President Frederik W. de Klerk apologized Friday for apartheid, marking the first time a white South African leader has expressed public regret for the ruling party's 42 years of enforced segregation.
"For too long we clung to a dream of separated nation-states, when it was already clear that it could not succeed sufficiently," De Klerk told an audience in the conservative white town of Winburg. "For that we are sorry."
The president, seeking to persuade whites to accept recent concessions to the opposition African National Congress, said that regret for the past was the main motivation behind the government's decision to draw up a new constitution with black leaders.
De Klerk now is in the midst of difficult negotiations with black leaders, and he hopes to bring them together to form an interim government and to write a new constitution that extends voting rights to the disfranchised black majority.
Nelson Mandela's ANC recently agreed to return to the negotiating table.
But the resumption of talks has been hampered by disenchanted whites and some blacks, including Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, who believe De Klerk has given away too much to the ANC.
In the past, De Klerk has flatly refused to apologize for apartheid, which he has said was a well-intended policy that failed. And although a few junior officials in the government have said they were sorry for apartheid, neither De Klerk nor any member of his Cabinet has ever issued such an apology.
On Friday, though, De Klerk, a devout Christian, said apartheid was not intentionally evil.
"Yes, we have made mistakes. Yes, we have often sinned and we don't deny this," De Klerk said. "But that we were evil, malignant and mean--to that we say 'no.' "
Many black leaders, including Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, have urged De Klerk to apologize as a way of showing his sympathy for the damage done by apartheid and breaking his party's links with the past.
It was De Klerk's own National Party, for years under the leadership of men such as the president's father, that instituted the policy of racial separation soon after coming to power in 1948.
"We will have to make peace with each other and build a nation--on the cornerstone of justice for all," De Klerk said Friday.
Since he came to office three years ago, De Klerk has dismantled most of the apartheid laws that allowed 5 million whites to rule 29 million blacks. Among those measures were laws that classified all South Africans by race and enforced segregated neighborhoods, schools and hospitals.