SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK TO
GENYSIS TELECOMMUNICATIONS LABS
NEW YORK, 28 APRIL 2004
DEALING WITH ACCELERATING, FUNDAMENTAL AND UNPREDICTABLE CHANGE
It is a great pleasure for me to be able to address you at Genysis here in New York just ten years and one day after South Africa’s first non-racial elections on 27 April 2004. Those elections came at the culmination of one of the most remarkable change management processes in recent history: I am referring to the process by which we transformed South Africa from an isolated and embattled apartheid state to a non-racial democracy that has become a model for other societies that are also wrestling with seemingly unsolvable conflict.
Our experience is, perhaps, also relevant to companies and to individuals that are also trying to cope with the profound changes that characterise our times.
One of the most significant of these changes is globalisation. During the past decades we have begun to lay the foundations of a new supranational global economic and information community:
- Mass jet transportation has brought every corner of the earth within the reach of a single day’s travel – not only for businessmen but for hundreds of millions of tourists.
- Satellite telecommunication now makes it possible to communicate with anybody, anywhere at any time and has enabled us to view breaking news and sports events on the other side of the world.
- The internet and the world-wide-web – perhaps more than anything else – represents the most recent and most exponential development of global change. After only a few years it already enables more than 600 million people all over the world to communicate with one another instantaneously and gives them immediate access to a virtually limitless universal data base.
- A globalised economy is emerging: Countries, companies and workers cannot ignore the benefits – and the threats – of increasingly sharp competition for markets and investment.
What may well turn out to be another major development in human history also coincided almost exactly with the new millennium just four years ago – the human genome project. We have finally succeeded in mapping our entire genetic code. and stand on the threshold of being able to understand – and manipulate – the genetic patterns that determine our very being. We may soon unravel the causes of many diseases and may even be able to understand and influence the ageing process. The implications of such knowledge are as astounding as they are unpredictable.
Finally, we are living in a time of disturbing environmental change.
- At the end of 1999 the human population finally exceeded six billion – four times greater than it was in 1900;
- In 1998 the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic reached its largest size ever;
- The 10 warmest years in this century all have occurred in the last 15 years. Of these, 1998 was the warmest year on record.
- The snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and floating ice in the Arctic Ocean have decreased. The sea level has risen 4-10 inches and worldwide precipitation over land has increased by about one percent over the past century.
We dare not ignore these warning signals.
Our rapidly changing environment confronts us – not only with breath-taking opportunities – but also with awesome challenges:
- The first is the continuing gap between rich and poor throughout the world. Although the first world has attained undreamed of prosperity and liberty, billions of people have still live in poverty, conflict and tyranny.
- The second – I believe – is our continuing search for personal meaning and identity in a rapidly changing world which is increasingly materialistic and culturally uniform; and
- The third is the need to ensure that future human development takes place in harmony with our fragile global environment.
One of the central implications of globalisation is that we can no longer ignore crises and grievances in distant countries. Non-performing economies cannot be consigned to a basket-case category outside of the mainstream of the world economy.
The reality is that the gap between the poorest and richest fifths of the world’s nations has widened from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 78 to 1 in 2000. The world cannot accept a new de facto apartheid between a rich white north and an impoverished and unstable black south. In a shrinking world, the problems of one region will inevitably become the problems of other regions and ultimately of the whole world:
- Diseases like AIDS – which first appeared in Africa – do not observe international boundaries;
- As we saw a few years ago, economic crises in emerging markets can have serious negative consequences for the whole of the global economy; and
- Conflicts and instability in distant societies can reverberate throughout the whole international community. The attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 brought this fact home with chilling clarity. Who would have thought that religious fanatics hiding in caves in distant Afghanistan could possibly pose a threat to the hi-tech nerve centre of the world’s most powerful economy in down-town New York?
In our globalised society such problems and conflicts will sooner or later breach international borders and affect the interests of us all. It is equally true that the problems confronting a globalised world can no longer be dealt with unilaterally by any single country – regardless of how powerful or rich that country might be. Problems of global development, global security and protection of the global environment can be dealt with only if the international community works in concert. The United States can – and must – play a pivotal leadership role in this process – but it cannot achieve success alone.
