SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK TO THE YOUNG PRESIDENTS ORGANISATION: CAPE TOWN, 21 APRIL 2005
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
I have been asked to speak to you tonight on how people make a difference.
Of course, all the human beings who have ever been born have made a difference of some kind. They make a difference to their parents and their families. As they mature they make a difference to their friends and their communities. All people – created as they are – in the image of God – make a difference of some kind, however small or apparently insignificant that difference may be.
The scale of the difference that we make as human beings depends to a large degree on the leadership positions that we hold. The reality is that the higher we climb on the leadership ladder, the greater is the potential that we have to make a difference – for good or for bad.
Members of YPO are, by definition, leaders. Your ability to create successful businesses has made a great difference to the lives of many of the people with whom you are associated – to your employees and their families; to your clients and suppliers – and more also, no doubt, to the Receiver of Revenue!
Some men are born to leadership. Others achieve leadership. And others have leadership thrust upon them.
In my case, it could be said that, in part, I was born into a long tradition of political service and leadership. My father was a senior cabinet minister and President of the Senate. My uncle, J G Strijdom, was Prime Minister.
In other respects, I achieved leadership. I served long apprenticeships as a student leader; as a leader in various Afrikaans cultural organisations; as a back-bencher; as a cabinet minister and as a senior office-bearer in my party.
However, despite my family background and despite my long preparation for leadership, there was a sense in which leadership was thrust upon one. This occurred at a remarkable National Party caucus meeting on the morning of 2 February 1989. Without the slightest prior warning we received a message from my predecessor President P W Botha that he had decided to step down as party leader. We decided there and then to elect a new leader. I won the subsequent caucus election by a narrow margin of only eight votes and emerged as leader of the National Party and de facto President elect. Suddenly the buck stopped with me!
The situation as it then was in South Africa called for a quantum leap – a leap out of the ever narrowing corner of escalating violence and growing isolation; a leap towards bold initiatives which would make a difference. Exactly one year later, to the day, I rose to make the speech in Parliament that would change South Africa forever.
From the perspective that I have gained during the subsequent twelve years I have been able to identify the following requirements for leadership – from which arises our ability to make a difference.
The first is the ability to make a cool and impartial assessment of the situation with which one has to deal.
Even nine years earlier, at the beginning of the ‘eighties, it was becoming increasingly clear to many of us in leadership positions in the National Party that we were on the wrong course. We were becoming more and more isolated from the international community with each year that passed. The great majority of black South Africans were increasingly adamant in their rejection of our policies and the solutions that we were trying to sell to them. As a result, we had become involved in a downward spiral of resistance and repression that threatened at some stage in the not too distant future to erupt into full-scale conflict.
All of this was having an increasingly damaging effect on our economy and was threatening to shut down the engine of economic growth that was, and remains, our best hope of bringing all our people a better life.
My colleagues and I spent a great deal of time identifying our problems and wrestling with the need for fundamental change. In open and often brutally frank discussions we examined the hard and unpalatable facts that confronted us. As Christians we also struggled with the question of what was right and what was wrong.
Our greatest challenge in managing the transformation process was to acknowledge these realities, to admit our failure to bring justice to all South Africans and to confront our fear of radical change. Our analysis of the situation led us to the inescapable conclusion that white South Africans and the Afrikaner nation would have to accept a future as part of a non-racial South Africa. This, however, would mean the end of their own historic right to exclusive national self-determination as a separate people in their own sovereign territory.
The next requirement 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
An essential element in leadership is the acceptance that decisions must be guided by strong values and principles.
The main reason for our acceptance of change, 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, leaders must 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 a leader has accepted the need to change he must articulate a clear and achievable vision of where he wants 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 said that our goal was “a new South Africa:
- a totally changed South Africa;
- a South Africa which has rid itself of the antagonism of the past;
- a South Africa free of domination or oppression in whatever form;
- a South Africa within which the democratic forces – all reasonable people – align themselves behind mutually acceptable goals and against radicalism, irrespective of where it comes from.”
By 1994 – to the astonishment of the world – we had 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!
Leadership 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 painful sacrifices – but they cannot deal with uncertainty.
A key factor in leadership is also the willingness to take calculated risks. Some of the followers of the ruling National Party were not prepared to take the risks involved in a radical change of course – even though they could see the breakers smashing on the reefs ahead.
In 1982 some of the most die-hard elements left the National Party and established the Conservative Party. They did so because the Government had, by that time, already begun to change course.
The departure of the Conservatives greatly facilitated the task of those of us who remained behind. It was no longer necessary to make unwieldy compromises to keep them on board. Leaders must be prepared to encourage those who are steadfastly opposed to their vision, to disembark. It is better to accept a smaller power base than to allow a faction in one’s power base to block what must be done.
