Some commentators believe that history is driven by great socio-economic forces - and that the role of individuals is marginal. Others argue that it is great individuals - the Alexander the Greats, the Julius Caesars and the Napoleons - who - for better or for worse - determine the course of history. Perhaps it is a combination of both factors: all ages are subject to the ebb and flow of socio-economic tides - but destiny is often determined by exceptional individuals who know how to navigate those tides and who sometimes catch the breaking wave of history.
At critical times great individuals have come to the fore: “cometh the hour, cometh the man.”
What would the outcome have been had Abe Lincoln not become President of the United States in 1860? Would slavery have been abolished when it was? Would the South have seceded - would the Civil War still have taken place? What would have happened if Lord Halifax had replaced Neville Chamberlain in 1940 - instead of Winston Churchill? It was a very close call. He would probably have made peace with Hitler - and the whole subsequent history of the world would have changed. Consider the role played by Deng Xiaoping: after surviving the Cultural Revolution, he introduced the reforms that led to the greatest enrichment of the largest number of people in the shortest period in history - or Lee Kuan Yew who almost single-handedly fashioned Singapore into one of the most successful states in the world?
These leaders are statesmen - as opposed to politicians. Politicians are led by opinion polls and by the changing and often fickle appetites of the electorate. Statesmen, on the other hand, take their lead from their understanding of history and the contending forces of their times and lead society through dangerous periods to better outcomes. They often demand from their followers the sacrifices that are almost always required during periods of historic change.
FW de Klerk is such a leader.
Would any other National Party leader of the time have been able to pilot South Africa successfully through the wild waters of transformation? I don’t think so. PW Botha would certainly not have been able to do so: he would have exploded at the first crisis and would have stalled the process interminably on the other shore of the Rubicon. At heart he was a reformer - who introduced significant and essential changes during the 1980s: but he was not a transformer.
Other leaders would have been more cautious and would under growing pressure have grudgingly made concession after concession as the balance of forces shifted inexorably against them. Like Ian Smith - they would have missed their historic opportunity to reach a settlement when the balance of forces were most favourable.
FW de Klerk’s greatest contribution was his realisation that following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the time would never again be so propitious for successful constitutional negotiations. Accordingly, on 2 February 1990, at a single stroke he removed every obstacle that the ANC could possibly cite as a reason for not proceeding with negotiations. To the alarm of some of his security advisers he unbanned all the previously proscribed revolutionary organisations - including the SACP, the PAC and the ANC. He announced the imminent release of all the remaining imprisoned leaders - including, most notably, Nelson Mandela.
His second great achievement was to maintain the support of his core constituency throughout the stormy and uncertain process of negotiations. When the Conservative Party claimed at the beginning of 1992 that he had lost his mandate to continue with negotiations, FW de Klerk called a referendum of white voters. His advisers had feared that he would lose the referendum - but almost 70% gave him resounding support to continue on his constitutional course. Throughout this period there were no defections from the cabinet or the caucus - despite the critically uncertain times.
Finally, he was able to see through to its logical conclusion the process that he initiated in 1990. Here he differs from his friend Mikhail Gorbachev who set out under perestroika and glasnost to try to reform communism - but who lost control of the process.
In his speech of 2 February 1990 FW de Klerk said that his goals included “a new, democratic constitution, universal franchise, no domination, equality before an independent judiciary; the protection of minorities as well as of individual rights; and freedom of religion.” The Interim Constitution that was adopted in December 1993 made broad provision for all these goals.
The climax of his career, ironically, occurred on 10 May 1994 on the day that he ceased to be President. He felt that he had achieved his goals because he was handing over power - not to Nelson Mandela or the ANC - but to new democratic dispensation in which the Constitution - and not the government of the day - would be supreme.
Most leaders would at such a time, have regarded their life’s work as being complete. FW de Klerk - on the other hand - believed that he had a residual responsibility to uphold the Constitution and the values that it contained. In 1999 he established the FW de Klerk Foundation - which later created the Centre for Constitutional Rights - to guard over the Constitution and to help South Africans claim their constitutional rights.
He has continued to speak out forcefully in defence of the Constitution and the great national accord that he helped to negotiate. Only yesterday, he warned of the dire threat that is being posed to the constitution by President Zuma’s capture of key state institutions for the promotion of his and his faction’s personal and political goals.
He has also helped to share his experience in the resolution of intractable transitional problems through the work of his other foundation, the London-based Global Leadership Foundation.
In all this, he has been tirelessly and lovingly supported by Elita.
As we gather tonight in Cape Town to celebrate his 80th birthday we should do so in the sure knowledge that the lives of every single person in South Africa have been changed - and changed for the better - by the role that FW de Klerk played in transforming South Africa.
Without his contribution, the situation could have been very, very different and very, very much worse.
Despite all of this - despite the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to him and to Nelson Mandela in 1993 - FW de Klerk has remained a modest man. While he was President he had little time for the pomp and ceremony of his office. It was only with difficulty that he was persuaded last year to have one of Cape Town’s boulevards named after him.
If you seek his monument, look around you: despite all the challenges that we face, we have a non-racial constitutional democracy with independent courts, and an excellent Bill of Rights, in which all South Africans can now regard one another as equals. That is his monument.
With all its shortcomings, South Africa is a far, far better place than it was in September, 1989 when FW de Klerk became President.
Now, on his 80th birthday, I know that his vision remains fixed on the realisation of a society based on the foundational values in our constitution - on:
- Human dignity; the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms;
- On non-racialism and non-sexism;
- On the supremacy of the Constitution and the Rule of Law; and on
- A multi-party system of democratic government to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.
In his life and in his career, FW de Klerk, the statesman, has shown that history is, indeed, driven by remarkable individuals.
I would like to propose a toast to FW de Klerk on the occasion of his 80th birthday for the enormous difference that his statesmanship has made to all our lives.
To FW de Klerk!
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation