Developing World, Developing Leaders

Speech by FW de Klerk Speech at the O’Connor Institute

Phoenix, Arizona, 26 September 2016


It is a great honour for me to be able to address you today on the topic “Developing World, Developing Leaders."

This is not simply an academic question.    One thing that we have learned since the beginning of the millennium is that globalization means that none of us can ignore developments even in the most remote societies. 

Who would ever have thought twenty years ago that Islamic fundamentalists living in the remote mountains of Afghanistan could possibly have any impact on the United States or on the world’s global business and financial hub in New York?

Who would have imagined that a disease that was incubated in the jungles of Central Africa could possibly destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in America – or lead to the deaths of more than 4 million people in my own country, South Africa?

Who would have dreamt that technological developments on the West Coast of the United States would revolutionise the way China processes information or the manner in which peasants in Kenya communicate and carry out their financial transactions on their mobile phones?

Globalisation means that none of us can ignore the factors that promote – or undermine – stability and progress anywhere in the world. 

Globalisation is making the world smaller: everywhere people are on the move, seeking access to the better lives, security and freedom that they see on the internet.   The dominant image of our times may well be the hundreds of thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean and scaling the border fences in Ceuta and along the Mexican border.

All this means that people in the developed world must become much more aware of the factors that are making it increasingly difficult for millions of people in developing countries to remain where they are. 

Why are some of these societies failing to create a better life for their people – while others are succeeding? 

One of these factors is the quality of leadership in the more than 120 countries that have emerged onto the global stage since the Second World War, following the disintegration of European colonial empires and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One of the measures of the success of these emerging societies is the degree to which they have been able to develop and sustain genuine democratic systems – because there is generally a high correlation between economic and political freedom and success in a number of areas of human development.  

However, democratization has delivered a pretty mixed bag:  according to Freedom House – the world’s most authoritative monitor of political and civil freedom around the globe  - of the 120 countries that have become independent since World War II

  • only 41 are free;
  • 40 are partly free; and
  • 39 are not free at all.

It is also instructive to note where these countries are:

  • well over half of the 41 free countries – 24 of them - are islands in the Caribbean, around Africa, and in the Pacific Ocean.So democracy does very well in small island states – perhaps because the populations tend to be homogeneous and because politicians do not have the space to become detached from their supporters;
  • All of the Soviet Union’s former satellite states in Eastern Europe are free – while – with the exception of the Baltic states - there is not a single free country among the states that used to comprise the Soviet Union;

Only nine of the emerging states is Africa are free -but this is much better than the situation in Asia – where only one of the emerging states – India – is fully democratic.

Undoubtedly, one of the critical factors determining the success of emerging states is the quality of their leadership.

Leaders of newly independent states face many challenges that their counterparts in well- established democracies do not generally experience:

Firstly, there is the continuing liberation syndrome: many leaders of newly independent states emerged from revolutionary movements that were good at fighting liberation wars – but had very little conception of the hum-drum challenges of day-to-day governance.In South Africa our governing party, the African National Congress, still regards itself as a National Liberation Movement with an unfulfilled historic mandate – and not as an ordinary political party.

Secondly, many leaders of post-independence governments fell into the ideological trap of radical socialism.Emerging leaders – many of them trained in the old Soviet Union – were inspired by the ideals of the classless society and the abolition of private property.They regarded Mao and Che Guevara as their role models and were surprised when their economies inevitably collapsed.

Thirdly, most leaders of newly independent countries have had to contend with divisive ethnic forces.Most of their newly independent countries were artificial creations of European imperialists who drew borders on the colonial maps with little or no consideration for the peoples that they were artificially dividing – or lumping together in the same states.Too often, emerging leaders tended to favour people from their own ethnic group and to alienate those from other communities.

Finally, there was the ever-present threat of corruption.In states without strong civil society institutions and well established traditions of probity there was always the temptation to use power to advance the political and economic interests of the leader, his family and his friends.Power did corrupt – and absolute power tended too often to corrupt absolutely.

The sad reality is that history is more often driven by bad, rather than good, leadership. History is replete with examples of leaders who have consistently taken the wrong decisions.  Had Charles I, Louis XVI and Nicholas II been better leaders the histories of their countries would have been fundamentally different.  Just consider the stupidity of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; the folly of the Europeans in precipitating the First World War – and in our own time – the disastrous consequences of the Second Gulf War.

So what then are the qualities of good leadership – and how can we promote these qualities in the present generation of leaders in developing countries.

What - at the age of 80 - have I learned from my experience of leadership?

