SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK
TO ANTHONY ROBBINS PLATINUM PARTNERSHIP
13 FEBRUARY 2006
LEADERSHIP IN A RAPIDLY CHANGING WORLD
As an organisation that specialises in leadership and inspiration, you could hardly have chosen a more appropriate venue for this conference than Robben Island.
At first glance it is a place of desolation and despair. Windswept and barren, it receives only 20% as much rain as the lush suburbs beneath the eastern face of Table Mountain. For eighty-five years – until as late as 1931 – it was a leper colony.
For hundreds of years it was a place of exile, imprisonment and terrible sadness. Many political leaders who defied the Dutch and British Empires languished here – including:
- Sheik Madura who opposed Dutch rule in the East indies in the 18th century;
- Makana, the great Xhosa leader; and
- Cetshewayo, the King of the Zulus – whose impis defeated a modern British army in 1878.
From the 1960s onwards a new generation of black leaders was imprisoned here – including Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Walter Sisulu. All of them would from time to time have gazed across Table Bay to the glittering buildings of Cape Town – to the world from which they must often have thought they had been cut off forever.
Remarkably, Robben Island
- a place of despair has become a monument to the indomitable nature of the human spirit;
- a place of captivity and imprisonment has become a symbol of the triumph of freedom.
Imagine Nelson Mandela here – thirty years ago. Who would have thought then that on 10 February 1990 he would return in triumph to Cape Town to the ecstatic welcome of tens of millions of South Africans and the jubilation of the entire international community?
How did all this come about?
- It came about because leaders in Robben Island had a vision of the future than transcended prison walls.
- But, it also came about because a new generation of white South African leaders began to develop a vision that transcended the barriers of apartheid.
The subject of my speech is the role that leadership played in persuading white South Africans to accept the need for fundamental change.
In essence, it deals with one of the most fundamental change management processes in recent history.
As such it is relevant to any leader in our rapidly changing world.
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 distant ancestors homo erectus – used exactly the same stone hand axes for half a million years. For all those eons there was no change. Now, the sum total of information at our disposal is doubling every twelve years.
Change is also unpredictable. Some of the main developments that have fundamentally transformed the world 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;
- think of 9/11 and the global struggle against terrorism;
- think of AIDS.
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 will continue to transform the way we work; the way we spend our free time and the way we communicate and obtain information.
- As we unravel the genetic code it will continue to increase our longevity with profound implications for us as individuals and for our societies.
Everywhere the forces of change are in full flood. They are obliterating the familiar and comfortable landscapes in which we grew up.
The reality of accelerating, unpredictable and fundamental change is confronting political and business leaders with new and complex challenges. I would like to share some thoughts with you on how we in South Africa dealt with these challenge of leadership in a rapidly changing environment.
The first requirement of leadership is actually to become a leader.
The world is full of people with great theories about leadership, about what needs to be done in their companies or in their countries. However, the reality is that they will remain armchair experts and grandstand coaches unless they attain leadership positions from themselves. I am sure that many – perhaps most – of you in this audience have attained leadership positions. You will know that it is not easy to get there – and once you have arrived it is equally difficult to remain.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: 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 Strydom, 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.
Attaining leadership requires lots of hard work in building a reputation for reliability and successful delivery. It also requires careful positioning and political savvy in making as many allies – and as few enemies – as possible.
I was often criticised while I was a leading figure in the National Party and before I became President for not racing out ahead of the pack in the pursuit of reform. Had I done so I would probably have alienated important constituencies within my party. I might then not have become leader of the National Party in February 1989 and I would not have been able to initiate the transformation process in February 1990, and manage the constitutional transformation that followed. I certainly would not have been invited to address you today!
History awards no prizes to theorists who have the right answers. It recognises only those who acquire power and use it to translate their vision into reality.
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 six votes and emerged as leader of the National Party and de facto President elect.
Exactly one year later, to the day, I rose to make the speech in Parliament that would change South Africa forever – and that would open the way for Nelson Mandela to return in triumph to Cape Town.
From the perspective that I have gained during the subsequent sixteen years I have been able to identify the following requirements for leadership.
The leader’s first task is to articulate the values that will provide the foundation for his tenure of office. Ultimately, these values should provide direction for all the policies and actions that will characterise his leadership.
In our case in South Africa our decision to embark on a process of fundamental change had its roots in the value system that the leadership of my party confirmed after I became President. We did not change primarily because of international pressure 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 us 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.
The leader’s second task is to persuade his followers to confront the reality of their situation and to measure it against the values that he has articulated .
By 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 impose on them. As a result, we had become trapped 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. We also struggled with the question of what was right and what was wrong within the framework of our values.
Having assessed the situation, leaders must unite their followers around a clear and achievable vision.
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.
My main task as leader was to unite my party and supporters behind our new vision.
This required a great deal of attention to communication.
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.
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. It was the task of the party’s leadership to reassure them that the best chance of protecting their core interests lay in granting full political rights to all South Africans. We explored the possibilities of power sharing; of constitutional guarantees; of the devolution of power.
Ultimately, most Afrikaners and white South Africans accepted the necessity of fundamental change and united behind our new vision. However, some doggedly shut their eyes to the dangers ahead. They refused to give up the Afrikaners quest for exclusive national self-determination in some non-existant homeland, and pointed continually to the chaos in Africa and to the threat of communist domination.
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. It had decided, as a first step, to include the coloured and Asian minorities in a three chamber Parliament and was determined to move away from rigid racial segregation with black South Africans.
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. Another leadership requirement is accordingly the ability to encourage those who are steadfastly opposed to change, to disembark. It is better to accept a smaller power base than to allow a faction in ones power base to block what must be done.
One of the main tests of leadership is the ability of the leader to persuade his followers to accept painful and fundamental change Our greatest challenge was to acknowledge the realities that confronted us, to admit our failure to bring justice to all South Africans and to wrestle with our fear of radical change.
Our analysis 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. 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-based reasons to fear change.
- We were deeply concerned about communist influence in the ANC. Most of the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee were also members of the South African Communist Party. Our armed forces were involved in large-scale conflict with Soviet and Cuban-led forces as late as September 1987.
- We could not ignore the failure of other African countries to build, stable, democratic and prosperous societies. Very few African states were at that time democracies; many were afflicted by coups, corruption and economic collapse; and
- We were also worried about the future of ethnic and cultural minorities under a majority-rule government. My own people – the Afrikaners – were a nation – not just colonial settlers. Our whole history had been dedicated to the attainment of our right to national self-determination – which the rest of the world was now demanding that we should surrender.
In short, we were riding the proverbial tiger. Everyone was shouting at us to get off. We desperately wanted to dismount – but how could we do so without being devoured?
These were reasonable concerns – but we had to overcome them.
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. 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.
Leadership style is also important
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 way of managing change, but it was the most efficient way. It did help to ensure that during the entire process the whole of our management team remained solidly committed to our common objectives.
Timing is an essential attribute of leadership.
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. Timing is crucially important.
A leader must have a weather eye open for changes in political tides and currents. More than this, however, he must also be ready to ride the wave of history when it breaks.
After my inauguration in September 1989 my hand was further strengthened by the great 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 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.
Leaders must persevere.
Having taken the decision to embark upon radical change, the main challenge 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 seized by enormous and often uncontrollable forces. All that the canoeist can 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.
Leaders must be prepared to take risks.
There were many points during the transformation process when we had to take calculated risks. Among these were when we decided
- to permit free political activity for all parties – including even the Communist Party; and
- to commit ourselves irrevocably to a negotiated solution and to a future where we would no longer be the sole arbiters of our destiny.
One of the most notable risks that I took was in 1991 when the National Party started to lose bye-elections – primarily to the Right. The Conservative Party insisted 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 Government’s reform programme.
I decided – against the advice of my closest advisers – 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.
Finally, leaders must accept that the process of change never ends.
There is no point at which leaders can say that they have ‘solved’ any problem in a rapidly changing environment. As soon as they have achieved their objectives, they must begin to address the next challenges that change will inevitably throw down. Ultimately, they must face the final test of leadership – of accepting the appropriate time for their own retirement. One of the greatest mistakes of leaders – including many great leaders – has been their inability to know when to leave the political stage. Too many fail this test and overstay their welcome.
By 1997 we had achieved most of the primary objectives that we had set in 1990:
- we had negotiated one of the most democratic constitutions in the world;
- we had rejoined the global community;
- our new government had adopted economic policies and approaches that were, by and large, sensible and effective. We were well positioned for high economic growth.
- we had done all this with surprisingly little violence and with a great deal of goodwill.
Our current generation of leaders in South Africa face many serious problems. Their main challenges are to ensure that
- the constitutional transformation that we initiated in 1990 is translated into a better life for all our people. At present this is not the case. Although our economy is poised for growth of 5 or 6% nearly half our people live below the poverty line and more than 40% of black South Africans are unemployed. The bitter irony is that after eleven years our society is now more unequal than it was in 1994;
- we need to uphold the 1996 constitution which we adopted after years of negotiation. It contains the blueprint for justice and equality and guarantees the rights of all our people and communities. Unfortunately, there are signs that some of those rights are beginning to erode; and that
- we work together to address the very real problems that confront us, including crime, unemployment, poverty and AIDS.
I have completed my leg in the great relay race of leadership ten years ago. I can now watch from the grandstand as the current generation of leaders continue the race. I wish them well and am confident that they will continue to pursue the vision of peace, justice, toleration and prosperity that inspires our new society!
So when you look across Table Bay at Cape Town remember this:
- nothing is immune from change; and
- there are no limits to the ability of human beings to achieve their vision of a better world.