Interesting summary by our previous president F.W. de Klerk. It’s still worthwhile listening to him – and I am especially grateful if he gives us his ideas in writing.

Read here for more detail: PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK TO THE RIVER CLUB

Johannesburg 30 March 2012


Steven Mulholland suggested two topics that I might address – one that might entertain you – and the other that would probably depress you.

I have decided to choose the former. It relates to my memories of the many leaders that I have met during my political career – and subsequently.

Politics is a strange business.

It takes a particular type of personality to thrust himself before the electorate and try to persuade his fellow citizens that he has the extraordinary qualities required for leadership.

On the whole, politics is not a career that pays very well. In its traditional form it offered few financial inducements. This is of course no longer necessarily the case. Some of the far more astute politicians of the present age have elevated politics to one of the most profitable of businesses.

In my day most practitioners would probably have made much more money by remaining in a respectable profession or by climbing the corporate ladder. In my case, when I went into politics in 1972 I had to exchange a flourishing law practice in Vereniging for the modest income of a back-bencher. We had to move out of our beautiful home in on the banks of the Vaal and take up residence in a converted army barracks in Acacia Park.

Life as a back-bencher is, at best, undistinguished.

As junior members of the caucus, young MPs generally speak when they are spoken to. They must quickly adapt to the Byzantine manoeverings and jockeying for position that characterise all political organisations. They must wait desperately for a chance to catch the attention of the leadership on the rare occasions when they are asked to speak in parliament. It is difficult to do so if the topic they must address is the Railways Second Appropriation Bill. This is not the stuff of which Gettysburg Addresses and Pericles Funeral Orations are made.

It is for this reason that the attention of back benchers of all parties in all dispensations is focused so firmly on the possibility of being appointed to higher office. As soon as one becomes a deputy minister – or succeeds in attaining the Olympian heights of cabinet membership – the world changes. Suddenly, one has one’s own office and one’s own department. The new minister is surrounded by public servants who quickly confirm his own view that he is a pretty smart chap and a natural leader. The media are suddenly interested in his pronouncements. There are press conferences and overseas trips, official cars and private secretaries.

I was lucky. I was appointed to the cabinet in 1978 – only six years after entering parliament.

However, once one has become a cabinet minister other drawbacks become apparent. Everything the minister does is open to scrutiny. Every peccadillo becomes a glaring headline on the back page of the Sunday Times. Cartoonists and comedians have free rein to ridicule one. The minister’s policies, his character and his family are exposed fairly – or unfairly –  to merciless attack in public forums.

Managing democratic societies is often a thankless task. Leaders are confronted with crises created by others – some of which are, frankly, unsolvable in the period they have at their disposal. Whatever the politician says, whatever he does, he is subjected to bitter criticism. As one American President remarked: “Hell, every time I open my mouth I alienate 25% of the population.”

And all the time there is relentless competition with one’s closest colleagues.

As one disillusioned politician was heard to remark: “My opponents? They were the people in the parties that opposed me in parliament. My enemies? Those are the ones who were sitting beside and behind me”. It is more often the politician’s colleagues rather than his opponents who finally bring his career to an end.

It is perhaps for such reasons that commentators have observed that “All political careers end in tears.”

These are also the reasons why so relatively few really competent people stand for the Presidency of the United States. It is impossible to believe that there are not thousands of people in America who would be far better candidates than the crop that is currently contending for office. However, they are far too prudent to do so. They do not need the money. They do not want to have their private lives subjected to relentless, intrusive and often unfair scrutiny. They do not want their families to be hopelessly disrupted. They do not want to demean themselves by having to tailor their views according to the latest opinion surveys – or to mouth the platitudes that pass for political discourse.

Now, as you all know, much of this is true to a greater or lesser extent in the careers of all successful men. Everyone who has become a CEO or company chairman has also had to play hard-ball in board-room politics.

They say that the vindictiveness is worst between academics. When he was asked why this was so Henry Kissinger replied “the competition between academics is so bitter – because the stakes are so low.”

