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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nelson Mandela's greatest accomplishment was to unify South Africa and push for reconciliation between blacks and whites in the post-apartheid era, F.W. de Klerk, the country's last white president, said on Thursday.
"He was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else he did. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy," de Klerk, 77, said in an interview with CNN after the announcement of Mandela's death at age 95.
De Klerk, a white Afrikaner who released Mandela from prison in 1990 and then negotiated the end of apartheid, said Mandela was a humane man who was able to understand and soothe the fears of South Africa's white minority in the transition to democracy.
De Klerk said he felt a connection to the African National Congress leader during their first meeting in 1989, shortly after de Klerk had taken over as leader of South Africa's apartheid government.
"There was an immediate, I would say, a spark between the two of us, and notwithstanding the many spats we had, I respected him and I always liked him as a person. He was a magnanimous person. He was a compassionate person," de Klerk said.
"He was taller than I expected - he was ramrod straight. He looked one in the eye very directly, he was a good listener and I could see very easily that he had an analytical approach to discussions, which I liked very much. I was really very impressed with him at that first meeting."
Mandela and de Klerk shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for ending minority white rule and laying the foundations of democracy in South Africa. De Klerk served as one of two deputy presidents in Mandela's government after the ANC won the 1994 elections.
Reporting by Paul Simao; Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Beech