SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK
To the Beth Israel Congregation, Houston, 11 April, 2007,
World Presidents Organisation, Houston, 12 April 2007,
world Presidents Organisation, Detroit, 19 April 2007
I should like to take this opportunity of bringing you greetings from home – or rather the home of your distant ancestors.
According to the latest research, the ancestors of all of the people in the world outside of Africa left our continent around 100 000 years ago. The number of people who crossed into Asia from Africa was quite small – perhaps no more than one or two hundred. The group that settled in Western Europe 35 000 years ago was even smaller. So we are all inter-related. Despite our ethnic, class or cultural background we are all members of the human family.
Our species homo sapiens has done really well in the intervening millennia. Our numbers have grown by a factor of 10 000 and our last real competitors – the Neanderthals – disappeared 30 000 years ago.
So what is the secret of our success?
After all, 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.
According to Charles Darwin the success of species is not determined by their relative strength or intelligence, but by their ability to adapt to change. It was in this area that our ancestors did really well. Not only were they able to adapt to the rapidly changing environments created by a succession of ice ages, they were progressively able to change the environments in which they lived. They invented fire, clothing and shelter to shield themselves from the cold; they evolved increasingly sophisticated weapons to protect themselves against wild animals and one another. They learned how to cultivate crops and tend animals to ensure a constant food supply.
Our ability to manage change continues to be the key to success today for individuals, for companies and for countries.
However, change ain’t what it used to be:
- 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. It is said that the sum total of human information is now doubling every five years – and Moore’s law relating to the doubling of computer capacity every two years, is still right on track .
Change is also unpredictable. Some of the main developments that have fundamentally transformed the world in which we now live 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 impact of global terrorism and AIDS.
The change that we are experiencing is also fundamental. It affects virtually every aspect of our lives including our family relationships and our values. It will continue to transform the way we work; the way we spend our free time and the way we communicate and obtain information.
18 years ago, when I became President, South Africa was confronted with the urgent need to change.
The environment in which we found ourselves was disastrous. We were facing international isolation and a growing downward spiral of conflict and repression.
During the subsequent five years we succeeded in changing our environment and in creating new and more positive realities.
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.
Nevertheless, by the beginning of the ‘eighties 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
A leader must 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. By February 1990 we were ready to launch our transformation process.
If you want to manage change you must be prepared to take calculated risks.
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.
Effective change management has worked for us. It has brought us from the very negative environment of 1989 to the very positive environment of 2007.
Change management has worked for our species.
But where will change affect mankind in the future?
- How will our social, economic and political institutions cope with the far-reaching effects of global warming?
- What effect will the rapidly evolving internet, genetic engineering and nanotechnology have on how we live our lives – and on how long we live?
- Human migrations are changing the cultural face of Europe and America. What will happen to traditional identities as globalisation brings us closer and closer together?
- How long will it be before the United States has to share the stage with other emerging super-powers – like China, India and the European Union?
- We now live in an era of constitutional democracy and free market principles. But is this the end of history – as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed – or are there other ideologies and world views waiting in the wings?
Our species is defined by change and our success as individuals, companies, countries and as a species will continue to be determined by
- our ability to change and manage change;
- our ability to imagine better worlds; and
- our ability to turn our vision into reality.