F.W. de Klerk, former President of South Africa, spoke at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a sold out Jepson Alumni Center.
His speech, “The Challenge of the Century: Leading Change and Diverse Societies,” discussed the important lessons of negotiation, management of change and leadership that led to the peaceful end of apartheid, according to the Jepson website.
De Klerk currently leads The Global Leadership Foundation, an organization that is “near and dear to his heart,” said Theo C. Moll, vice president of the college division of Keppler Speakers, the company that arranged de Klerk’s visit to Richmond.
De Klerk lends his political expertise to other leaders as they undergo the transition to democracy, Moll said.
“He also so enjoys young people who are inquisitive, so it’s a neat opportunity to feel comfortable around him,” she said.
What are your thoughts on the sweeps of rebellion and outbreaks of violence that are moving through countries such as Egypt, Libya and others? How do you feel your background can lend to their situations?
I think our experience is, to a certain extent, relevant because some of the lessons we’ve learned they’ll have to apply.
They now have to negotiate in a credible process about what they want to put in place of the regimes that they are overthrowing. …
There’s a need for inclusivity.
You must bring all the parties with significant support around the negotiation table.
In the negotiations, there must be a give-and-take attitude and a real effort to understand the other party’s concerns and to accommodate those concerns in a meaningful way.
… So, yes, I think what is happening there, while different from our case, and which gives a reason for concern is the fact that if you violently, or in a revolutionary way, overthrow a regime, then suddenly there’s a vacuum.
And that vacuum needs to be filled in the interim period while the negotiation takes place.
In our case, there was never a vacuum. We moved from one dispensation to another in a constitutional, democratic, orderly way. But in the case of Egypt, for instance, it seems as if the army is prepared to fill the vacuum.
I hope it also happens if the regime in Libya is overthrown, that will happen, but there’s no question that all these countries face the same challenge which we face, and that is they have to reach agreement about what foundation do they want for a democratic future. …
What does freedom mean to you?
We cannot build the future on the basis of freedom and full democracy for a limited percentage of the population and on the basis of injustice toward the majority of the population.
And therefore, as a matter of conscience, we said to ourselves, we can’t improve or reform apartheid or separate development; we have to abandon it.
We have to embrace a new vision — and that we did.
Shortly before I became president, in 1986 we already said new vision, one united South Africa — abandoning the whole concept of separateness — and embracing full rights for all, but with checks and balances to present future misuse of power.
That is the vision that I embraced when I became president and for which I developed an action plan to implement that vision. And we did that in four and a half years.
What do you think the United States government might be able to learn from the government in South Africa and from everything your country has been through?
I think there are a few things if I look back and if I look at the present situation in Egypt and so on.
Firstly, constructive engagement has more influence than using just a big stick of sanctions.
I can testify that sanctions at times delayed change. And it delayed reform.
Whereas those countries, European countries and so on — who engaged with us, who continued to encourage us, who continued to argue with us — had more influence than those countries who distanced themselves from us.
So that’s one lesson in my mind. A second lesson is that America and other leading countries must engage with countries and should not look away from things that are wrong.
In the case of South Africa, they didn’t look away. But the question is, didn’t they look away in Egypt? Didn’t they look away in other countries because it suited their strategic purposes?
Instead of really also engaging with them and saying, ‘you must change.’
What do you think about the struggle between pursuing democracy and pursuing other diplomatic or political interests over democracy?
I think diplomacy has in a globalizing world a bigger role to play. Your President Roosevelt said: ‘There’s a time for the big stick, and there’s a time for speaking softly.’
The big stick America used and is now using in Afghanistan is necessary; I’m not critical of it. But it’s a time for speaking softly but firmly in creating an international dialogue in order to promote democracy.
Democracy, with all its shortcomings, is the best system in the world. It has proven itself. … Democracy needs to be promoted whenever it can.
I do think there needs to be a recognition that America should not say my model is the only truly democratic system.
It’s not always a fully exportable one. In some countries with different additions, with royalty, with this or that, you have to develop a unique style of democracy.
As long as it isn’t fake democracy — it must be real democracy — with the voice of the people.
What advice might you offer college students who are looking to make a big change? You took that on in your presidency and you decided to change something that had not changed in decades. How do young people make a big change?
First of all, I think it’s important that all of us must choose the causes that generate energy within ourselves and dedicate ourselves to those courses.
You cannot make a change if you’re not on the playing field. … In the end, the more you move into leadership positions, the better chance you have to really make better. … You needn’t become the leader of a country.
You can become the leader of an organization. You can become, at a local level, the leader of your party’s organization or whatever. But the more you move into leadership positions, the better opportunity you have to influence others and convince them to adopt a certain course of action which can bring about a better situation and a better life also for the people to whom you are reaching out.
It was only about 20 years ago that South Africa underwent this revolutionary change in government and in ideologies. Countries are still struggling with these issues of racism, segregation and other prejudices. Do you think that racism and prejudice can survive in the changing world in the next 50 or 100 years?
I think in the changing world, more and more, borders are not so important. More and more, countries are becoming more heterogeneous and less homogeneous. … I think the challenge for the future lies in the management of diversity.
The melting pot route, which America has followed successfully, cannot work in all instances. If you look at South Africa, we have 11 official languages none of which all South Africans understand or can speak.
America is facing also this fast-growing, important minority of Spanish-speakers.
The country will have to manage this. So the challenge of the future lies in the management of diversity, on the one hand, and the eradication of poverty.
The best way to help democracy to establish itself and grow lies in development of the people within a country. Two billion of the almost seven billion people in this world live under the bread line.
They don’t have electricity. They can’t read. They don’t have TV. They merely survive, and quite often they almost don’t survive.
Those who are fortunate and prosperous need to find ways and means to help that section of the world population, those two billion. And if you check, they live in those repressive regimes.
They live in countries where there’s no democracy. To reach out to them, to improve their education and their training, to empower individuals to fulfill their full potential.
Along that route, addressing the poverty and the pain in many parts of the world, and simultaneously finding ways and recipes for management of diversity — those two things together can help us to bring a better life to the people who are suffering at the moment.