And yet – and yet the allure of politics and of power remains. Henry Kissinger also observed that power is the greatest aphrodisiac.

Nero is famously supposed to have exclaimed just before he died that a great artist perished in him!  He certainly was not a good exponent of the art of statesmanship – but statesmanship is an art. It is practised on the largest canvas that one can imagine: one’s country – and in some cases the world.

The fact remains that despite all its shortcomings as a career, politics offers its exponents the opportunity to perform on the greatest stage of all: the stage of history. The decisions that statesmen take can make the difference between war and peace; between freedom and tyranny; between prosperity and poverty. The stakes are immensely high: they are the happiness of and security of tens of millions of ordinary people. They are the ability of ordinary people to pursue what Yeats called the ceremonies of innocence: growing up; getting an education; falling in love and raising a family; making a living and pursuing one’s special dreams.

In my own career I have had the privilege of interacting with some great leaders – who in their own ways have changed the histories of their countries or even of the world.

Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the people whom I count as a friend.

The simple reality is that the history of the world, or Europe and of Russia would have been fundamentally different if a hard-line communist had seized the reins of power in the early 1980s. Even though the Soviet Union was doomed to economic failure, an orthodox communist dictator might well have held the empire together for decades. The cold war would not have come to an end.  The countries of Eastern Europe would not have been liberated. The Soviet Union would not have disintegrated – and Germany would still be divided between east and west.

Often it is the individual leader who puts his weight on one side or the other of the political balance who changes the course of history.

Ironically, this is not necessarily what Gorbachev intended. In his book Perestroika he still declared that communism was the best system – but merely needed to be implemented in a more democratic and open manner. It was never his intention that the Soviet Union should fall to pieces or that the Warsaw Pact should be disbanded. Ultimately, he found it impossible to control the momentum or the direction of the historic changes that he had unleashed.

Nevertheless, the world today would have been a substantially different – and in my opinion worse – place had he not made the decisions that he made.

The leader who, perhaps, impressed me most was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Once again, he was an individual who changed the course of history. In many respects he was the creator of modern Singapore. Without his leadership it might still be just another city in Malaysia. As it is, and despite its tiny size, it has become one of the most successful countries, with one of the freest economies, in the world. Lee Kuan Yew took the right decisions for his country; he chose the right values and the right economic policies to ensure the development of a successful society. In this, he was an artist painting on the largest canvas that society can provide. He was also a very astute judge of the world and provided a very canny and realistic assessment of our situation in South Africa when I met him during the early ‘nineties.

Another great leader whom I count among my friends is Margaret Thatcher. Few British Prime Ministers have had such a profound influence on the course of their country’s history as she did.  She understood, when she became Prime Minister, what the fundamental challenges were that she would have to address. The most serious of these was a trade union movement and residual socialist policies that were inexorably dragging Britain toward stagnation and national failure. Soon after she became Prime Minister she prophesied that within three years she would be one of the most unpopular leaders that the country had ever seen. “But two years after that” she said “ I shall be re-elected Prime Minister with an increased majority.” And she was quite right. She took on the unions and won – and subsequently she took on the Argentinians and beat them as well. In all this she showed far greater determination and courage than any prime minister since Winston Churchill.

Her free market middle-class conservatism set the paradigm not only for British politics for decades to come, but changed democratic politics everywhere. I remember an exasperated John Major telling me after the Conservatives had lost the 1997 election that he wondered what Tony Blair would do once he had run out of the Conservative Party’s policies. The reality is that after Thatcher, British politics became a battlefield for the centre with the new left jettisoning traditional socialist policies as fast as it could.
Margaret Thatcher also had a keen understanding of the unfolding situation in South Africa. Although she was a consistent critic of apartheid, she had no illusions about the nature of the challenges that we faced. She doggedly resisted for as long as she could persistent demands for more sanctions against South Africa in the Commonwealth and in the international community. She always gave me – and our partners in the negotiations – strong and committed support for the achievement of our goals.

