It is a great pleasure for me to be able to address you today on the important questions of transformation and governance.
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 homo sapiens 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. In effect, we humans became the only species with the ability to manage change.
That is the secret of our phenomenal success – and it has led us to the point now where for most of our lives we live entirely in environments that we ourselves have created – our homes, our cities and our offices.
Our ability to manage change continues to be the key to success today for individuals, for companies and for countries.
27 years ago, when I became President of South Africa, I was confronted by the need to change radically the direction in which our country had been going.
I am often asked whether the decision that I took after I became president in September 1989 to transform South Africa was the result of some or other sudden conversion or insight.
It wasn’t. Neither was it a sudden change of direction. It was, in fact, the culmination of a long process of introspection and reform that started in 1978 when my predecessor, PW Botha, became Prime Minister.
Introspection and acceptance of the need to change are the first steps in the process of transformation.
Resistance to change is deeply ingrained in us. In our case, in South Africa, the whites and other minorities had well-based reasons to fear change. They were deeply concerned:
- Firstly, about how would they be able to ensure that the reasonable rights of minorities would be protected under a majority rule dispensation. It must be remembered that the right to national self-determination had been the central theme of my people – the Afrikaners – history for more than 150 years.
- We twice defended our independence against Britain, the mightiest empire of the time. The Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) was the biggest war that the British fought between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. During the war Britain deployed 430 000 troops in South Africa – compared with the 65 000 troops that it sent to America during the American War of Independence. I say this – because it is important to understand that my people, the Afrikaners, were a separate nation and felt just as strongly about their right to self-determination as any other nation.
- Secondly, how could white South Africans be sure that the transformation of our society would not lead quickly to the chaos and tyranny that had characterised the decolonisation process in so many other parts of Africa? By the mid-80s there had already been more than 80 coup d’états in Africa and there was only a handful of successful and stable countries on the continent.
Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 80s it was becoming increasingly clear that we were on the wrong course. It was simply no longer possible – or morally acceptable – for a white minority of five million to continue to rule a 35 million non-white majority.
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.
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 no chance of succeeding and had led to a situation of manifest injustice.