By Dibussi Tande
Last Friday, December 10, 2010, I had the privilege of listening to a talk by former South African President Frederick W De Klerk about the transformative power of change.
The former president had come to Chicago to talk about “the important lessons of negotiation, management of change, and leadership that led to the peaceful end of apartheid under his leadership,” with a focus “on the risks and sometimes leaps of faith involved in this fundamental agreement to bring lasting peace,” and “how his success can be translated into any organization's business model.”
According to De Klerk, when he first advocated change, many within the National Party wanted to resist simply because the Apartheid regime had the capacity to hang on to power against all odds; not only did it have the most powerful army on the continent, it had the tools to deal with internal dissent and also weather economic sanctions. “However, we concluded that the greatest risk that we faced was to refuse the risk of change,” said De Klerk. So rather than make piecemeal concessions or play games in order to get the international community off its back, National Party decided to accept the challenge of change, to manage the change and control its outcome.
FW De Klerk then outlined the key lessons that were learned when the National Party and the white minority faced the challenge of transformative change.
The first lesson in the change management process is being able to come to terms with the need for change. De Klerk pointed out that the Apartheid regime had valid reasons for resisting change, namely white fear of the communist threat posed by the African National Congress (ANC), fear that South Africa would go the way of other African states north of the Zambezi (dictatorship, coups, instability, etc.) in the event of majority rule, fear that South Africa's ethnic and cultural minorities would be marginalized and even persecuted, etc. However, in spite of these legitimate fears, the advocates for change within the Apartheid regime forged ahead because “we realized that increasingly we were on the wrong course and we were morally unjustifiable.”
The second lesson was that real change is possible only when stakeholders avoid the temptation to pretend and to make cosmetic changes. De Klerk cited the example of Michael Gorbachev’s Perestroika which started off on the (false) premise that communism was doing just fine and all it needed were a few minor reforms, but was soon confronted by a full blown revolution that led to its demise. According to De Klerk, initially, the Apartheid regime fooled itself that it could simply reform Apartheid thereby avoiding the dramatic decisions that real change required. In the end, it became obvious that this was an untenable proposition.
The next lesson is that accepting change is not enough; change must be accompanied by the crafting of a new vision. In De Klerk’s case, his new vision was that of a new multiracial and democratic South Africa which he unveiled during his historic address to the South African Parliament in Cape Town on February 2, 1990.
By 1993, that vision of a multiracial constitutional democracy in South Africa had become a reality.
According to FW De Klerk, a vision gives direction and purpose. It must be followed by an action plan, that is, how to transform it step by step. In the case of South Africa, this revolved around (i) special communications skills (primarily to convince the media and the outside world of the vision of change, to convince supporters in order to have a mandate), (ii) good timing (for it is stupid to be vociferously right at the wrong time. It is stupid to move so far ahead that your supporters no longer see you – do not alienate key players and constituents), and (iii) strong leadership (which not to be confused with brute force but the ability to do what needs to be done – “It is quite easy to see what needs to be done but the art is in being able to do it.”
Change agents must be able to seize windows of opportunity as they try to effect change. De Klerk explained how the agents of change within the National Party capitalized on the fall of communism to drastically reduce the fears of whites about the potential influence of communism in an ANC-led South Africa. As De Klerk pointed out in his historic February 1992 speech: “ The events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to which I have referred already, weaken the capability of organisations which were previously supported strongly from those quarters.”
Change management requires calculated risks. For De Klerk a calculated risk was rescinding the ban on the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and even the armed wing of the ANC. Some felt that the lifting of the ban on the organizations that fought the Apartheid regime should occur only after negotiations had been concluded, but De Klerk felt that the risk was worth taking.Once the ban was lifted, the parties had no excuse from staying away from negotiations, and it removed all stumbling blocks to a negotiated solution.
Another calculated risk that De Klerk took was to call for a whites-only referendum in 1992 to determine if White South African's supported the moves towards dismantling the Apartheid system. Many change advocates felt that organizing the referendum was a foolhardy enterprise that would backfire, however, De Klerk forged ahead and at the end, 69% of whites gave him the mandate to continue with the reform agenda.
De Klerk warned that while change management requires calculated risks it does not require mad gambles.