Although I never met Deng Xiaoping, I believe that he will probably be regarded by future generations as the greatest leader of the latter part of the twentieth century. He himself was a victim of the Cultural Revolution but nevertheless rebounded in 1978 to initiate the reforms that have fundamentally changed his country. The process that he began has led to the most far-reaching improvement in the lives of the largest number of people in the shortest period in the whole sweep of human history. In so doing he has visibly improved the daily lives of hundreds of millions of ordinary people and has established China as a leading strategic and economic power.

Such is the great canvas of statesmanship. Deng succeeded in turning China from a drab and paranoid ideologically obsessed backwater to a confident, prosperous and successful society. I have no doubt that the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people have been made far happier because of the decisions that he took.

And in our own country I would like to mention two notable statesmen.

The first is P W Botha – a difficult and irascible man – who nevertheless played an indispensible role in the transformation of our country. When he became Prime Minister in the difficult circumstances that confronted the country in 1978, he realised that we would have to ‘adapt or die’. He built up one of the most effective armed forces not only in Africa but in the world. He overhauled and rationalised the whole system of government. Under his predecessor, John Vorster, the most junior minister wrote the cabinet minutes by hand in a note book. P W Botha introduced an efficient system of cabinet committees and properly compiled cabinet papers.

He understood the need for change and initiated the process that led to the Tricameral Parliament. Obviously, it was never going to be the total answer to the total problem because it still made no provision for black South Africans. However, in the incremental world of reform politics it was a step in the right direction. By 1986 the government had already repealed more than 100 apartheid laws. Nevertheless, the crux of the matter was no longer reform – but transformation.

However, PW ruled more by fear than by consensus. He did not encourage open debate within the cabinet and dealt harshly with anyone who failed to toe the line. When asked what the difference was between serving in my cabinet and PW’s cabinet Pik Botha said that when I was president he did not wake every morning with a shudder.

Shortly before he left office, P W Botha said that he had made two mistakes as president: he had not moved forward rapidly enough with his reform policies; and he had communicated badly. He was right on both counts. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he prepared the way for the negotiation process that I had the privilege of initiating on 2 February 1990.

The other great South African leader of my generation was, of course, Nelson Mandela. I do not subscribe to the general hagiography surrounding Mandela. He was by no means the avuncular and saint-like figure so widely depicted today. As a political opponent he could be brutal and quite unfair. During the negotiations and while I served as Deputy President in the Government of National Unity we often had bruising clashes.

Such is the nature of politics.

However, whenever the situation required it, he was able to rise above the political passions of the moment and join me in hammering out reasonable compromises that enabled the process to continue. He also had the stature and the strength to hold his fractious alliance together – even at the most difficult junctures. The source of his authority, consciously or unconsciously, was the fact  that he was a Xhosa aristocrat – with all the bearing and natural authority that came with his royal connections.

However, he is a principled man and a great communicator. Through his natural charm and consideration he played an indispensible role in promoting reconciliation and in laying the foundations of our new non-racial nation.

I believed him when he said on 8 May 1996, after the adoption of our new constitution, that the “founding principles of our constitution are immutable.” He described the constitution as “our national soul, our compact with one another as citizens, underpinned by our highest aspirations and our deepest apprehensions”. He said our pledge is that: “Never and never again shall the laws of our land rend our people apart or legalise their oppression and repression. Together, we shall march, hand-in-hand, to a brighter future.”

Now, 16 years later there are those in the ANC who are saying that “our national soul, our compact with one another as citizens” was merely a temporary compromise and that it must give way to a second transition based on less immutable principles.
All of us should reject such thinking with all the resources that we and our constitution provide. But then, that is the other topic that Steven wanted me to address – and which you may explore in the question and answer session.

In the meantime one thing is clear. The great South African socio-political work of art remains unfinished. We sorely need a new generation of principled statesmen to complete it.

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
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