Interview With The Former President of South Africa, Founder Global Leadership Foundation

Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk was a highly successful South African lawyer who could have spent his days happily holed up in a leather bound law library, but when his country was perched on the brink of anarchy, he answered the call. In 1989, de Klerk was elected president of South Africa.

Among his first instructions to his cabinet was to pave the way for a new vision which would end the policy of Apartheid, a separation of civil society by race.

The ruling white majority had held power for decades. Convincing them to turn over the reigns to a constitutional majority in which they would emerge as a minority was a formidable challenge. That he was able to convince his electorate after only a short time in the highest office is just one astounding chapter of his story.

How de Klerk managed that process, and in the scope of his vision, freed Nelson Mandela from 27 years imprisonment and transformed South Africa into a constitutional democracy, is his legacy. In our interview, he would only acknowledge, “I didn’t do it myself. I just played a role.” His successor as President, Nelson Mandela, made it clear that without de Klerk it could not have happened. (The full transcript of our interview appears below the video).

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FW de Klerk highlights:

  • 1989: Elected president of South Africa
  • 1990: (after 4 months in office) Initiates the end of Apartheid and releases Nelson Mandela from prison
  • 1993: de Klerk and Mandela jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1994: Elected deputy president under Nelson Mandela
  • 1995: South African constitution is drafted
  • 1996: President Nelson Mandela signs the constitution
  • 1997 FW de Klerk retires from politics

My interview with FW de Klerk:

Jeff Cunningham: Before we get into the subject of your fascinating career as president of South Africa, the man who dismantled apartheid, and your relationship with Nelson Mandela, tell me what brings you to the island of Malta?

FW de Klerk: 12 years ago, I started the Global Leadership Foundation. We’re holding our annual meeting this year in Malta. This foundation now has 40, members, all former prime ministers, presidents, cabinet ministers, senior diplomats. All of us have good experience of governance. None of us hold political office, but we have a store of experience and knowledge gained from our years in government. We learned from our own mistakes.

With all the world’s problems, I imagine the Global Leadership Foundation has more business than it can handle?

Actually, we have to knock on the right doors, and say, “We think you can benefit by sitting down for a weekend with us, and working through your problems,” before we get an invitation. We don’t get telephone calls saying, “please come and give me advice.” That’s not how it works.

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FW De Klerk
“Political leaders don’t easily admit that they can benefit, or that they need outside advice.”

Why are political leaders reluctant to seek advice?

It’s in the fabric of politicians, and of business leaders that they feel that might undermine their position.

Is criticism by the leader’s opponents a concern?

That’s true, although, we have experienced that some of the leaders would like us to also interact with their opponents. At times, we end up building bridges between the governing party, and opposing parties.

Take us back to your time as president, having just won election in September 1989, how prepared were you for the future that awaited?

When I became president, I didn’t have to look for a vision. I was ready, and I was convinced of what had to be done in South Africa to avoid a catastrophe, and to bring justice to all South Africans. My task was to develop an action plan to make this new vision of one united South Africa without any discrimination, of making it a reality.

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FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, May 2, 1990 in Cape Town
“Our focus was how to change fundamentally — separate development apartheid failed to bring justice to all South Africa, was morally indefensible, and was wrong. How do we change?”

…a new South Africa, in which there would be checks and balances against the misuse of power, and a new South Africa in which there would be a strong constitutional state, with a constitutional core, which could ensure that we will adhere to basic sound values, those very values which made the big successful countries of the world big and successful. That was the vision which I have embraced as a person, that I had in my head and heart, when I became the leader of my party, and president in 1989.

Did you have any idea how difficult it was going to be?

Oh, yes. I realized it was a difficult challenge, and one of the biggest challenges that I faced was to take a majority of whites with me, because in terms of the old system, they had all the real power in their hands. How to give up that power, and hand over to a new constitutional state was a big challenge. I succeeded in doing so.

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He won the referendum by an overwhelming majority (on his birthday)

At times, it seemed as if I’d lost majority support amongst the whites, which forced me to call a referendum in March 1992, and the opposition, the far right-wing said, “You no longer have a mandate to carry on with these negotiations.” So I called a referendum, and said, “You know now what we are negotiating. The outlines and the framework is clear. May I go ahead with this, yes or no?” When confronted with that question, 69.9 percent of them said, “Yes, go ahead.” They refreshed my mandate, and they strengthened my hand at the negotiation table.

Did the stunning majority surprise you?

The big majority surprised me. I’m not a reckless gambler. When I called the referendum, I thought I would get about 54 percent of the vote, but to get 69 percent was a pleasant surprise, and it was actually the day before my birthday, so when the results came out, it was on my birthday. It was a wonderful birthday present.

During this time, South Africa was heading towards anarchy. There were strikes. There were killings. You sat at the head, trying to create consensus. Is that a fair description?

In the mid-1980s, that was the situation. Then my predecessor, and I was part of that decision as a member of the cabinet, instituted a state of emergency. It was quite Draconian, but that state of emergency suppressed the risk of anarchy. That, I think, also helped the late Mr. Mandela to realize that there could be no winner through the barrel of a gun. That really created a starting point for saying we’ll have to talk to each other, however far apart we were.

You had your disagreements with Nelson Mandela.

I had lots of disagreements, but may I say that throughout it all, there was a basic acceptance of each other’s integrity, and there was a recognition that we needed each other. Notwithstanding some clashes between us, whenever our main negotiators came to us and said, “Now, we’ve reached a dead end. The two of you must now find a way,” we always found a way to get out of the dead end.

What made him such a powerful opponent?

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Mandela’s charm was one reason why he was so formidable
“What made him a formidable opponent and a formidable man was his integrity, was his intellect, was his charm.”

