The Nobel Peace Prize winner said not all aspects of apartheid were “morally repugnant”, and that there was “merit” in the notion of ethnic groups living apart but that in South Africa, the experiment had not worked.
In a CNN interview, Mr de Klerk said he had made a “profound apology” about the injustices wrought by apartheid on many occasions.
“What I haven’t apologised for is the original concept of seeking to bring justice to all South Africans through the concept of nation states (essentially creating two separate states, one black and one white),” he said.
The introduction of separate homelands began in the 1950s and saw black South Africans, who made up about 80 per cent of the population, moved into “bantustans” accounting for around 13 per cent of the country’s land, while whites held on to the remaining portion.
Many people were uprooted from their homes to be moved into impoverished homelands but, because of the lack of work there, had to apply for permits to live and work in white areas.
Mr de Klerk, who was president of South Africa until Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, denied that blacks in the homelands were disenfranchised.
“They voted. They were not put in homelands, the homelands were historically there,” he said.
“If only the developed world would put so much money into Africa, which is struggling with poverty, as we poured into those homelands. How many universities were built? How many schools?
“At that stage the goal was separate but equal, but separate but equal failed.”
Mr de Klerk was asked if he believed apartheid was “morally repugnant”.
“I can only say in a qualified way,” he replied. “Inasmuch as it trampled human right, it was—and remains—morally reprehensible.
“But the concept of giving, as the Czechs have it and the Slovaks have it, of saying that ethnic unities with one culture, with one language, can be happy and can fulfil their democratic aspirations in an own state, that is not repugnant.
“The tipping point in my mind was when I realised, we need to abandon the concept of separateness. And we need to build a new nation with its eleven official languages, accommodating its diversity, but taking hands and moving forward together.”
His comments were met with protest from South Africans, some of whom called for his Nobel Peace Prize to be stripped.
Eusebius McKaiser, a political commentator wrote: “De Klerk doesn’t deserve that prize given he thinks our homelands weren’t indecent and apartheid not obviously immoral.”
Karima Brown, another political commentator, said: “He didn’t abandon apartheid because he thought it was wrong but because it had become too expensive to uphold,” she said.
Mr de Klerk’s spokesman Dave Stewart said people should focus on the “180 degree turn” the former president carried out when he realised the policies he supported were wrong.
“If he should hand back his Nobel Prize, then so should [Mikhail] Gorbachev because he supported radical communism in his youth,” he said.