By STEVEN NALLEY
In the 1980s, racism wasn’t the only thing keeping apartheid alive in South Africa.
Shortly after F.W. de Klerk became South Africa’s president in 1989, he reinstated the formerly banned African National Congress and freed Nelson Mandela from prison, two key steps toward apartheid’s end. De Klerk said consciences in the country’s ruling National Party were changing throughout the ’80s, but white leaders were still concerned not only about preserving the security of their own Afrikaan nation-state, but also ANC ties to communism which could enable the Soviet Union to take over South Africa, among other issues.
“By the time I became president ... the National Party was already committed to fundamental transformation,” de Klerk said. “However, the collapse of Soviet communism enabled us to accelerate the process. When history opens a window of opportunity, it is wise to see it and to jump through it.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner de Klerk discussed such windows of opportunity in an address to students and other guests at Mississippi State University’s Lee Hall Wednesday night as part of MSU’s Global Lecture Series.
De Klerk said history is full of moments where a single decision can change its course.
“Think back with me,” de Klerk said. “How would Europe have developed during the 19th century had Napoleon not decided to invade Russia? What would have happened if the victorious Allies had not imposed such a crippling peace treaty on the Germans at Versailles after the first World War? The challenge ... today is to identify the pivotal issues that confront us today and ensure that we now take the right decisions to build a peaceful and sustainable future.”
De Clerk said predicting the future was difficult even in the predictable era of the Oracle of Delphi, who could couch prophecies in vague enough terms to map onto any turn of events. Today, he said, fundamental societal changes are accelerating fast enough to make predicting the future virtually impossible.
“Therefore, I’m not going to be a prophet tonight,” de Klerk said. “Ironically, the best pointers to the future for leaders who have to make pivotal decisions might lie in the broader factors that have driven the history of mankind in the past.”
De Klerk identified four of these factors, starting with climate change. Humans became Earth’s dominant species by surviving the ice ages, he said, and their continued survival will depend on their response to global warming and dwindling resources.
“The present rate and nature of human development is unsustainable,” de Klerk said. “There are simply too many of us and too few resources to go around. Whatever else happens, future human development will take place within a framework that will be dictated by our deteriorating environment. “
The second factor de Klerk identified was demographics. From human migrations to Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago to Europeans’ migrations across the world in the 16th century, he said migrations have continually changed several areas’ demographic makeup, and the process has not stopped. For instance, he said the traditionally unilingual America will face challenges when Spanish speakers become the majority in the Southwest.
“Already, nearly all the conflicts in the world are no longer between countries,” de Klerk said. “They are between ethnic, cultural and religious communities within the same country. Perhaps the greatest single threat to our security comes from the unresolved clash between liberal Western materialism and fundamental Islam. The correct management of religious and cultural diversity will be one of the key challenges during the coming decades.”
De Klerk’s third factor was technology, which he said defines every age from the Neolithic Age to the current Information Age. Every new technology has fundamental implications for the future, he said, such as new medical technologies increasing life expectancy.
“This geometric expansion of human knowledge and technology leaves us increasingly with one disturbing conclusion: Virtually anything is possible,” de Klerk said.
A final factor de Klerk discussed was competition between systems of organizing human society, which he said has created several of history’s major conflicts. Two recent examples, he said, were World War II and the Cold War.
“In both conflicts, the free societies emerged victorious,” de Klerk said. “By the ’90s, the victory of the American model was so complete that Francis Fukuyama was able to proclaim what he called ‘The End of History.’ After so many centuries of struggle, mankind had finally found the right formula for governments: liberal democracy and free markets. However ... history never ends. A number of Western democracies are experiencing problems with their social democratic model. They are discovering that countries simply cannot keep on pumping out social benefits without producing new wealth to finance them.”
After his speech, de Klerk answered several questions from the audience. Tom Carskadon, a psychology professor at MSU, posed one of those questions.
“I wonder, from your perspective, what you think (are) the wisest decisions the United States could make at this point,” Carskadon said. “Do you have any advice for getting out of the political gridlock that our country is suffering from right now?”
De Klerk drew laughter when he said few South Africans liked having foreigners tell them what to do, and he imagined Americans were the same way.
“So, I’ll be very careful in responding to this question,” de Klerk said. “The fact is, your political system has a proud history. As an outsider, what I find difficult is ... it’s too individualistic. There is sometimes greater consensus between, let’s say, moderate Republicans and slightly right-of-center Democrats, than there is within the Republican party and within the Democratic party. So, stronger party leadership on an ongoing basis ... I think more of that can help to break the gridlock. Don’t vote for the man with the most money; don’t vote for the man with the brightest smile. Vote for principles and for policies and for visions and for goals.
“On the other hand, I admire the vitality of the system in the U.S,” de Klerk added. “Somewhere, a balance has to be struck between what I said in the first part of my reply and maintaining freedom of conscience for individual elected representatives.”
MSU President Mark Keenum said de Klerk was a strong example of the Global Lecture Series’ purpose because students learned from challenges de Klerk faced which affected all of South Africa’s citizens.
“I was mesmerized by his presentation and how he encapsulated global history of mankind and how we have evolved, and also the modern geopolitical issues that we’re facing here as a global society of today,” Keenum said. “He is truly a global leader of our generation and someone who has personified tremendous leadership in helping to transform his nation and abolish a system of oppressive government and apartheid and liberate his country. He’s truly a brave leader and a visionary leader, and someone I’m very proud that we were able to host here on our campus and for him to be able to share his life experiences and his vision of leadership with our students, our faculty and our community.”