Former South African president Fredrik Willem De Klerk has died Thursday morning at the age of 85, after a battle with cancer his foundation announced.

A statement from the former president’s F.W De Klerk Foundation on Thursday read: “Former President F.W De Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye (Cape Town) earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer.”

Born in the economic hub of Johannesburg in March 1936 into a family of Afrikaners politicians, a white ethnic group descended mainly from Dutch colonisers, his father was a leading apartheid senator who served briefly as interim president.

De Klerk studied law, before being elected to parliament as a member of the National Party that instituted apartheid.

He held several ministerial positions before taking over from Pieta W. Botha as the head of the National Party in February 1989 and became President in September 1989.

In 1990 he announced he was releasing anti-apartheid Leader Nelson Mandela, leading to multi-party polls and handed over to Mandela after the first democratic election in May 1994.

He is most remembered for his famous speech delivered on February 2, 1990, announcing the lifting of a ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements.

De Klerk had announced his diagnosis on his 85th birthday, on March 18 this year.

He is survived by his wife Elita, children Jan and Susan, and grandchildren.