I remember having a debate with him before the ’94 election, and I was winning the debate hands down on points, but towards the end, he suddenly reached out and took my hand and said, “We might be opponents, but in the end, we stand together,” and by that, he won the debate. He was a good man, a good listener, and a man of principle. I honor him to this day, and at all times, I felt that he was a man that I could do business with, because he was trustworthy.

It turns out that you were both lawyers. Did that help your relationship?

I really believe it did. To be a good lawyer, you have to be a good listener. To be a good lawyer, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. You should first look at all the facts, analyze them, and then decide which legal principle is governing the situation, and what would be the best line of action. In that sense, yes, we complemented each other. As lawyers, both of us were good listeners.

In the end, the real crucial basis for the successful negotiations was that he and I, respectively, succeeded in placing ourselves in the other one’s position.

Mr. Mandela understood that there are certain minimum requirements, which I had to be accommodated on. I understood that there were certain minimum requirements on which he, and his side, had to be accommodated.

Your home looks out on Robin Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. I have a quote I would like to read. This is from Nelson Mandela about you. Did he ever tell this in person?

“My worst nightmare is to wake up one morning, and he is not there.”

No, but after our retirement, we became really good friends, frequently visiting each other’s homes. What he did say in front of me was that without me, what has happened in South Africa wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened.

In your work with the Global Leadership Foundation, how do you see the world’s biggest challenges today?

I think the world faces three main challenges:

One is Earth’s climate change. Also, extreme poverty for about one-third of the world population. The third challenge is diversity.

Diversity is growing in most countries, through migration, through globalization, and it’s going to continue. Nobody is managing this. Nobody is driving this. These three challenges need to be accepted, so I’m focusing very much on the diversity issue, because it’s so prevalent in South Africa.

How do you convince people that radical change can be a good thing?

The main lesson is you can’t have fundamental change before the decision-makers involved acknowledge the need for fundamental change.

“The process of fundamental change, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in a country’s affairs, for those in charge, is to do deep introspection, to avoid the temptation of bluffing yourself that you are changing…”

…while you are actually not changing, to take a good hard look at yourself, and to take your team with you.

The new vision doesn’t mean a document of 30 pages, or 50, or a hundred pages. It’s a one-pager. This is my vision, where I want to be in five, or 10, or 15 years.

What’s the secret to crafting consensus for a new vision?

Consultation, and offering your management team co-ownership for the solutions proposed by the leader — I believe modern leadership requires that style of leadership, and not the old Churchill style of “I take the decisions, and you follow the decisions.”

Collaboration. We even went to the bush — we called it Bush Conferences, where even cellphones didn’t work, where nobody could offer and excuse — “I just have another very important appointment. I’ll be back in an hour” — where we were forced, under the stars of Africa, to look each other in the eye, and say, “We’re in the wrong place, where we are now. Where do we go from here?”

To inspire management teams to embrace the need for fundamental change, you must create moments for deep introspection and for proper communication between each other.

Does this have something to do with your comment, that to make the right decisions in life you need time to think?

Absolutely. You need time to be analytical. You can think with your heart, but it must be married by thinking with your brain, by looking at all the facts, by giving those around you the opportunity to put their version of the facts in front of you, as the leader.

“Because, quite often, if you open yourself up, you’ll find that others influence you to change what you thought was a firm conviction…”

…to change it because of new light, which in such dialogue, others might throw on the subject under discussion. In the end, think before you leap.

As a leader, you made a number of personal sacrifices. Your life was in danger at times. When you look back, what are the best and worst days?

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Rioting between the ANC and opposing factions

The worst days were when the ANC walked out of the negotiation and said they would make the country ungovernable through rolling mass action. Throughout that period I maintained contact through my negotiators with Mandela. It took from June until September to restart negotiations. Those were tense moments, bad moments.

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People blamed the government, unfairly as it turned out

Another bad moment was when, without any form of government involvement, directly, or indirectly, illegally, or legally, a vast number of people were killed in one township. Mr. Mandela turned around and said we were involved, which we weren’t. Those were bad moments when we reached zero in our relationship.

Good moments? When I won the referendum was a wonderful moment. Maybe the best moment was when everything came to fruition, when we could say we now have a wonderful, strong, good constitution, and when, in terms of that constitution, Mandela was inaugurated as president, on the 10th of May 1994, and I was inaugurated as one of his two deputy presidents. It was a moment of great fulfillment. We have avoided the catastrophe, which was threatening, I could say on that day.

Those were my moments, and thoughts of fulfillment.

“I played a role in that. I didn’t do it alone.”

If someone, went to a young F.W. de Klerk, just graduated from Law School, and said, “This is what your life is going to be like.” What would you be thinking?

I would grab it with both hands. I would say…

“I don’t really feel up to it. I don’t know whether I’m the right man for it, but if God throws that to me, and says, ‘this is your calling,’ I will accept it with humility.”

Where do you find the strength?

I find my strength in my faith. I find my strength in my love for South Africa, and in my love for all South Africans.

I find my strength in accepting that destiny isn’t just something which happens, that there is something like destiny in life.
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Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa (1918–2013)

“My worst nightmare is to wake up one morning, and he is not there.”
(Nelson Mandela speaking about FW de Klerk)

I had the chance to interview President de Klerk on his current activities on the island of Malta where a gathering of former heads of state was taking place, the Global Leadership Foundation, which de Klerk founded upon leaving public office. These men and women, all of them once responsible for the fate of their countries, are spending their retirement offering confidential advice to current world leaders.

FW De Klerk’s process for achieving broad consensus and moving people from one point of view to an alternative, and in some cases opposite, point of view — without radicalism or revolution — is a leadership lesson current heads of state should note well.