Former South African president FW de Klerk on Monday apologized and withdrew his statement that the country's former harsh system of racial separation known as apartheid was not a crime against humanity.
De Klerk, the last president under apartheid, caused an uproar with the comment during an interview last week with state broadcaster SABC.
De Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela from prison 30 years ago, paving the way for the end of apartheid and South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994 that saw Mandela voted into power.
De Klerk was later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for their role in the country's transition.
However, de Klerk's views on apartheid have remained divisive. His latest comments came as South Africa celebrated the 30th anniversary of Mandela's release.
Fellow Nobel Peace laureate and former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu urged de Klerk to withdraw his latest remarks.
De Klerk's foundation said it was withdrawing the statement and apologized for the "confusion, anger and hurt that it has caused.''
Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations in 1973. The U.N. was among the organizations criticizing de Klerk for his statement.
De Klerk said he aligned himself with the Rome Statute which created the International Criminal Court and includes the crime of apartheid as a crime against humanity.
"It can also be seen as the legislative expression of Nelson Mandela's statement during his inaugural address that ‘never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,’” de Klerk said.
An online petition led by prominent South African lawyer Dali Mpofu calling for de Klerk's Nobel Peace Prize to be withdrawn had received more than 10,000 signatures by Monday afternoon.