Former President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 alongside Nelson Mandela, for his role in the dismantling of apartheid. In this inspirational essay he outlines his roadmap for successful leadership and the challenges facing new leaders of developing nations. De Klerk is also chairman of the Global Leadership Foundation, an organisation which works to support democratic leadership, prevent and resolve conflict, through mediation, as well as promote good governance in the form of democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law.
One thing that we have learned since the beginning of the millennium, is globalization means that none of us can ignore developments even in the most remote societies. For example, who would have thought that twenty years ago, Islamic fundamentalists living in the remote mountains of Afghanistan could possibly have any impact on the United States, or on the world’s global business and financial hub in New York City? Who would have dreamt that technological developments on the West Coast of the United States would fundamentally change the way China processes information, or the manner in which peasants in Kenya communicate and carry out financial transactions on their mobile phones?
As a result, none of us can ignore the factors that affect stability and progress anywhere in the world. Globalization is making the world smaller. Everywhere people are on the move, seeking access to the better lives, security and freedom, they see on the internet. The dominant image of our times may well be the hundreds of thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean and scaling the border fences in Ceuta along the Mexican border. All this means that people in the developed world must become more aware of the factors that are making it increasingly difficult for millions of people in developing countries to remain where they are.
Why are some of these societies failing to create a better life for their people, while others are succeeding? One of these factors is the quality of leadership, in the more than 120 countries that have emerged onto the global stage since the end of the Second World War; as well as the disintegration of European colonial empires and the collapse of the Soviet Union. One way to measure the success of these emerging societies is the degree to which they have been able to develop and sustain genuine democratic systems. There is generally a high correlation between economic / political freedom and successful human development.
Nevertheless, independence has delivered mixed results. According to Freedom House, of the 120 countries that have become independent since 1945 only 41 are free; 40 are partly free and 39 are not free at all. Undoubtedly, one of the critical factors that determine the success of emerging states is the quality of their leadership. Leaders of newly independent states face many challenges that their counterparts in well- established democracies do not generally experience.
Firstly, there is the ‘continuing liberation’ syndrome. Many leaders of newly independent states emerged from revolutionary movements that were good at fighting liberation wars but had very little idea of the humdrum challenges of day-to-day governance. In South Africa our governing party, the African National Congress still regards itself as a National Liberation Movement, with an unfulfilled historic mandate, not as an ordinary political party.
Secondly, many leaders of post-independence governments fell into the ideological trap of radical socialism. Emerging leaders, many of them trained in the old Soviet Union, were inspired by the ideals of the classless society and the abolition of private property. Chairman Mao and Che Guevara were their role models and they were surprised when their economies collapsed.
Thirdly, most leaders of newly independent countries have had to contend with divisive ethnic forces. Most such countries were artificial creations of European imperialists who drew borders on the colonial maps, with little or no consideration for the people that they were artificially dividing, or forcing to live together in the same states. Too often, emerging leaders tended to favour people from their own ethnic group and alienate those from other communities.
Finally, there is the ever-present threat of corruption. In states without strong civil society institutions and well-established traditions of probity, there is always the temptation to use power to advance the political and economic interests of the leader, his family and his friends.
The sad reality is that history is more often driven by bad, rather than good, leadership. History is replete with examples of leaders who have consistently taken the wrong decisions. Had Charles I, Louis XVI and Nicholas II been better leaders, the histories of their countries would have been fundamentally different. Just consider the foolishness of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; the folly of the Europeans in precipitating the First World War and, in our own time, the disastrous consequences of the Second Gulf War.
So how could we promote the qualities of a good leadership for the present generation of leaders, especially, but perhaps not exclusively, in developing countries? What have I, at the age of 80, learned from my experience of leadership?
Firstly, I have learned about the corrosive nature of power. Lord Acton was right: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. The problem in South Africa before 1994 was that the White Parliament was supreme. It could, and did, make any law that it pleased. It is also true that, in the absence of deeply ingrained values and strong and independent watchdogs, those who have power will tend to abuse it to promote their personal and political interests. That is why it is so important to limit and monitor the power of governments and political leaders.
