It is a great honour for me to address you on the role of leadership in a rapidly changing world.
It is also most appropriate that this lecture series should be dedicated to President Clinton – because – in his approach to Northern Ireland during his presidency – he showed exactly the kind of leadership that you wish to promote.His deep involvement in – and commitment to -your peace process and his appointment of former senator John Mitchell as his special envoy opened the way to the historic Belfast Agreement in 1998.
A few years earlier – from 1990 to 1994 – we South Africans were involved in our own peace process – and our own journey from conflict and division to unity and peace. It may therefore be appropriate to share with you our own experiences during this period regarding the role of leadership in a rapidly changing world.
And we do live in a rapidly changing world – a world in which change is accelerating; in which it is unpredictable; and in which it is fundamental.
26 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. Our ability to trade and attract foreign investment was severely limited by sanctions – and as a result our economy was in deep trouble.
During the subsequent five years we succeeded in moving from conflict and confrontation to our new non-racial constitutional democracy. How did we do it? And what were the leadership requirements?
The first requirement is actually to become a leader – and this is seldom easy.
A very small number of people are born to leadership. Others achieve leadership. And others have leadership thrust upon them.
In my case, I was born into a long tradition of political service and leadership. My father was a senior cabinet minister and my uncle, JG Strydom, was Prime Minister.
In other respects, I achieved leadership. I served long apprenticeships as a student leader; as a leader in various civil society organisations; as a back-bencher in parliament; as a cabinet minister and as a senior office-bearer in my party.
However, leadership was also thrust upon one. This occurred at a remarkable caucus meeting of my political party on the morning of 2 February 1989. Without the slightest prior warning we received a message from my predecessor, President PW Botha, announcing his decision after a serious stroke 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.
The fact that I was elected leader of the National Party enabled me to make a difference.
Exactly one year later, to the day, I rose to make the speech in Parliament that launched the democratic transformation of South Africa. I announced the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the unbanning of all political parties and organisations. I said that all of us would have to work together to negotiate a new non-racial democratic constitution.