History and Leadership

Speech by FW de Klerk to the Foreign and Commonwealth Association

13 June 2016, London


It is an honour and a pleasure for me to address you today on the question of “history and leadership”.

There is much debate about the role of individual leaders in history.  Is history the product of impersonal social, demographic and economic forces - or is it driven by individual leaders? 

And here we must consider that history is much more frequently determined by the stupidity and inability of leaders than it is by those few individuals who through their brilliance steer it in a better direction.   Just think about the folly of those who allowed the First World War and the second Gulf War to take place.  Would the British, French and Russian revolutions have occurred if their countries had been led by more competent leaders than Charles I, Louis XVI and Nicholas II?  Their combination of folly, weakness, good intentions and unpopular foreign wives changed history. What would have happened to French and European history if there had been no Bonaparte - or if he had not allowed his insatiable ambition to drive him to self-destruction?  And if the leaders who drafted the Treaty of Versailles had not been so implacable and short-sighted, would there have been a Hitler and a World War II.

We do not know:  all we can surmise is that individual leaders do play a significant role, for better or for worse - but within the framework of the social and economic forces of their times.   Within this context I would like to share with you some of my own ideas and experiences of leadership.

The art, in the first place, is to succeed in the very arduous process of becoming the leader.  Only then can you really have an impact on events and steer them into what you believe is the right direction.  History awards no prizes to armchair experts.  History recognises only those who have the ability to translate their vision of what is right into reality.  

I am often asked whether the decision that I took after I became president in September 1989 to initiate the constitutional transformation of South Africa was the result of some or other Damascus road experience.  It wasn’t.  Neither was it a sudden change of direction.  It was, in fact, the culmination of a long process of introspection and reform that started in 1978 when my predecessor, PW Botha, became Prime Minister.    For me the key point was simply the realisation that the policies that we had adopted, and that I had supported as a young man, had absolutely no chance of solving the critical problems that confronted us - and that they had led to a situation of manifest injustice.    Introspection and the dispassionate assessment of one’s situation is the first requirement of leadership. 

The next requirements are, where necessary, the acceptance of the need to change and the ability to manage change.  Resistance to change is deeply ingrained in us.  In our case, in South Africa, the whites had cogent reasons to fear the change that political transformation and one-man, one-vote elections would inevitably bring:

Firstly, how would they be able to protect the reasonable rights of minorities under a majority rule dispensation?  The struggle for national self-determination had been the central theme of the history of my people - the Afrikaners - for more than 150 years.  We twice defended this right against Britain - at that time the mightiest empire in the world.  The Anglo-Boer War was the largest of the 50 or so wars that Britain fought between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War.  It involved the deployment of 430 000 Imperial troops - compared with the 65 000 that were sent to fight the Americans in their War of Independence.   We had always regarded ourselves as a separate nation within the artificial borders that had been established by the Union of South Africa only 80 years earlier - in 1910.  We feared the prospect of a one-man, one-vote election to the same degree that Israelis would fear the outcome of a one-man, one-vote election in the broader Middle-East.

Secondly, how could white South Africans be sure that universal franchise would not lead quickly to the chaos and tyranny that had sadly characterised the decolonisation process in so many other parts of Africa?By the mid-80s there had already been more than 80 coup d’états in Africa and there was only a handful of democracies on the continent.

Finally, the government was worried about the possibility of a communist take-over. Throughout the 70s and 80s virtually all the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee had also been members of the SA Communist Party. The SACP controlled the ANC’s armed wing - and advocated a classical two-phase revolution - first national liberation under the leadership of the ANC - and then the socialist revolution that would be led by the Communist Party. 

By the mid 1980s the future of South Africa looked exceedingly bleak.  The country was caught in a downward spiral of unrest and violence that culminated in June 1986 in a draconian state of emergency.   In 1985 international banks had pulled the financial plug on South Africa by refusing to roll over our short-term loans. It was only by the skin of our teeth that we managed to reach a repayment agreement that saved our economy.   We were increasingly isolated - and sanctions was costing us 1,5% in annual economic growth.  As late as October 1987 our armed forces were involved in major battles against Soviet and Cuban led forces in southern Angola.At the Battle of the Lomba River we destroyed 93 Soviet-built tanks.

We were riding the proverbial tiger:  the tiger was becoming increasingly unhappy;  the world was shouting at us to dismount;  we dearly wanted to jump off - but feared that if we dismounted we would be devoured.  To us it was an existential crisis.  And then things began to change.

By 1987 - in the wake of the State of Emergency - all sides had begun to accept that there could be neither a military nor a revolutionary victory - and that continuing conflict would simply turn South Africa into a wasteland. We would have to negotiate. 

The Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, was beginning to loose interest in its Southern African adventure.In 1988 South Africa, Cuba and Angola reached agreement on the withdrawal of 50 000 Cuban troops from Angola in conjunction with the implementation of UN independence plan for Namibia. The negotiations with the Angolans and the Cubans and the successful implementation of the Namibian independence process during 1989 reassured the South African government that it could secure its core interests through negotiations with its opponents. 

Socially and economically, South Africa was changing.The gap between black and white incomes was closing quite rapidly - at 10% per decade - and by 1994 there would be more black South Africans at university than whites.

The final - and critically important - factor was the collapse of global communism - symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989. At a stroke, it removed South Africa’s primary strategic concern.  We realised that the circumstances would never again be so propitious for successful negotiations.  So we decided to dismount the tiger - and to do so as quickly as and as gingerly as possible.

In my speech to Parliament on 2 February 1990 I removed all the remaining obstacles to the commencement of negotiations - including the unbanning of the ANC, the SA Communist Party - and the release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners.

A key task of leadership is to articulate a clear and achievable vision.  In my speech I also set goals that included:

  • a new and fully democratic constitution;
  • the removal of any form of discrimination and domination;
  • equality before an independent judiciary;
  • the protection of minorities as well as of individual rights;
  • freedom of religion; and
  • universal franchise.

Perseverance is an essential quality of leadership.  Any change process will inevitably involve setbacks and crises.  Our negotiation process was almost derailed by faceless violence;  by boycotts first by the ANC and then by the Inkatha Freedom Party and conservative groups;  and then by the assassination of Chris Hani, the leader of the Communist Party.  However, we persevered and finally overcame all the obstacles.  We realised that our decision to embark on transformation would unleash a chain of events with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. At times it was rather like paddling a canoe into a long stretch of dangerous rapids.  You may start the process and determine the initial direction.  However, after that the canoe is seized by enormous and often uncontrollable forces.  All that you can do is to maintain your balance, avoid the rocks and steer as best you can - and right the canoe if it capsizes.  It is a time for cool heads and firm, decisive action.   By 1994 - after almost four years of turbulent negotiations - we had achieved virtually all our objectives.

I would like to expand a little on the leadership qualities that change management requires.

Timing is essential.  We simply could not have done in 1980 what we did in 1990.  The white electorate would have rejected any such move - and it would have been suicide to transform while the ANC and the SACP still enjoyed the full support of the Soviet Union - while it was actively projecting its power in southern Africa. 

Another requirement of leadership is acceptance of the need to take calculated risks.  However, we realised that the greatest risk would be to do nothing at all.   One of the most notable risks that I had to take occurred in 1992 when the National Party started to lose by-elections - primarily to the right.  The Conservative Party claimed that we had lost our mandate to continue with negotiations.    I decided - against the advice of some of my closest colleagues - to call a referendum among the white electorate to renew and strengthen my mandate to negotiate a new constitution.  The referendum, which was held in March 1992, resulted in a 69% victory for the continuation of negotiations.  If I had lost the referendum I would have had to resign.

At the end of the day, the difference between politicians and statesmen is that politicians follow and react to public opinion:  statesmen lead public opinion and channel it into new directions.

The qualities of leadership that I have just described were in my view demonstrated by the following leaders:

Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the great contemporary leaders whom I count as a friend. The history of the world, or Europe and of Russia would have been fundamentally different if a hard-line communist had seized the reins of power in the early 1980s.  Even though the Soviet Union was doomed to economic failure, an orthodox communist dictator might well have held the Soviet empire together for decades.  The cold war would not have come to an end.  The countries of Eastern Europe would not have been liberated.  The Soviet Union would not have disintegrated - and Germany would still be divided between east and west.  Often it is the individual leader who puts his weight on one side or the other of the political balance who changes the course of history.

Another leader who impressed me was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.  He was an individual who changed history.  In many respects he was the creator of modern Singapore.  Without his leadership it might still be just another city in Malaysia.  As it is, and despite its tiny size, it has become one of the most successful countries, with one of the freest economies, in the world.   Lee Kuan Yew took the right decisions for his country;  he chose the right values and the right economic policies to ensure the development of a successful society.  In this, he was an artist painting on the largest canvas that human experience can provide.

And then there was Margaret Thatcher whom I counted as a good friend.  Few British Prime Ministers have had such a profound influence on the course of their country’s history as she did.  She understood, when she became Prime Minister, what the fundamental challenges were that she would have to address.   Her free market middle-class conservatism set the paradigm not only for British politics for decades to come, but changed democratic politics everywhere.  I remember an exasperated Sir John Major telling me after the Conservatives had lost the 1997 election that he wondered what Tony Blair would do once he had run out of the Conservative Party’s policies.   Margaret Thatcher also had a keen understanding of the unfolding situation in South Africa.  Although she was a consistent critic of apartheid, she had no illusions about the nature of the challenges that we faced.  She doggedly resisted for as long as she could persistent demands for more sanctions against South Africa in the Commonwealth and in the international community.  She always gave me - and our partners in the negotiations - strong and committed support for the achievement of our goals.

Although I never met Deng Xiaoping, I believe that he will probably be regarded as one of the great leaders of the latter part of the twentieth century.  He himself was a victim of the Cultural Revolution but nevertheless rebounded in 1978 to initiate the reforms that have fundamentally changed his country.   The process that he began has led to the most far-reaching improvement in the lives of the largest number of people in the shortest period in the whole sweep of human history.  In so doing he has visibly improved the daily lives of hundreds of millions of ordinary people and has established China as a leading strategic and economic power.   Such is the great canvas of statesmanship.  Deng succeeded in turning China from a drab and paranoid ideologically obsessed backwater to a confident, prosperous and successful society.

And in our own country I would like to mention Nelson Mandela.  There is a fairytale quality to the story of a boy who herded cattle in green hills of Qunu becoming the president of his country and subsequently perhaps the most venerated human being of his generation.   My first meeting with Nelson Mandela was on the evening of 13 December 1989 - a few months after I became President and two months before his release from prison.  It took place at my office after Mandela had been smuggled in through the basement entrance.  He was taller than I expected and a little stooped by his 71 years.  He had a great sense of dignity.  He was courteous and self-confident - qualities that no doubt had their origins in his youth when he had been trained to become a key adviser to the paramount chief of his Tembu people.   Later, during the negotiations we became opponents.  I learned that he could also be remorseless and extremely harsh - but then, we were, after all, the leaders of opposing political parties.    However, whenever there were threats that might derail the negotiations we were always able to lay our differences aside and hammer out agreements to ensure the continuation of the process.

Nelson Mandela made his greatest contribution to South Africa after he became president by the manner in which he worked for national reconciliation.  One of his crowning gestures was the moment when he donned the Springbok rugby jersey when we won the World Cup in 1995.    By any measure he was a remarkable man - and a remarkable leader.

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

Firstly, the corrosive nature of power.  Lord Acton was right:  power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The problem before 1994 was that the White Parliament was supreme.  It could - and it did - make any law that it pleased.  It was able to ignore and ride rough-shod over the interests of the powerless.  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, bureaucrats and political leaders.  That is why power should ultimately lie in the hands of the people in genuine democracies.

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 dogmas.  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 have their plaster saints and sacred texts.  They are all prepared to trample on the lives of ordinary people in the pursuit of their ideological goals.

Thirdly, I have learned that it is much easier to reach agreement on the future than on the past.   In South Africa, our inability 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.   Virtually all conflicts in the world today have their roots in, or are exacerbated by, the inability of religious, ethnic and linguistic communities to co-exist within the same countries.  Inter-communal pressures will escalate as societies throughout the world become more diverse. 

Fifthly, I have learned the inestimable value of freedom under a system of caring and humane law.  Freedom is crucial to the happiness, success and prosperity of human beings everywhere.   This should come as no surprise:  freedom means empowerment.  It allows people to participate in the ceremonies of innocence that provide the context of their lives;  it enables them to make the key decisions about how they want to lead their lives;  it empowers the individuals, companies and associations of which society is composed;  it creates the space for flourishing markets;  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.

And what of the future?
We are entering a period of unparalleled and accelerating change.   During the next fifteen years new technologies will transform the world as much as the world has been transformed during the past 25 years by the internet and cell-phones;   Mankind will face new challenges caused - or facilitated - by new technologies.Where will people find meaning in an economy that no longer requires their services and in lifestyles increasingly dominated by virtual reality? As we see every night on TV, everywhere people are on the move.We will have to deal with the demographic consequences created by a shrinking world and an expanding population.   Climate change could dramatically affect the future prospects of our species.What would the consequences be of three successive global harvest failures?   New geostrategic relationships will develop as China and India once again assume the global economic preeminence that they had always enjoyed prior to the 19th century.  

These are the social, demographic and economic forces that will create our future reality.    We await the great individual leaders who will be able to manage this rapidly changing environment and who will have the skills to lead us safely to the next chapter of human history.

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