FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Cape Town on Thursday following a battle with cancer.
The 85-year-old shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his successor, Nelson Mandela, for their work in dismantling the racist regime known as apartheid.
It was Mr De Klerk who announced in a now historic speech in 1990 that Mr Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years.
This electrified a country that for decades had been scorned and sanctioned by much of the world for its brutal system of racial discrimination.
With South Africa’s isolation deepening and its once-solid economy deteriorating, Mr de Klerk – who had been elected president five months earlier – also announced the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid political groups.
Amid gasps, several members of parliament left the chamber as he spoke.
Nine days later, Mr Mandela walked free.
Four years after that, Mr Mandela was elected as the country’s first black president as black people voted for the first time.
By then, Mr de Klerk and Mr Mandela had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their often tense co-operation in moving South Africa away from institutionalised racism and towards democracy.