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Gary Younge
The truth, what's that?

"When we handed over power in 1994 there was not one discrimination law on the statute book," says De Klerk, a heavy smoker with a warm manner and deeply furrowed brow. "In that sense the National Party abolished Apartheid, not the new government." The man who insisted that South Africa could not "tamper with the policy of separate development but must abandon it completely", is now tinkering with history.

He is no longer the politician who was forced to end illegitimate white rule because of mass protest and international condemnation but, according to the Sunday Telegraph, "the man who legislated himself out of power"; no longer history's receptacle but its master.

"We started the process in 1986 under PW Botha," he says, referring to the former president who declared the state of emergency in 1985 and who was deemed, in a report to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, to be accountable for 'gross violatons of human rights' when he ran the country from 1978 to 1989.

"It was then we said: one united South Africa, one citizenship, one vote. There was a strong moral element in this," De Klerk says.

By the time he took over in 1989 things had changed. The Berlin Wall was coming down, Israelis and Palestinians were at the negotiating table and the world was waiting for events in South Africa to unravel and hoping not too much blood would be shed in the process. Whether De Klerk, now 60, did the right thing at the right time, or was simply in the right place at the right time, is a moot point.

"History did present me with an opportunity to move faster and take my constituency with me but we had to seize the opportunity." This is De Klerk's story and not only is he sticking to it, he is roaming the world actively promoting it in his autobiography. The Last Trek, A New Beginning.

Biographers were probably never going to be kind to De Klerk. True, he played a significant role in steering his country from pariah autocracy to a democracy embraced by the international community. But there was also the sticky matter of the 17 years as a National Party MP, during which he rose through the party ranks while it committed some of the most unspeakable atrocities in recent times.

De Klerk does not so much have a skeleton in his closet as a whole coterie doing the can-can all around his bedroom. In October, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee accused him of covering up a state-orchestrated bombing of the South African Council of Churches in 1988 and the Congress of South African Trade Unions in 1987.

"The fact is, I didn't know," he says. "I didn't know because it was hidden from me, as it was hidden from other political decision-makers. And some of the heads of police and the defence forces, it was also hidden from them." If he truly wanted to secure a favourable place in history one wonders why he did not simply bow out gracefully after he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

"I felt a duty to stay on and finish what I had set out to do. I wanted to see the process through to its logical conclusion, not secure my place in history." The tone of the book suggests that he realised that if he was going to be sure of a good write-up he would have to do it himself. When he abandoned politics in August 1997, the former National Party leader said he was retiring to pen a work which would place events in South Africa "in their correct perspective".

"I wanted people to look at our history in its proper time frame," he says. "The same mistakes that we made were still being made in the United States and the ex-colonies. Then we carried them on for around 20 years longer. It was a time when we thought it would go away. But the average moderate white South African family never hated black people. They made many mistakes, but they weren't arch racists as has been dictated by propaganda." De Klerk's "perspective" is selective. The Sharpeville massacre and the shootings in Soweto - two landmark incidents of the Apartheid years - get a paragraph each in his book. Asked whether he felt compelled to speak out against the Soweto uprisings, which took place while he was an MP, he says: "I was very shocked by it and I was critical of Treuernicht's [then the former National Party leader] attitude to his brief. But I was not in the country at the time. I was in Germany on my way to the US." Given that De Klerk has had more than 20 years to come up with an explanation one must assume this is the best he can do.

His attempt to rehabilitate his political legacy is made none the easier by the fact that his name is constantly matched against the most popular politician in the world. "I am not jealous of Nelson Mandela. I recognise him as a big man. But religiously speaking I don't think that any human being can be sanctified to the extent that they cannot make mistakes." It is clear that he believes in a multi-racial democracy, now that it is a reality. But it is difficult to see how he got there - it is as though he simply fell asleep and woke up at Damascus without having any of the blinding revelations on the way.

He comes from a long line of Afrikaaner heavyweights - his great-grandfather was a senator, his grandfather a Boer war combatant and his father a cabinet minister.

"When I was a young man, I supported the idea of building a federation that would be a look little bit like Europe," he says. "The Zulus would have Zululand, like the French have France, the Xhosas would have their own country like the Germans and the Afrikaans would have theirs, and all these different nation-states would be held together by something like the European Union.

"But there was a lack of international support for this and the majority of blacks resisted it. They didn't want a slice of the cake, they wanted the whole cake and to have a say in how it was divided." And then there was that other nasty business - the racism. "Things were done which were morally indefensible. The humiliations, the divisions of people, the forced removals. That was wrong." Within a few years he says he realised that the races in South Africa had lived side by side for too long for any separation to be effective or anything other than forced.

"It was like an omelette," he says, contributing yet another culinary metaphor to racial discourse alongside the melting pot and salad bowl. "An omelette which we couldn't undo."

• The Last Trek, A New Beginning by FW de Klerk is published by Macmillan, £20.

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