Real Leaders

Africa’s Last White President

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

FW de Klerk is best known as the last white president of apartheid South Africa. He freed Nelson Mandela after 27 years in jail, handed power to his former enemies and then shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela – who many still considered a terrorist at the time. He explained his views to us on nation-building and the importance of compromise when brokering peace.

You were the president of a country that had created two worlds for its citizens – one black and one white – yet you managed to bring extreme racial segregation and political ideology together to create a brand new country. How did you do this?

We started to achieve this in our first discussions with Nelson Mandela when we accepted that escalating conflict would destroy the country and that the only rational option was a negotiated solution. During the negotiations in the early 90s our first step was to draft a declaration of intent which was signed by all the participating parties. It already included the broad outline of the values on which any new system would have to be based. Subsequently we refined these values into the statement of values in section one of our Constitution – which postulates a sovereign democratic state founded on human dignity, the achievement of equality, the advancement of human rights and freedoms; non-racism and non-sexism; the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law and a genuine multiparty democracy that will ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.

What is your formula for creating peace?

The first requirement for peace is the acknowledgment of all sides that they will not be able to achieve their goals through force. The second requirement is the acceptance during negotiations of a common future for all parties. The third requirement is the need for all parties to make sometimes painful compromises in order to achieve win-win solutions.

You willingly created a legal situation in South Africa that allowed Nelson Mandela to step into your shoes. How did it feel to step aside and let this happen?

When I surrendered power on 11 May 1994 I did not hand over  power to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). I surrendered power to our new constitutional dispensation in which the constitution and rule of law – and not the government of the day – are supreme. Strangely enough, my departure from office was the climax of my career. I was confident that I had achieved virtually all the goals that I set myself when I became President in September, 1989.

Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk showing their Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk showing their Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

We hear the word “terrorism” on a daily basis in the news. How do we solve this problem?

In fact, terrorism has a very precise meaning: it is the pursuit of political goals through the deliberate generation of fear and terror in the targeted community, usually through the launching of indiscriminate violence against civilian targets. This contrasts with guerrilla warfare which involves the deployment of irregular forces against the military forces and the structures and infrastructure of the targeted state.

Once again, the reconciliation of conflicting ideas of freedom lies in the negotiation and acceptance of common values and new definitions of what freedom means.

How do you prevent people and countries from going to war? 

By promoting genuine democracy, closing the income gap between countries, and getting rid of ideologies. There have been few – if any – wars between genuine democracies; unfair economic relations are a major cause of conflict;  and virtually all the worst things in history have happened when people and governments have attached more importance to ideas and beliefs than they have to compassion and concern for the wellbeing and rights of ordinary human beings. I get angry and frustrated by governments and officials who put their ideologies and personal interests above their duty to uphold the spirit of the law and their responsibility to protect and serve ordinary people.

Does business share any responsibility in solving the world’s problems?

As President Coolidge observed “the business of business is business.”  The prime goal of any business should be to ensure that it continues to make a profit – and that in this manner – through Adam Smith’s invisible hand – it serves the interests of its customers, its shareholders and its workers.  However, it is rightly accepted now that there is a triple bottom line which also includes a business’s responsibility to the society in which it operates and to sustaining the environment. Most companies accept that the additional bottom lines also make good business sense – but ultimately businesses will not be able to achieve them if they do not continue to run at a profit.

Have you ever arrive at a crossroads in your career where you thought you might choose a very different path in life?

That was probably in 1972 when I had to choose between staying in my successful law firm; accepting a law professorship at my old university; or going into politics. I chose the latter because I felt that it offered the greatest possibility of making a difference.

What is your definition of a real leader?

Good leaders are good listeners. They must be able to assess the situation in which they find themselves and are likely to find themselves in the future. They must have a clear vision of the direction in which they want to go – and they must be able to persuade people to go with them.

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