was to occupy decades later.

De Klerk's uncle was J.G. Strydom, South Africa's prime minister in the mid-1950s and a prime exponent of apartheid.

De Klerk was known as F.W. from an early age, not only because it is a common Afrikaner custom for men to go by their initials, but also to distinguish him from his grandfather, who was called Frederik Willem.

De Klerk grew up steeped in the Afrikaner outlook, viewing the world with a proud insularity.

When the Afrikaners fought off African tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the settlers adopted a tactic of circling their oxcarts in a protective formation known as a laager.

In recent years, the concept of the laager has served as a metaphor for the Afrikaners' closing of their ranks against criticism from abroad.

The Afrikaners were suspicious of the whites descended from English colonists and fearful of the majority black Africans.

They developed the concept of apartheid, or racial separation, and purported to find justification for it in the Bible.

Through party and group discipline, the National Party took over the government in 1948 and has retained control since.

De Klerk has told people that extended stays in Britain and the United States earlier in his career gave him a broader perspective.

His visit to the United States in 1976 was paid for by the U.S. Information Agency as part of a program for bringing foreigners with leadership potential to the United States.

He clearly delighted in travels to Lusaka, Zambia, one of the leading black African nations opposing apartheid, and to London and Bonn in the last year, saying he hoped South Africa's status as an international outcast would soon end.