There is no shortage of former politicians who, long out of office, still imagine they have something important to contribute to the affairs of their nation. A few go further than this and protest that they continue to be relevant to the great stream of international events. Most of the time this reluctance on the part of a former head of state to hang the skates up for good is rewarded on the speaking circuit with rapidly diminishing audiences and an increasing whiff of desperation and nostalgia.
Not so for the former President of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk. On the one hand, De Klerk’s visit to speak at the Kennedy School this past week revealed a man who continues to grapple with the demons of his involvement in South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime. But De Klerk also thinks he has something to teach the world, and the remarkable thing is we may in fact want to pay very close attention to what he is saying.
Until barely a decade ago, South Africa existed in the global consciousness as a deeply resonant symbol of racial injustice and the evils men are moved to commit against people whom they do not consider their own. De Klerk served in and supported the white apartheid government until becoming President and initiating the transformation to democracy for which, together with Nelson Mandela, he received the Nobel Peace prize in 1993.
De Klerk, as one of the lead architects of the re-distribution of political power in South Africa, came bearing a cautionary message for the Harvard community: that sharing political power and recognizing the collective rights of minority groups is the foremost challenge to peace and stability in the post-cold war era.
Look around the world, De Klerk suggests, and you will see states whose internal stability is threatened by the increasing dissatisfaction of a repressed racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic minority. From Rwanda to Sri Lanka, India to Indonesia, Northern Ireland to Spain, the world’s peoples are increasingly warring in the bosoms of individual states.
De Klerk believes that nations that prove successful in managing these tensions between groups will be those which choose to extend strong collective rights to domestic minorities. “The prospect of permanent exclusion from political power is the root of most of the conflict in the world today,” says De Klerk. Rather than deal with these conflicts in an ad hoc, crisis management fashion once they have erupted, De Klerk is urging the international community to push for greater recognition of collective rights such as the right to state funded education in minority languages, affirmative action programs and guaranteed political roles and representation for minority communities.
De Klerk’s prescription for greater domestic and global stability is not without controversy. As the debate in the United States over affirmative action has demonstrated, proponents of the sanctity of individual rights are often quick to criticize collective minority rights that they argue put the interest of a group before individual liberty. De Klerk also emphasizes that just because a given minority group is economically advantaged should not disqualify it from consideration from special rights vis-…-vis a majority that may be poorer.
The former President’s words are set somewhat ironically against a backdrop of De Klerk’s own people, the Afrikaner nation’s, struggle for self determination. The initial euphoria surrounding the minting of South Africa’s “rainbow nation” has lost its shine. Post-apartheid South Africa is creaking under the strain of racial tension involving, among other groups, an Afrikaner minority constituency that believes they are being increasingly marginalized. Although De Klerk’s words may address broad global concerns, his tone and his closing revealed a plea for his own people’s right to self determination. “If you put a portion of a community in a dark corner, as the accused, as we are now, then you sew the seeds of new conflicts. We can’t forget the past, but we must be able to close the book on the past.”
De Klerk is a man of lively contrasts. His charming and friendly demeanor cloaks a leader of great vision, powerful charisma and a keen instinct for political survival. His words warn of a future of continuing worldwide conflict – unless we learn from the mistakes of our, and indeed his, past. “We have entered the global village, and so many people of different cultures standing shoulder to shoulder will pose great challenges,” says De Klerk. “Let us tackle the problem of world peace by going to the root cause of the lack of peace in this world – the tyranny of the majority, the alienation of certain minorities and the suppression of specific cultures and specific groups.”