A Director's Forum with F.W. de Klerk

Feb 24, 2009

On February 13, 2009, the Director of the Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, hosted a Director's Forum with the former state president of South Africa and 1993 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, His Excellency F.W. de Klerk. The former president focused his remarks on the key challenges lying ahead for South Africa and the African continent as a whole.

In his opening remarks, De Klerk commented on the benefits of globalization experienced in many regions of the world, but pointed out the growing discrepancy between successful and emerging economies, and those caught up in dire social, economic or political circumstances that face stymied growth. The former president discussed the Global Leadership Foundation, an organization he founded in 2000 that is dedicated to providing confidential advice on leadership and governance issues to developing countries across the world, including several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

De Klerk suggested that one of the biggest problems facing Africa right now is one of negative perceptions. Afro-pessimism is a strong current in the mainstream media and in the general consciousness of most international observers; however it does nothing to help to further development. Indeed, according to De Klerk, many African countries are actually doing much better than the general perception would indicate. There are still instances of gross violations of human rights and of a democracy deficit, yet there are now more democracies in Africa–and fewer dictatorships–than there were ten years ago.

Reaping the Benefits of Globalization

Despite these advances, there are areas where improvement is much needed. One critical area is in agricultural competitiveness. Compared to the wealthier countries of the world, African nations have very little access to the large markets necessary to expand the agricultural sector. De Klerk cited the example of subsidies as a barrier to market access, stating that several countries in the northern hemisphere–including the United States–give five times more money in subsidies to domestic farmers and to agricultural ventures than in aid to Africa. It is in part these subsidies that impede full and fair access to international agricultural markets. If African countries are to benefit from the effects of globalization, De Klerk argued, they will need the full support of–and fair partnerships with–the developed world.

President De Klerk spoke positively of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD, a pan-African plan spearheaded in part by the former South African President Thabo Mbeki for accelerating economic cooperation and development.) Regarding development, governance, economic growth and gender parity issues, NEPAD holds African leaders responsible and emphasizes African initiatives. However, he added, "leading countries of the world need to help develop this concept into something dynamic to achieve results."

De Klerk also touched more specifically on domestic South African issues, where he believes the situation is going reasonably well. He agreed with Finance Minister Trevor Manuel that, while the country would definitely be affected by the current global financial crisis, positive growth of 1.2 percent has been projected for 2009. Politically speaking, South Africa faces some turbulence. The ruling party is divided; the April 22 elections may not yield the same ruling majority that the ANC has enjoyed for more than decade and further political splits are possible after the election. Internal upheaval, according to De Klerk, does not have to be detrimental to the democratic process. On the contrary, it can be good for the system, introducing a heightened competitiveness and a certain dynamism.

De Klerk addressed constitutional rights as well, saying that all provisions–even those that are seemingly conflicting–must be interpreted in balance with each other. When it was negotiated in a national constitutional forum prior to the 1994 elections, the provisions were all given equal weight and were intended to have balance with each other. There is a tendency now to elevate certain rights ensconced in the constitution to primary rights, and to relegate others to secondary rights, he explained. Positive discrimination, for example, such as Black Economic Empowerment or Affirmative Action, must be implemented in a way such that constitutional provisions for non-discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, race or religion are sufficiently upheld.

Obstacles to Overcome

During the substantial question and answer period, De Klerk spoke about international policy towards Africa, expounding on key governance problems and policy recommendations he would give to the international community. He pointed out that there is currently no cohesive international policy towards Africa. While China has developed a consistent Africa policy and is engaging Africa in an unprecedented way, the G-7 or G-8 countries have not organized a consistent policy with respect to Africa. This could create an unbalanced situation, which would be unfavorable to European and North American countries currently politically and economically engaged on the continent.

According to De Klerk, poverty is the biggest obstacle to development in Africa. In order to overcome this problem, which is exemplified by widespread illiteracy and a lack of skilled labor, leaders need to focus their efforts on the youth community, concentrating especially on education. Principals of schools need to be trained and retrained to motivate teachers and to foster better leadership for students. Programs for apprenticeships and professional training need to be emphasized and properly implemented. In response to a question on "white flight" from South Africa, De Klerk pointed out that immigration was occurring from all population groups and amongst those skilled categories that are sorely needed for national development. Political uncertainty, lack of opportunity and high crime rates contribute to this situation. He also expressed concern over a vacuum of experience on all levels, stating that there is a shortage of engineers and chartered accountants, while the supply of unskilled or semi-skilled labor abounds. In order to escape the threat of economic downturn, more skilled labor needs to be introduced into the job market.

Regional Cooperation

Regarding the situation in Zimbabwe, and how such a crisis could be averted in the future, De Klerk spoke about "constructive pressure", stressing the importance of project oriented aid with well-designed conditionalities to ensure that funds are properly expended. He also emphasized a great need for solid partnerships with civil society. Concentration ought to be on crisis prevention rather than awaiting the necessity for emergency crisis management measures, he added. Economic and political partnerships within Africa and with international leaders are essential to sustainable economic and political growth on the continent and an integration into global markets that is beneficial to all parties involved.

Citing the example of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which South Africa is a member, De Klerk spoke of the immense potential for well organized regional organizations. In the case of the SADC countries, he evoked the idea of a unified monetary policy, and possibly a new currency for member countries. Helping the two or three most stable countries within a region to become the pivotal point around which a whole region can develop could be exactly the cohesive approach to development that is currently absent.

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