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It is a great pleasure for me to be able to address this conference on the topic of transformation management. 

You executives in the energy sector have to wrestle constantly with the challenges presented by the rapidly changing environment in which you operate.  

I was also in the transformation business - but in my case it was a country that we had to transform.  I would like to share some of the lessons we learned during the historic change process that we South Africans experienced between 1990 and 1996.  

This is because our ability to manage change is the key to success today for individuals, for companies and for countries. It will also determine the success of everyone at this conference.

I believe that the lessons that we learned about change management during our transition process in South Africa are also relevant for companies that are experiencing fundamental and accelerating change.

I would also like to talk about the leadership qualities that are required for change management - and my own impressions of some of the great change leaders of our time.

By understanding the processes that underlie change, business leaders can make smarter choices about their strategic options. But this will require a clear understanding of their current situation, and a realistic vision of the future that they wish to create. 

I am often asked whether the change decision that I took after I became President in September 1989 to transform 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.

Introspection and acceptance of the need to change are the first steps in the process of transformation.  

As many of you here today will know, leading any transformation programme requires a great deal of introspection - as well as acceptance of the need to change and a clear vision of how you go about it. 

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:

  • Firstly, how would they be able to ensure that the reasonable rights of minorities would be protected under a majority rule dispensation? It must be remembered that the right to national self-determination had been the central theme of my people’s - the Afrikaners - history for more than 150 years. 
  • Secondly, how could they 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’etats in Africa and there were only a handful of democracies on the continent.
  • Finally, the government was worried about the possibility of a communist takeover.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 ANC received strong support from the Soviet Union and East Germany and 50 000 Cuban troops had been deployed in Angola.  As late as October 1987, our armed forces had been involved in some of the biggest battles in Africa since the end of World War II against Soviet and Cuban-led Angolan forces. 

Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 80s 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.  

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.  

I was a member of a cabinet committee that wrestled with the need for transformation.  By 1986 we had accepted that all South Africans - regardless of race - would have to be accommodated within the same constitutional system.  We fought the 1987 election of a reform platform - and won with a reduced majority. 

Having accepted the need to change, the next challenge was to avoid the temptation of pretending to change.  Very often countries, companies and individuals who know they must change, pretend to change.  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.   

Speech by former President FW de Klerk 
14 June 2018

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