An Interview with FW de Klerk

FW de Klerk
President de Klerk

15th April 2016

Frederik Willem de Klerk was the President of South Africa from 1989 to 1994, the final President during Apartheid. He played a crucial role in ending Apartheid and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Nelson Mandela for the part he played in this process. Today, he runs the pro-peace FW de Klerk Foundation as well as the Global Leadership Foundation, which offers discrete advice to world leaders.

Q: In the wake of the Nkandla scandal, are you still positive about South Africa and its future?
A: I am still positive about South Africa and its future. I think we’re facing a few rough years, but the recent judgment by the Constitutional Court has firmly reinstated South Africa’s position as a constitutional state and it found President Zuma and Parliament guilty of transgression of the constitution. This gives me a lot of hope. I expect a realignment in South African politics. The ANC alliance has started to break up, and we need it to happen. We need to move away from racially based politics towards policy driven politics, from old divisions to new formations. And I think that’s going to happen in the next 4 or 5 years in South Africa.

Q: Do you think that Jacob Zuma will ever step down? Do you think it is more likely that he is recalled instead, or that the end to his Presidency will come when the ANC loses a parliamentary majority?
A: I don’t foresee that the ANC will lose its parliamentary majority in the next general election, but I also don’t see President Zuma completing his term of office as President of South Africa until 2019. My expectation is that the ANC and he will reach some sort of agreement, and he will step down by 2017 at the latest, when they have their next big national conference.

A Selfie of Me with Mr de Klerk
A Selfie of Me with President de Klerk

Q: What made you switch stances from supporting segregation of universities to being anti-apartheid?
A: Not only me, but the broad leadership of the National Party, went through a period of deep introspection. Originally, we thought that creating ten to eleven nation-states and binding them together in something like the European Union could be the solution to giving full political rights to all South Africans. For various reasons, this failed. From the late 70s and early 80s, the conviction grew within the National Party leadership that we had reached a point where the policies implemented and applied were morally indefensible. There was then a split in the National Party, and the right wing that wanted to cling to Apartheid or separate development broke away and formed what they called the Conservative party. This liberated those of us who remained behind to concentrate on the need for fundamental reform. So if you ask me what made us abandon the concept of separateness and embrace the concept of inclusivity, of one united South Africa, it was conscience driven. It wasn’t the sanctions, it wasn’t the pressure from outside, though those things played a role, but it was conscience driven. We realised that our policies were morally indefensible, that Apartheid was wrong, and that we had to make a 180 degree turn. It was my privilege, when I became the leader of the National Party and President, to lead this process.

Q: Do you think that the significant part you played in ending Apartheid is understated in popular media and more generally in the public?
A: I didn’t do what I did to get recognition. It had to be done. Firstly, we had to do what was right. Secondly, we did it to avert catastrophe in South Africa. So I have no problem with the recognition that I and my team are getting. I am getting a lot of recognition, and at times, I find it actually embarrassing.

Q: What was it like winning the Nobel Peace Prize?
A: It was a wonderful recognition. When I accepted it, I made it clear that I was accepting it on behalf of all the people who supported me, in the role that I played. On behalf of the 70% of the white electorate who voted yes in the referendum which I called in March 1992. On behalf of the people who were far sighted enough to say that we have to undertake fundamental change and to bring justice to all South Africans. Also, the recognition that I got alongside Nelson Mandela was a great stimulus and inspiration to complete the process. So it was a great moment, not so much for me, as for South Africa.

Q: Do you think the Afrikaans culture is under threat? Do you think more should be done to try to protect it?
A: I think that Afrikaans culture as such is not under threat: it is alive and well. But I think the Afrikaans language, as one of the 11 official languages, and as one of two world standard languages, is under threat. The present regime in South Africa is putting pressure on Afrikaans at school level, as well as at university and tertiary level. It is driving the language issue towards a point where English is to become the official language of the country, for all official work and for tuition. That is unconstitutional: the constitution allows mother tongue education where it is practicable, and as long as it is not misused for racial discrimination. I’m deeply concerned about the pressures which I have observed on Afrikaans as an academic language. But as a spoken language, it is not under threat. There are wonderful Afrikaans cultural festive occasions arranged around the country. Afrikaans music is doing well. But the Afrikaans language is being targeted by the ANC, as things stand at the moment.

Q: How much of an impact has the Global Leadership Foundation had globally? How might it change in the future to adapt to changing political landscapes?
A: The Global Leadership Foundation works under the radar. Its focus is to give discrete confidential advice. It is very difficult to measure to what extent we can claim credit. We are not in the game of claiming credit. For us, success is to convince a leader of a country to accept the good advice that we give, and at the end of it, to implement that good advice, because he or she believes that it is the right thing to do, not because the Global Leadership Foundation said it was the right thing to do. So we’re not in the game of calculating what influence we had where. But in broad terms, yes, we are making a difference in most of the countries with which we have engaged, or are negotiating at the moment. I am convinced that this approach of giving discrete and quiet advice, not charging fees for it, is having a good effect, and that there is room to expand our activities.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: I think people in their late teens should read widely. They should read for fun, but they should also read to broaden their perspective and insight. My advice is to try to find a balance between recreational reading and educational reading. But more importantly, please read. With the electronic age, and with TV, and with iPads and so on, everything is being reduced to just little short slogans and quotes and so on. I think that leads to a lack of depth. Please also read your newspapers, because there you get in-depth analysis of current problems and current issues.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Well, there are too many to deal with in a short interview like this, so let me highlight two. Firstly, when a problem occurs, whether it’s in your personal life, whether it’s in your professional life, whether it’s in your studies, or whatever, don’t go and sit in a corner. Approach a problem immediately with the view: what must I do to overcome the obstacles I find in my way? Be solution orientated in approaching any problem which comes across your path. The second big lesson I’ve learned is that there’s a great danger in all ‘isms’. Whether its nationalism, communism, socialism, all ‘isms’ have a tendency to avoid any fact which conflicts with its theory. There is no absolute truth, though all the ‘isms’ have elements of the truth. Approach issues not from a narrow viewpoint of being totally committed to a specific philosophy, recognise the need to be pragmatic and the need to marry concepts which might seemingly conflict with each other. Another way to summarise this lesson is: look for consensus in order to find workable solutions. In debates, in negotiations, work for that consensus and work for building a common approach between conflicting views.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: The life lesson I just referred to: namely, look for a solution when a problem comes up, don’t get depressed. Secondly, approach the matter from the viewpoint of its principle: when you have a problem, don’t get tangled up in the details. First, analyse the problem and say: what are the basics which need to be addressed here? Once you have clarity about that, then work towards the details.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Not really. I’ve had a wonderful life, actually. I’ve been very blessed in having good parents, in having a good family life, in having a good education, in having a good professional career. But the things that maybe I would’ve liked to do which I didn’t do, are maybe on the naughty side, and I won’t expand on them.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: That is very difficult. One meets many interesting people in the different aspects of one’s life. The most interesting person in my personal life is my wife. I am very happily married. Amongst the politicians I have met, its sounds very contradictory, but I found Maggie Thatcher very interesting, and I also found Mitterrand very interesting: the one was a free market person, the other was a socialist. But I would say Nelson Mandela was the most interesting person in the field of public life and politics that I’ve ever met.