Firstly, I have learned about the corrosive nature of power.  Lord Acton was right: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The problem in South Africa before 1994 was that White Parliament was supreme.  It could - and it did - make any law that it pleased.   It is also true that, in the absence of deeply ingrained values and strong and independent watchdogs, those who have power will tend to abuse it to promote their personal and political interests.

That is why it is so important to limit and monitor the power of governments and political leaders. 

Secondly, I have learned that the worst episodes of human history have been caused by ideologies:  just think of the 120 million victims of Nazism, Fascism and Communism during the past century.

Ideologists develop theories about how to achieve an ideal society and then try to force reality into the narrow channels of their theories. 

They are all inspired by millenarian visions: the classless society; manifest destiny; or the thousand year Reich.

They all conjure up enemies: liberals, the bourgeoisie; or the Jews.

They all ignore realities that do not fit in with their theories.

They all trample on the interests of ordinary people in order to achieve their goals.

South Africa suffered under the ideologies of apartheid and separate development.

Thirdly, I have learned that it is much easier to reach agreement on the future than on the past.   I strongly supported South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but unfortunately it did not succeed in promoting reconciliation.  Its greatest flaw was that it was not representative. There were no commissioners who could speak for the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom - two of the main parties to the conflict.  Reconciliation cannot occur if there is no consensus - and consensus is not possible if all sides are not properly represented.  Our inability in South Africa to reach agreement about the past has been one of the greatest failures of our post-conflict society.  The past still intervenes like an unseen barrier in virtually all our national discourses and provides the fuel for continuing recrimination, guilt and polarisation.   As George Orwell observed: “who controls the past, controls the future - who controls present, controls the past”. 

Fourthly, I have learned that the key to harmonious relations in multicultural societies is respect for diversity beneath an over-arching umbrella of common values and loyalties.   A United Nations Development Programme report, published in 2004, affirmed that cultural liberty was a vital part of human development.  If handled well, it could lead to greater cultural diversity and enrich people’s lives.  However, if it was mismanaged it could “quickly become one of the greatest sources of instability within states and between them.”  The answer was to “respect diversity and build unity through common bonds of humanity”.  The UNDP Report recommended that states should promote cultural liberty as a human right and as an important aspect of human development. It is only within such a framework that all of us who live in multicultural societies can achieve our full potential as human being

Fifthly, I have learned the enormous value of political and economic freedom under a system of caring and humane law.   Freedom is crucial to the happiness, success and prosperity of societies everywhere. The top 20% of countries that best promote economic freedom have per capita incomes seven times greater than the bottom 20%.   They are also more equal.Their average GINI index - where 0 represents perfect equality and 100 represents absolute inequality - is 34,4 compared with 42,9 for the bottom 20%.  Their economies grow faster.Between 1990 and 2009 nations in the top quartile grew by 3% compared with only 1.2% for the bottom quartile;   They live longer - to an average age of 79,9 years in free economies compared with 60.7 for the bottom quartile.

This should come as no surprise:  freedom means empowerment.   It empowers the individuals, companies and associations of which society is composed; it encourages the freedom of debate and research that is the foundation of all innovation.  By so doing it gives free societies an enormous competitive advantage.

So what advice would I give to developing leaders in the developing world?

  • Vigilantly limit the power of those who are invested with political, bureaucratic and economic authority;
  • Distrust ideologists and all those who base their policies on beliefs rather than on realities and experience;
  • Accommodate and respect cultural, linguistic, religious and political diversity;
  • Base one’s outlook on a shared future rather than on a divided past;
  • Ensure that government promotes maximum freedom within the law for ordinary people to pursue their legitimate personal, economic and political interests- because freedom is empowerment.

But how can we in practice convey these messages to leaders struggling with the complex challenges of developing societies? 

This is exactly the mission of the Global Leadership Foundation.   We have put together a panel of more than 30 former Presidents, Prime Ministers and Statesmen from countries all over the world.

As former leaders, we understand the excruciating challenges with which new generations of leaders must wrestle:

We understand the loneliness of leadership;

We have experienced the difficulty of obtaining well-based, disinterested advice;

We know that many of our closest allies and advisers have their own agendas and filter the information that they pass up to us.

It is for these reasons that we make our advice available to leaders who are dealing with transitional problems. 

We do so with the utmost discretion – since the last thing that a leader wants is to create the impression that he needs external advice. 

We put together teams from our panel comprising former leaders who understand the region involved and who themselves have dealt with similar economic, developmental and political challenges.

We do not want publicity. We want only to help.  And we are finding increasingly that this approach resonates with leaders in developing countries. 

We have no illusions. The task is never easy - but if we can help leaders to avoid catastrophic decisions - if we can share our experiences of success and failure - if we can nudge policy in the right direction with tried and tested experience - then I believe that we will indeed have made a contribution to developing leaders in the developing world.


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