Neither can the first world dismiss ongoing conflicts in distant third-world countries with 30 second segments on the evening news. Many of these conflicts have their roots in poverty and under-development. Eleven of the thirty poorest countries – including Rwanda, Burundi, Afghanistan, Sudan, Liberia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – have in recent years been wracked by devastating wars. On the other hand, there has been very little conflict in the twenty richest countries.
Our second great challenge in the new millennium will, I believe, be our continuing search for personal meaning and identity in an increasingly confusing, materialistic and culturally uniform world.
Many of the moral and religious values upon which our families and societies were traditionally based are under serious threat – if they have not indeed already been swept aside.
- Throughout much of the Western world, churches are empty and some people say that society has entered the ‘post Christian era’.
- In Europe, a large proportion of couples no longer get married. Everywhere the traditional concept of the nuclear family is under threat.
- The advent of the pill in the ‘sixties; the wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage and changing attitudes toward homosexuality have all contributed to a revolution in society’s attitudes to sexual morality.
- Our children are routinely exposed to a flood of obscenities and blasphemy on TV and in the movies that would have made earlier generations of sailors blush.
- Widespread acceptance of abortion and increasing demands for the legalisation of euthanasia are sweeping aside old attitudes regarding the sanctity of human life.
Many would argue that these developments are healthy – that they serve to eliminate the hypocrisy and inhibitions of former generations; that they have introduced much more open, healthy and human approaches to life.
However, the stark reality is that these new attitudes represent a fundamental challenge to many of our traditional values and beliefs. The reality is that the driving forces in our globalised world are economic, technological, materialistic and rational – and that these forces are often inimical to our search for spiritual meaning and ethical orientation.
Only a generation or two ago, our moral orientation was fixed by immutable commandments, of black and white notions of right and wrong. But relativistic values and situational morality have swept aside many of these commandments. The general approach today seems to be that we may do whatever we like, provided we do not harm anyone else.
Finally, the new millennium presents us with the pressing challenge of learning to live in harmony with our global environment.
We cannot allow the mindless and wholesale assault on our fragile environment to continue. We must ensure that our governments move beyond declarations and lip service in their efforts to protect the global environment. Out future and the future of our children depends more on this than perhaps on any other factor.
Perhaps, all these challenges are part of the single overarching challenge of managing the accelerating processes of change that confront us on all sides. As we enter the new millennium, we can make the following three observations about change:
- it is accelerating;
- it is unpredictable; and
- it is fundamental.
During the past century – and particularly since World War II – there has been an exponential acceleration in the pace of change. Our society probably changed more during the past hundred years than it did in the preceding two thousand years. During those two thousand years we probably changed more than we did in the preceding hundred thousand years. Half a million years ago our ancestors – homo erectus – were still making the same hand axes that they had been making a million years earlier. Our technology is now changing more in a day than theirs did in a million year!
Change is also unpredictable. Some of the main developments that have fundamentally transformed the world in which we live today were entirely unforeseen only twenty years ago: think of the internet and the world-wide web; the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism, the threat of global terrorism and AIDS. The scary probability is that the world in which we will live in fifteen years from now will be dominated by new realities that few of us can now imagine.
The change that we are experiencing is also fundamental. It affects virtually every aspect of our lives.
- It is changing the relationships between men and women, husbands and wives and parents and children.
- It has profound implications for the traditional family. 30% of mothers in Europe are now unmarried.
- It is affecting our value systems and traditional conceptions of morality.
- It is affecting products and markets – just think of the effect that China will have in the coming decades!
- It will continue to transform the way we work; the way we spend our free time and the way we communicate and obtain information.
Everywhere the forces of change are in full flood. They are obliterating the familiar and comfortable landscapes in which we grew up. Like flood victims, they leave us clinging to the few certainties that have not yet been inundated.
The question for us as countries, as companies and as individuals is how we should deal with the uncertainty that this accelerating, fundamental and unpredictable change is bringing to our lives.
Perhaps we can learn something from nature – since uncertainty is the basic state of nature – and of most human history.
