SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK TO
THE INSTITUTE OF CHARTERED ACCOUNTANTS OF SCOTLAND,
EDINBURGH, 6 OCTOBER 2000
It is a great pleasure for me to be able to speak to you here in Edinburgh this afternoon.
I always enjoy my visits to Scotland. Not only is your country the home of golf, which is one of my great loves and favourite pursuits. it is also the source of the amber fluid that has done so much to spread mellowness and goodwill throughout the world. Three years ago when the Keepers of the Quaich were kind enough to admit me as a fellow keeper, I asked
“How many nerves have not been steeled by a wee drop of the amber fluid before heroic deeds and the taking of momentous decisions? How many difficult negotiations have not been facilitated by a glass of scotch at the critical moment? How many great agreements have not been concluded and celebrated over a tot of your most famous export?
A third reason why I always enjoy my visits to Scotland may be found in the close relationship – of which you may not be aware – between the Scots and the Afrikaners. This does not rest only in the problems that our peoples have, from time to time had with the ‘Sassenachs.’
Scotland’s main export has, perhaps, been its people and the skills and expertise that they have brought with them to the many countries in which they settled. You sent your doctors, engineers and bankers to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. You sent your missionaries to South Africa.
Over the years they, and other Scots, made an enormous contribution to South Africa – and specifically to the development of my own people, the Afrikaners. Let me give you but a few examples:
- The largest Afrikaans Church – the Dutch Reformed Church – was founded by a Scot, the Rev Andrew Murray.
- Another Scot, the Rev William Robertson, was one of the main proponents of the founding of the Theological Seminary at Stellenbosch which later evolved into our first Afrikaans University.
- In 1846 Andrew Geddes Bain, from Thurso, wrote one of the first books in Afrikaans. He also built many of our early roads and mountain passes.
There are millions of people throughout the world who trace their ancestry back to Scotland – but nearly all of them still speak English. In South Africa, on the other hand, we have numerous Murrays, McGregors, Robertsons, Thoms, Smiths and Clarks whose home language is Afrikaans.
This, perhaps, explains the story of the reaction of two Scots when they first heard Afrikaans. The one turned to the other and said “You know Jock, I think these Afrikaners come from even further north of the Clyde than I do”.
The theme of my address to you this afternoon is the management of change – something that we in South Africa have specialised in during the past ten years.
The millennium is not just a nice round number: in fact, it coincides with a number of the most profound changes in human history:
The first of these is globalisation. During the past decades we have begun to lay the foundations of a new supranational global community.
The second is the human genome project. During the first months of the new millennium geneticists have succeeded in mapping the entire human genetic code. We stand on the threshold of being able to understand – and manipulate – the genetic patterns which determine our very being.
Finally, the millennium coincides with increasingly urgent signals that our environment can no longer sustain the current pace of human and industrial development.
As we enter 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:
- technological innovation has taken us from the horse and buggy to mass car and air transport; from cavalry charges and bayonets to stealth fighters and nuclear weapons; from overwhelmingly agricultural economies to full-blown consumer societies;
- interaction between nations and peoples, driven by trade, mass tourism and the international media, is rapidly creating a single global society; and
- our ability to communicate and deal with information has been revolutionised by satellite telecommunications, the advent of the PC and the development during the past ten years of the internet and the world-wide web.
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.
Change is also unpredictable. Some of the main developments that have fundamentally transformed the world, were entirely unforeseen only fifteen years ago:
- In 1985 hardly anyone foresaw the internet and the world-wide web. And yet today the biggest companies in the world are found in this sector.
- Fifteen years ago nobody predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism. And yet this development has fundamentally changed strategic realities throughout the world. On a smaller scale, nobody foresaw that there would ever be a peaceful solution to South Africa’s problems.
- At the beginning of the eighties, hardly anybody had heard of AIDS. Since then, it has become the most serious pandemic since the Black Death in the Middle Ages. In some of the most populous regions of South Africa more than 30% of sexually active women are HIV positive.
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 individuals is how we should deal with the uncertainty that this accelerating, fundamental and unpredictable change is bringing to our lives.
Perhaps we can learn something from nature – since uncertainty is the basic state of nature – and of most human history.
Anybody who has ever visited a water hole at dawn in the Kruger National Park will understand this. In the first light of dawn groups of impala, zebra and wildebeest emerge from the bush and make their way to drink silently at the water’s edge. Somewhere nearby lions lie in wait. At any moment there can be an explosion of muscle, dust and claws.
The animals that survive are
- those that are the most alert – those that are the most acutely aware of the faintest scents on the morning breeze or the slightest movement in the grass.
- It is those animals that are in the best condition and real running skills.
- It is those that move most swiftly and that can change direction most quickly.
Perhaps, in the uncertainty of our rapidly changing world we, also, will have to develop similar survival skills. We too must be acutely aware of the rapid changes in our environment; we must be fit and possess real skills; and we must have the flexibility to adapt and change direction quickly.
These are some of the skills that we in South Africa have tried to cultivate to help is to deal with our rapidly changing environment. 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. Our greatest challenge was to acknowledge these realities and to confront our fear 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.
We had to deal with people who were steadfastly opposed to change.
Most of my supporters accepted the necessity of fundamental change. However, there were some who did not want to change course – even though they could see the breakers smashing on the reefs ahead. In 1982 some of the most die-hard right wing elements broke away from our party, the National Party, because the Government had, by that time, already begun to change course. Their departure greatly helped those of us who remained behind. It was no longer necessary to make unwieldy compromises to keep them on board. So, it is a good idea to encourage those who don’t want to change, to leave.
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. Timing is crucially important.
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.
History awards no prizes to those who have the right answers. It recognises only those who acquire power and use it 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 when we decided
- to permit free political activity for all parties – including even the Communist Party; –
- to commit ourselves to a negotiated solution; and
- to hold a referendum among whites to prove that the majority still supported the process of change.
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.
I have established a small Foundation that I hope will be able to make a contribution to these goals and to continuing to manage the historic changes with which our society and world are wrestling.
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 individuals, companies or countries.
Our challenge at the beginning of the 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.
At the beginning of this new millennium we will all have to confront difficult and uncomfortable challenges:
- Can we remain prosperous, free and at peace when so much of mankind is still impoverished and subject to tyranny and war?
- How are we going to maintain our identity in an increasingly uniform globalised world?
- How are we going to pursue personal meaning in a world that is increasingly materialistic and indifferent to traditional morality and family structures?
- Are we going to seek comfort, pleasure and the accumulation of material possessions without any limit?
- Do we have the will to repair the damage that we have done to our fragile environment?
And finally, will we ever be able to reassert control over the forces of change that we ourselves have unleashed?