Another lesson is that one should remain steadfast in the face of serious setbacks. When the ANC walked out of negotiations in June 1992 and launched its mass action campaign called “rolling mass action” the situation looked grim. De Klerk says that the government refused to capitulate, and in September 1992, the ANC rejoined negotiations. [Click here for an overview of negotiations between the ANC and the National Party]
Nonetheless, De Klerk points out that during the four months when negotiations were suspended, the two key negotiators, Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC and Roelf Meyer of the National Party who had formed a close bond, continued to hold regular talks thereby smoothing the way for the resumption of Talks. [In fact, the mass action ended only after the NP signed a Record of Understanding with the ANC. For details see South Africa: limits to change : the political economy of transition by Hein Marais]
Finally, the process of change never ends. Once you achieve your objectives, you move on to the next challenge. For De Klerk, the vision which he outlined in 1990 is now a reality. South Africa is now a multiracial democracy, has reintegrated the community of nations,and had steady economic growth until the world recession of 2008. And it is well positioned for sustained growth once the global economic situation normalizes.
De Klerk however points out that there are new challenges that South Africa has to contend with in order to move forward:
- The 1996 constitution still has to take root in all communities and become a living document;
- The relationships between South Africa’s 11 nations is still fragile and has shown severe signs of strain in recent years;
- The country is dealing with serious and unacceptably high levels of crime, the AIDS pandemic, high unemployment which is about 25%, a poverty rate of about 46%, and a poor education system that is ill equipped to produce the next generation of South Africa’s leaders.
President De Klerk concluded by emphatically stating that effective management of change has worked in South Africa and he reiterated that the three keys to South Africa’s successful change were:
- The ability to change
- The ability to imagine better worlds, and
- The ability to formulate achievable visions and to make them become reality
Question and Answer Session
De Klerk’s speech was followed by an interesting question-and-answer session which tackled a variety of South African-related issues, and other topical world issues such as the relationship between India and Pakistan, political developments within China and China’s Africa policy.
Asked how he was able to convince members of the National Party to go along with his reform agenda, De Klerk said he made a conscious decision to ensure that discussions about the reform process were always interactive and not prescriptive. As a result, the entire leadership of the NP was involved every step of the way: “There was co-ownership for a joint vision and a joint action plan.”
Regarding his relationship with Mandela, De Klerk said they were both able to work together even during times of crisis because they both developed a personal rapport from the very first time that they met while Mandela was still a prisoner. That first meeting convinced both men that they could trust and count on each other.
Asked how he felt after he was awarded the Nobel prize with Mandela in 1993, De Klerk said that the Nobel committee showed immense courage by giving him the award. Unlike Mandela, he was not a popular choice because of his apartheid past. He believes that the committee went ahead with the award primarily to recognize the courage manifested by South Africa's white which gave up its power and privilege in favor of a multiracial and democratic South Africa.
On the question of whether he had any regrets for championing the end of Apartheid, De Klerk was emphatic that he had none. He nonetheless pointed out that his only failure and disappointment with the transition process was his inability to convince the ANC about the need for a continued power-sharing arrangement between the white minority and the black majority. He would have preferred a consensus seeking executive similar to the Government of National Unity which existed between 1994 and 1999 rather than the winner-takes all system enshrined in the South African constitution. As he pointed out in 1997, “[The ANC] wanted a winner-takes-all model. I think they made an error of judgement. I still believe South Africa, with all its complexities, needs a consensus approach on key issues” (see Every step of the way: the journey to freedom in South Africa, p. 278).
He seemed particularly miffed at the rejection of the idea of a Consultative Council [The Consultative Council was supposed to “operate within or alongside the government to give a voice to all parties. The NP's idea was that, while the council would not have a veto, the cabinet should be obliged to refer issues of national importance to it” - see Every Step of the Way]
President De Klerk had the opporutnity to address a number of hot botton international topics. He predicted that political change would follow the dramatic economic change in China. On China's increasingly controversial role in Africa, De Klerk lamented that Western countries were not doing enough in Africa, and pointed out that unlike China which had a coherent strategy for Africa revolving around the need to secure access to Africa’s natural resources, the EU and United States had no coherent strategy for the continent: “The tendency of western countries is to be opportunistic in their reaction to Africa”.
A Memorable Afternoon
FW De Klerk’s talk lived up to its billing and his message about the transformative power of change is a universal one which is not only relevant to South Africa, but also to corporations and to the plethora of African states in which the idea of change is still viewed as an anathema - with tragic results...
The candor with which the former President discussed the Apartheid system including his own key role in that system was quite impressive – and as I wrote elsewhere after my trip to the Eastern Cape province in 2009, I find this particular South African trait of being able to comfortably come to terms with the past quite remarkable and fascinating, particularly on a continent where “forgetting” and distorting history has been elevated to a science.
Stock photo of FW De Klerk (c) clintrogersonline.com