Knowing and admitting that you are on the wrong course and being able to do anything about it are two quite distinct issues. The prospect of imminent disaster has not always persuaded those at the helm to alter course. History contains a woeful tally of leaders who have resolutely steered their countries into war and their companies into bankruptcy, despite the direst warnings of dangers ahead. Others, just as often, have, through indecision and inaction, allowed their countries to drift rudderless onto the rocks.
The reality is that you can only make a difference if you are at the helm – or if you have enough influence to ensure that the helmsman takes the right decisions. To do this you must become a leader and remain a leader. You must achieve authority and you must maintain the confidence and support of key role players and constituencies.
Some leaders try to determine the course of events through the sheer force of their personalities, others by the brilliance of their intellect. I tried to do so by putting the emphasis on teamwork; by drawing all members of my management team into the process of analysis, planning and strategising; by listening carefully to all of them; by constantly interacting with the team in pointing out the right direction as I saw it; and by forging an acceptable consensus. This may not have been the most spectacular leadership style, but to my mind it was the best one. It helped to ensure that during the entire process the whole of our management team remained solidly committed to our common objectives.
Timing is crucially important. Even when you have become a leader, it is foolish 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 and events move at their own pace – sometimes agonisingly slowly, at other times with frightening speed.
A leader intent on managing change must watch the tides and currents and must position himself accordingly. More than this, however, he must also be ready to ride the wave of history when it breaks.
After my inauguration in September 1989 the great historic events that were occurring in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union created such a wave. 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 in which I announced our diametric change of course – including the release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of all political parties and movements and the launching of serious negotiations.
Another principle that I followed in taking these far-reaching steps – some of which I knew would cause great concern to many of our followers – was to announce all the decisions at once, rather than to do so in a piece-meal fashion. If one has to cut off the tail of a dog, it is much better to do so with one clean and decisive stroke, rather than by cutting the tail off piece by painful piece.
Having taken the decision to embark upon radical change, the main challenge to leaders is to maintain sufficient control of the process. I realised that the decisions that I announced on 2 February 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 at times seized by enormous and often uncontrollable forces. All that the canoeist can then do is to maintain his balance, avoid the rocks and steer as best he can – and right the canoe if it capsizes. It is a time for cool heads and firm, decisive action.
We experienced many such crises after we began our own transformation process. The boycotts of the process by the ANC and the IFP; the terrible violence that continued to scourge the country during the negotiations; the ANC’s campaign of rolling mass action involving strikes and massive demonstrations; the assassination of Chris Hani – all of these crises almost caused the process to capsize.
One of the most notable was in 1991 when the National Party started to lose bye-elections – primarily to the Right. The Conservative Party claimed that we had lost our mandate to continue with our new course. It claimed the right to speak for the majority of Whites and began to undermine the National Party Governments commitment to change.
I decided that the best way to deal with this threat would be to call a referendum among the white electorate to renew and strengthen my mandate for reform. In the event, the referendum, which was held in March 1992, resulted in a two-thirds victory for the continuation of our transformation policies.
All of this enabled me to make a difference and to achieve the vision that I had spelled out on 2 February 1990.
Ironically, this inevitably led to the situation where I was no longer president and where my ability to make a difference was greatly diminished. The final test of leadership is perhaps to know when to lay it aside and to make way for the next generation of leaders.
In my retirement I nevertheless continue with my efforts to make modest differences. I do this through my work at the Global Leadership Foundation where, together with other retired leaders, we try to provide discreet advice to governments struggling with problems and conflict. I also continue to promote the values and the vision that inspired me when I was President through the work of the F W de Klerk Foundation. Our objective is to continue the miracle of our transformation into the second decade of the new South Africa.
- We do so by facilitating communication between minorities and government on the many pressing and divisive issues with which we are confronted.
- We support a balanced approach to black economic empowerment and are trying to engage the ANC in discussions on some of the problems that have arisen in this regard.
- We commission research and hold conferences on topics related to our focus of promoting peace in multi-community societies.
- We also raise funds for organisations that are helping to combat AIDS; that care for children and that provide bursaries to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Finally, we have a programme that seeks to support the constitution as the foundation of the new South Africa. We are concerned that some of the rights in our constitution are being eroded because they are not being claimed. We are looking for funds to set up a Constitutional Rights Advice Centre that would monitor constitutional rights and advise citizens and organisations of their rights. It would also assist them to claim their rights.
In this way I hope that I shall continue to be able to make a modest difference. I call on all of you to see what else you can do to make a difference – not just in your businesses – but to the success of the new South Africa.