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Changing the Course of History

Former South African President Frederick Willem de Klerk tells a Walnut Creek audience that leadership is the only way to avoid catastrophe.

The final guest in the 2010-11 Lesher Newsmaker speaker series at the Lesher Center for the Arts in downtown Walnut Creek was monolithic.

“This is a man who went to work one day and changed the course of history,” series host Steve Lesher said, as he introduced Frederick Willem de Klerk, the former President of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

de Klerk, who assumed the office of president in 1982, when P.W. Botha resigned, and continued in that position until President Nelson Mandela was inaugurated in 1994, was instrumental in dismantling apartheid and establishing Africa’s first democratic constitution.

“I was enticed to play golf today,” he admitted to the sold-out crowd. “Your Diablo course, true to its name, cut me down to size.”

Those were the lightest remarks of the evening, as de Klerk barreled into an weighty, impassioned evaluation of Africa’s history and the future of countries across the globe.

“Twenty-five years ago, we South Africans were confronted with making a critical decision,” he said. “We were becoming isolated in a downward spiral of conflict.”

Economic growth was stunted by apartheid and the country’s ethical quagmire. Still, sanctions from other countries were not motivating his government to change, de Klerk told the audience. The decision to end apartheid was that it became clear that it was a  “a morally unjustifiable practice.”

Even though many in his government feared the profound social consequences from the altered political system, de Klerk said they also realized South Africa would be a wasteland if they did not make significant changes.

“Millions of Black South Africans had moved to the city and had become indispensable to the economy,” he said. “South Africans had gone abroad to study and adopted new ideas about apartheid.”

Pivotal to the change was an agreement between South Africa, Cuba and Angola in 1998, and a United Nations plan that he said assured countries that negotiation was the instrument to use in order to lesson the threat of communism.

“When a window of opportunity opens, it is wise to see it and jump through it,” he said, using the moment to turn the lecture to the United States and current affairs.

“How can leaders like President Obama know how to make right decisions?” de Klerk asked.

Expressing compassion for the difficulties of leadership, de Klerk joked, “The Greek Oracles gave vague answers [to questions] so that they’d always be correct.”

Stating that change is “accelerating, fundamental and unfortunately, unpredictable,” de Klerk believes four factors may hold the key to setting the course for the future:

1. Climate Change: “The present rate and nature of human development [in terms of population] is unsustainable.”

2. Demographics: “The movement of people means accommodation and management of diversity will be a primary challenge.”

3. Technology: “Virtually anything is possible. This is frightening.”

4. Competition between governmental systems: “Free societies have been victorious over oppressive regimes. The U.S. can’t keep pumping out benefits without creating wealth to support them.” (This comment received extended applause from the Walnut Creek audience.)

de Klerk ended his talk with warnings about the emerging economic power of Asian countries, calling them the “New Asian Giants." He suggested sacrifice would be necessary to survive the challenges ahead.

“We need leadership to avoid catastrophe,” he finished, to a partial standing ovation.

Questions from the audience conclude every Newsmaker lecture. Here were some for de Klerk:

Do popular cultural events, such as the film Invictus, lead to healing?

“Yes, events like the soccer world cup have a tremendous affect of bringing people together. We will achieve social change not by decree, but by developing each citizen.”

What do you think will happen to South African politics when Mandela dies?

“We hope it won’t happen soon, but I think it will bring people together—a uniting, bridge-building effect.”

What are the elements of a consensus-based government?  

“An open ear to minorities.”

Do you have a personal relationship with President Obama?

de Klerk said he has not met him yet, then spoke of his good relationships  with former U.S. presidents and secretaries of state.

Will you speak about the racial separation an audience member observed during a recent visit to South Africa?

"All apartheid has been repealed, but part of the segregation is still the result of old apartheid history. Unacceptable living conditions do take place.”

What has surprised you following the transition [in your country]?

“The 27th of April, 1994—what happened that day. There were people, white and black, standing in the same queue. It was really a wonder. On that day, peace descended on South Africa. And the African National Congress accepting free economic policies. The ANC made a 180 degree turn.”

What is the future of South Africa?

“South Africa has a peace today that is somewhat like a teenager: it is in for rough seas and high waves. South Africa is destined to play a pivotal role and be a valuable partner in the globalization process. Education is the biggest failure of the ANC and provides the biggest challenge. If we win that war, we can win the war against poverty.”

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