SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK
To The University Philosophical Society
Dublin, 16 January 2004
International Association of Shopping Centres, Cape Town, 5 October 2007
I should like to thank you for the great honour that you have bestowed upon me tonight. It is a privilege indeed to be included with the many illustrious figures figures that your society has similarly honoured in the past.
I wish to speak tonight about change – which I think in many respects is the dominant reality and challenge of our time.
If I were presenting an annual report on the success of our species – homo sapiens – I would be able to convey information that nearly all our 6 billion shareholders would find impressive and pleasing:
- In the last 12 000 years our numbers have grown by a factor of 10 000.
- In the last two hundred years we have done particularly well: we have established ourselves in virtually every single corner of the inhabitable world and our wealth and technology have grown exponentially.
- We continue to record steady growth of about 3% per annum.
- We have no competition. Our last real competitors – the Neanderthals – disappeared 30 000 years ago.
The question that I would like us to consider this morning is why we have been so successful.
After all, we are apparently not really so different from some other advanced species. They say that the DNA of chimpanzees is about 96% the same as our own. And yet chimpanzees, despite being one of the most intelligent species, are close to extinction.
What magic secret does the other 4% of our genetic make-up hold ?
- the 4% that we do not share with the chimps?;
- the 4% that has determined that they are still scampering along the jungle floor, while we have conquered the world and have flown to the moon?
The factor that differentiates our species from all the millions of other species that have ever existed is our ability to adapt our environment to suit our needs. All the other species that have ever existed have depended for their success on their abilty to adapt to their environments. It was a slow and random process that required generations of evolution and natural selection.
The ability that we developed to change our environments to suit our needs was the greatest quantum leap in evolutionary history. It was so revolutionary that it places mankind in a completely different category from all of the millions of life forms that preceded it and continue to coexist with it.
We are the only species that has ever developed the revolutionary ability to think objectively about the universe, to wonder how it works and to imagine ways in which it can be changed or influenced to suit our needs. Our ancestoers enhanced their ability to hunt and to defend themselves by developing ever more sophisticated and effective weapons – first from rough stone, then from finely polished flint; then from bronze, then iron and then steel.
They learnt how to deal with changing climates by mastering the use of fire; by building more and more elaborate shelters and by making clothing, first from rough skins and with the passage of time finely woven fabrics. They dealt with the problem of uncertain food supplies by learning how to cultivate their own crops and domesticate their own animals. They harnessed the power of the wind, of steam, of oil and of the atom to serve their growing need for energy. In the past two or three centuries they finally learned how to combat disease – by studying the workings of the human body and by developing medicines and treatments to eradicate the illnesses that had decimated countless hundreds of millions of human beings.
As a species we are defined by change.
The dividing line between us and the chimps is our ability to imagine things that have not yet come into existence and to turn our dreams into reality. It is the ability to imagine and create a better world.
I believe that this continues to be the key to success today for individuals, for companies and for countries.
Success still belongs to those
- who can understand their environment;
- who can imagine something new and better; and
- who can transform their dreams into reality.
These skills are particularly important in the environment of rapid and fundamental change in which we find ourselves.
At the beginning of the fourth year of 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 has changed more during the past ten years than it did in the first ten thousand years of our development as a species. It is interesting to note that the flint hand axes that were made by our ancestors 1.5 million years ago were indistinguishable from the hand axes that they were making half a million years ago – for a million years there was no advance in our techonology. Today it is impossible for any single individual to keep track of the technological progress that we make in just one year – some of which may change our future as dramatically as the hand ax did one and a half million years ago.
Change is also unpredictable. Some of the main developments that have fundamentally transformed the world, were entirely unforeseen only fifteen years ago: think of the internet and the world-wide web; the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism and 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.
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 students is how we should deal with the uncertainty that this accelerating, fundamental and unpredictable change is bringing to our lives.
South Africa’s recent past 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.
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!.
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.
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. In the end, 69% of whites voted to continue with our reform programme.
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.
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 countries, companies – or the students of Trinity College, Dublin!
Our challenge at the beginning of this new millennium will be to learn how to navigate on the flood of change. Clinging to the treetops of the past offers no long term solutions.