Secondly, the worst episodes of human history have been caused by ideologies. Think of the 120 million victims of Nazism, Fascism and Communism during the past century. Ideologists develop theories about how to achieve an ideal society and then try to force reality into the narrow channels of their theories. They are all inspired by millenarian visions: the classless society, manifest destiny or the thousand years Reich. They all conjure up enemies: the liberals, the bourgeoisie or the Jews. They all ignore realities that do not fit in with their theories. They all trample on the interests of ordinary people, in order to achieve their goals. South Africa itself suffered under the ideologies of
apartheid and separate development.
Thirdly, it is much easier to reach agreement on the future than on the past. I strongly supported South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but unfortunately it did not succeed in promoting reconciliation. Its greatest flaw was that it was not representative. There were no commissioners who could speak for the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party – two of the main groups in the conflict. Reconciliation cannot occur if there is no consensus and consensus is not possible if all sides are not properly represented. Our inability in South Africa to reach agreement about the past has been one of the greatest failures of our post-conflict society. The past still intervenes like an unseen barrier, in virtually all our national discourses and provides the fuel for continuing recrimination, guilt and polarisation. As George Orwell observed, “He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.”
Fourthly, the key to harmonious relations in multicultural societies is respect for diversity beneath an over-arching umbrella of common values and loyalties. A United Nations Development Program report, published in 2004, affirmed that cultural liberty was a vital part of human development. If handled well, it could lead to greater cultural diversity and enrich people’s lives. However, if mismanaged, it can quickly become one of the greatest sources of instability within states and between them. The answer was to: “respect diversity and build unity through common bonds of humanity”. The UNDP Report also recommended that states should promote cultural liberty as a human right and as an important aspect of human development. It is only within such a framework that all of us, who live in multicultural societies, can achieve our full potential as human beings.
Lastly, I have learnt the enormous value of political and economic freedom, under a system of caring and humane law. Freedom is crucial to the happiness, success and prosperity of societies everywhere. The top 20% of countries that best promote economic freedom have per capita incomes seven times greater than the bottom 20%. They are also more equal. This should come as no surprise since freedom means empowerment. It empowers the individuals, companies and associations of which society is composed and it encourages the freedom of debate and research that is the foundation of all innovation. By so doing it gives free societies an enormous competitive advantage.
So what advice would I give to developing leaders in the developing world? Vigilantly limit the power of those who are invested with political, bureaucratic and economic authority. Distrust ideologists and all those who base their policies on beliefs rather than on realities and experience. Accommodate and respect cultural, linguistic, religious and political diversity and base one’s outlook on a shared future, rather than on a divided past. Ensure that government promotes maximum freedom within the law for ordinary people to pursue their legitimate personal, economic and political interests because freedom is empowerment.
But how can we in practice convey these messages to leaders struggling with the complex challenges of developing societies? In 2004, in the company of a small group of like-minded former leaders from around the world, I formed the Global Leadership Foundation as a non-profit organisation. Over the past 13 years, we have assembled a panel of 39 former Presidents, Prime Ministers and distinguished leaders from countries all over the world. As former leaders, we understand the excruciating challenges with which new generations of leaders must wrestle. We understand the loneliness of leadership; we have experienced the difficulty of obtaining well-based, disinterested advice and we know that many of our closest allies and advisers had their own agendas and filtered the information that they passed it up to us.
It is for these reasons that we now make our advice available to leaders who are dealing with transitional problems. We do so with the utmost discretion since the last thing that a leader wants is to create the impression that he needs external advice. We put together teams from our members comprising of former leaders who understand the region involved and who themselves have dealt with similar economic, developmental and political challenges. We do not want publicity; we are not paid for our work; we want only to help and we are finding increasingly that this approach resonates with leaders in developing countries.
We have no illusions. The task is never easy but if we can help leaders to avoid catastrophic decisions; if we can share our experiences of success and failure; if we can nudge policy in the right direction with tried and tested experience – I believe that we will indeed have made a contribution to developing leaders in the developing world, with beneficial consequences not only for their own people but also for the rest of the globalized world.