Anybody who has ever visited a water hole at dawn in the Kruger National Park will understand this. In the first light of dawn groups of impala, zebra and wildebeest emerge from the bush and make their way to drink silently at the water’s edge. Somewhere nearby lions lie in wait. At any moment there can be an explosion of muscle, dust and claws.
The animals that survive are
- those that are the most alert – those that are the most acutely aware of the faintest scents on the morning breeze or the slightest movement in the grass.
- It is those animals that are in the best condition and that possess the best survival skills.
- It is those that move most swiftly and that can change direction most quickly.
Perhaps, in the uncertainty of our rapidly changing world we, also, will have to develop similar survival skills. We too must be acutely aware of the rapid changes in our environment; we must be fit and possess real skills; and we must have the flexibility to adapt and change direction quickly.
These are some of the skills that we in South Africa have tried to cultivate to help is to deal with our rapidly changing environment. South Africa achievement ten years ago is very relevant to a rapidly changing world precisely because – through good luck or good management – we have shown that it is possible to manage historic forces of change – that we can avoid catastrophe and move toward a better future.
How did we do it? I would like to share with you the following lessons.
The first step is to accept the need for change.
Resistance to change is deeply ingrained in us. We fear the unknown and dread the prospect of moving into uncharted waters. In our case, in South Africa, the whites and other minorities had well grounded reasons to fear change. We were deeply concerned about:
- communist influence in the ANC, the most important revolutionary movement;
- the failure of other African countries to build, stable, democratic and prosperous societies.
- the future of ethnic and cultural minorities under a majority-rule
Nevertheless, by the beginning of the ‘eighties it was becoming increasingly clear that we were on the wrong course. We realised that we were being drawn inexorably into a downward spiral of conflict and isolation. We spent a great deal of time coming to terms with the realities of our situation and wrestling with the need for fundamental change.
The main reason for our acceptance of change, however, was not the pressure that we were experiencing from the international community or rising discontent in South Africa. We could have remained in power for many years to come. We could have weathered sanctions and withdrawn into a grim fortress of national isolation. After all, this is the kind of option that many other embattled states have chosen. 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 led to a situation of manifest injustice. It was this, in the final instance, that persuaded me and my colleagues that we had to accept the risks of radical change.
Having accepted the need to change, the next challenge is to avoid the temptation of pretending to change. Very often countries, companies and individuals who know they must change, pretend to change. They think of brilliant new ways of doing the wrong thing better. Smokers, like myself, will tell themselves that if they cut down the number of cigarettes they smoke they will be addressing their problem. Others who are overweight will fool themselves that by taking no sugar in their tea, that they are really coming to grips with their problem. The same thing happens on an international and national scale. For example, when he launched his perestroika reforms, President Gorbachev continued to insist that there was basically nothing wrong with communism. It just had to be reformed and implemented in a more open and democratic manner. In the same way, countries and companies will, for sentimental reasons, cling to industries that are no longer relevant instead of breaking through into entirely new cutting edge technologies.
For years we white South Africans also fooled ourselves that we could ‘reform’ apartheid and thereby avoid the traumatic decisions and risks that real change always involves. It was only when we accepted that we would have to take extremely uncomfortable decisions and risks that real change could begin.
Once you have accepted the need to change you must articulate a clear and achievable vision of where you want to go.
On 2 February 1990 I presented a new vision to the South African Parliament of a peaceful and democratic solution to our problems. I 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.
On 27 April 1994 – to the astonishment of the world – we turned our vision into reality.
A vision gives direction and purpose to our actions and provides a way of measuring our progress. Without a vision, we have no idea of where we are going or of how far we have come. And if we don’t know where we are going it doesn’t really matter how we get there!.
Change management requires special communication skills.
We live in a world of perceptions – and perceptions are created as much by how we communicate as by what we do. For us it was very important to convince the media and the world of our vision. It was also essential to encourage our own supporters and reassure them that we were on the right path. Most people can deal with change and are even prepared to make essential sacrifices – but they cannot deal with uncertainty.
We had to deal with people who were steadfastly opposed to change.
