FW de Klerk tells audience qualities needed to make peace

Former South African president says politicians follow but statesmen lead

Former president of South Africa FW de Klerk meets Patrick Johnston of Queens University Belfast on Thursday. Mr de Klerk addressed an invited audience of business education and political representatives on the role of leadership in a rapidly changing world. Photograph: Paul McErlane

Former president of South Africa FW de Klerk meets Patrick Johnston of Queens University Belfast on Thursday. Mr de Klerk addressed an invited audience of business education and political representatives on the role of leadership in a rapidly changing world. Photograph: Paul McErlane

 

Former South African president FW de Klerk has outlined to a Belfast audience the leadership qualities that are required to see through a successful peace process.

He said at Queen’s University, Belfast on Thursday that the difference between politicians and statesmen is that politicians follow and react to public opinion while statesmen lead public opinion and channel it into new directions.

Mr de Klerk in delivering the second William J Clinton leadership lecture said that elements such as deep introspection, knowing when and when not to take risks, exercising powers of persuasion, and the strength to persevere were key in helping to deliver peace.

He praised former President Bill Clinton for realising at an early stage of the Irish peace process that all significant parties would have to be included, however unacceptable they or their leaders might be.

“President Clinton understood this by opening a line of communication to Gerry Adams - despite the anger of the British,” he said.

“It is also most appropriate that this lecture series should be dedicated to President Clinton because in his approach to Northern Ireland during his presidency he showed exactly the kind of leadership that you wish to promote,” added Mr de Klerk.

“His deep involvement in and commitment to your peace process and his appointment of former senator George Mitchell as his special envoy opened the way to the historic Belfast Agreement in 1998.”

Mr de Klerk recounted how earlier from 1990 to 1994 with Nelson Mandela, whom he described as “the great South African leader of my generation”, he pressed ahead with the South African peace process.

He said the first requirement of leadership was “deep introspection” which in the case of South Africa meant admitting “our failure to bring justice to all South Africans and to confront our fear of radical change”.

Mr de Klerk said that thereafter he and other South African leaders had to develop the ability to persuade people to change direction, to formulate a clear and acceptable vision for the future, to know when to take calculated risks and to persevere.

Focusing on the latter quality he described how releasing Nelson Mandela from prison and initiating the peace talks resulted in “far-reaching and unpredictable consequences” that demanded sticking power.

Said the former South African president, “It was at times like paddling a canoe into a long stretch of dangerous rapids. You may determine the initial direction. However, after that the canoe is seized by enormous and often uncontrollable forces. All that the canoeist can then do is to maintain his balance, avoid the rocks and steer as best he can - and right the canoe if it capsizes. We experienced many such crises.”

President de Klerk said that in the course of South Africa’s transformation some other essential lessons were learned, some of which might resonate with Northern Ireland’s experience.

He said that politicians learned that all sides had to accept that there could be no solution based on armed force; that all significant parties must be involved; that extremists on either side could not be permitted to stop the progress toward peace; and that a successful outcome would require genuine concessions and painful compromises.

Also learned, added Mr de Klerk, was that “we would have to put the bitterness of the past behind us and search for genuine national reconciliation” and that “the peace dividend would more than compensate us for all the risks and all the compromises that we would need to make”.