Helping Leaders Govern

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Statement on the death of FW de Klerk

Nov 11, 2021

With deepest sadness, the Global Leadership Foundation announces the death today in Cape Town of its Founder, former President and Nobel Laureate FW de Klerk.

In 1997, FW de Klerk left office after serving as President and then Vice President of South Africa.  He did so after dismantling the country’s system of apartheid and, in partnership with Nelson Mandela, setting South Africa on a path towards a united, democratic, non-racial political system which was recognised by the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.  Reflecting on his 25-year career in politics and, most notably, on his 5 years as President, he concluded that he wanted to use his experience to help other leaders, especially in the developing world, to improve their quality of governance, strengthen their democracy and resolve their internal conflicts.

In 1999, inspired by a friend from the world of business, he began discussions with distinguished contemporaries from around the world and it became apparent that he was not alone in his belief that such hard won experience was a potentially priceless asset that could play a significant role, if it was applied in the right way.  In March 2004, he brought together 12 like-minded former global leaders at Chevening House in Southeast England and launched the Global Leadership Foundation as a not-for-profit organisation, registered in Switzerland and with a very small Secretariat based in London.

While the idea of using experience was not unique to the GLF at the time, he applied his own style, insisting that it would be shared in complete confidence – ‘under the radar’ as he liked to describe it – in order to build a relationship of trust with those who sought his help.  Under his wise, astute and energetic leadership, the Foundation steadily established itself with early projects in Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia, many of which he led himself.  They addressed issues as diverse as the practice of democracy, economic reform, political reconciliation, trade, and transition from authoritarian rule.  Meanwhile he added carefully selected new members to the team to include a broad spread of language, gender, regions, and religions.  At every stage, his clarity of purpose, sense of duty and personal warmth added to his global reputation as a Nobel Laureate and ensured that he won over not just the minds of those with whom he engaged, but their hearts also.

It was clear from the outset that, as a not-for-profit organisation, the Foundation would need to seek funding.  One of his earliest, but most far-reaching, decisions was to avoid seeking or receiving large donations from a small number of sources.  He saw that independence of any substantial financial interest was an essential component of the relationship of trust he wanted to build.  From that apparently simple and obvious decision has grown the International Council of the Foundation, also established at the Foundations’ initial meeting at Chevening in 2004.  They form an impressive cohort of distinguished global business leaders who not only support the Foundation but engage with it by applying their own experience, their skills, and their international contacts to identify the issues and help to seek the solutions that will make a difference to the lives of millions of people around the world.

Inspired by his active leadership, the membership progressively increased to the 45 that comprise the Foundation today.  In parallel, the list of projects grew to encompass new countries and new challenges.  Even the arrival of the pandemic, which severely curtailed the opportunities to travel, did not dim his enthusiasm for making a difference and members have been making good use of technology to link themselves and their contacts in pursuit of ways to help resolve the most intractable challenges.

After 17 years at the helm and having been diagnosed with mesothelioma shortly before his 85th Birthday, he was forced to step back from the leadership of the Foundation that he had conceived, created, and nurtured.  He had long practised his own dictum – that a prime duty of a leader is to prepare for his or her own departure – and he could offer the members a strong field from which to elect a successor.  The members elected Helen Clark and she formally took the Chair on 29 October.

FW leaves behind a robust, resilient, and imaginative organisation, which is built on his own experience of transformative leadership and his personal sense of duty and purpose, which is imbued with his understanding of the need for dialogue and negotiation to resolve the most difficult challenges, and which will be sustained by the memory of the engaging personality, winning charm, and unquenchable enthusiasm of one of the greatest statesmen of the modern era.

All members of the GLF family send our deepest sympathy and warmest good wishes to his wife Elita and his family.