Most of my supporters accepted the necessity of fundamental change. However, there were some who did not want to change course – even though they could see the breakers smashing on the reefs ahead. In 1982 some of the most die-hard right wing elements broke away from our party, the National Party, because the Government had, by that time, already begun to change course. Their departure greatly helped those of us who remained behind. It was no longer necessary to make unwieldy compromises to keep them on board. So, it is a good idea to encourage those who don’t want to change, to leave.
Timing is crucially important.
It is stupid to be vociferously right at the wrong time or to move so far ahead in the right direction that your followers can no longer hear or see you. History, markets and events move at their own pace – sometimes agonisingly slowly, at other times with frightening speed. A leader must watch the tides and currents and must position himself accordingly.
I was often criticised before I became President for not racing out ahead of the pack in the pursuit of reform. Had I done so I would have alienated key players and important constituencies. I would not have become leader of my Party 1989; I would not have been able to do the things that I did when I was President; and I certainly wouldn’t have been invited to speak to you today.
Strong leadership is essential
History awards no prizes to leaders who have the right answers. It is often quite easy to see what needs to be done. The art is in being able to do it successfully. History recognises only those who have the ability to translate their vision of what is right into reality.
A leader must have a weather eye open for changes in political tides and currents. He must also be ready to ride the wave of history when it breaks. After I became President my hand was greatly strengthened by the historic events that were occurring in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The collapse of international communism helped to allay fears of Soviet expansionism and of the influence of the South African Communist Party within the ANC Alliance. The stage was ready for the speech that I made on 2 February 1990.
If you want to manage change you must be prepared to take calculated risks.
There were many points during the transformation process when we had to take calculated risks. Among these were our decisions
- to permit free political activity for all parties – including even the Communist Party. My security advisers warned me against taking these steps – but I knew that they were essential; –
- to commit ourselves to a negotiated solution. Many of our supporters were deeply reluctant to give up exclusive control over our own destiny; and
- to hold a referendum among whites to prove that the majority still supported the process of change. Many of my colleagues believed that we would lose the referendum and feared that I had made a fatal mistake – but I had confidence in our electorate.
We realised that these decisions would unleash a chain of events with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. 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.
Finally, one must accept that the process of change never ends. There is no point at which you can say that you have ‘solved’ any problem in a rapidly changing environment. As soon as you have achieved your objectives, you must begin to address the next challenges that change will inevitably throw down.
This is very much the case in South Africa now. We have achieved most of the primary objectives that we set ourselves in 1990:
- we have one of the most democratic constitutions in the world;
- we have rejoined the global community;
- we have adopted economic policies and approaches that are, by and large, sensible and effective. We are well positioned for sustained high economic growth.
- we have done all this with surprisingly little violence and with a great deal of goodwill.
Nevertheless, we dare not rest on our laurels. Our main challenges now will be to ensure that
- our constitution takes root in the hearts of all our people;
- that we nurture relationships between our different communities that are now beginning to show some signs of strain; and that
- we work together to address the very real problems that confront us, including crime, unemployment, poverty and AIDS.
I have established a small Foundation that I hope will be able to make a contribution to these goals and to continuing to manage the historic changes with which our society and world are wrestling.
These then were some of the main principles that we applied during the transformation of our country. I hope that they might be of use to anyone caught up in the maelstrom of change – whether they are individuals, companies or countries.
Our challenge in the years that lie ahead will be to learn how to navigate on the flood of change. Clinging to the treetops of the past offers no long term solutions.
In our increasingly globalised and interdependent world there are a number of difficult and uncomfortable questions that none of us can escape:
- Can we remain prosperous, free and at peace when so much of mankind is still impoverished and subject to tyranny and war?
- How are we going to maintain our identity in an increasingly uniform globalised world?
- How are we going to pursue personal meaning in a world that is increasingly materialistic and indifferent to traditional morality and family structures?
- Are we going to seek comfort, pleasure and the accumulation of material possessions without any limit?
- Do we have the will to repair the damage that we have done to our fragile environment?
- And finally, will we ever be able to reassert control over the forces of change that we ourselves have unleashed?
These are questions that I believe are just as relevant to you in the United States as they are to us in South Africa. How we respond to them will determine the kind of world in which we and our children will live in this exciting and rapidly changing new millennium.