Managing change – FW de Klerk

According to Charles Darwin, the success of a species is not determined by its relative strength or intelligence, but by its ability to adapt to change. The same applies to countries, businesses and individuals, says former president FW de Klerk.

Our ability to manage change is the secret not just to our survival, but our phenomenal success as a species. Only those who are acutely aware of their environment, who can imagine something new and better, and who can transform themselves and their environment to meet new challenges will survive.

However, change isn’t what it used to be. During the past century there has been an exponential acceleration in the pace of change. For example, it is said that the sum total of published information now doubles every five years, while the size of the Internet doubles every two. Change is also unpredictable. Some of the main developments that have fundamentally transformed the world were entirely unforeseen in the 1980s.

Think of the Internet – it existed, but wasn’t available to everyone. Think of AIDS, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The change we’re experiencing is also fundamental, affecting virtually every aspect of our lives. It’s transforming the way we teach, the way we learn, and the way we do business. Everywhere, the forces of change are in full flood, obliterating the familiar and comfortable landscapes in which we grew up. Like flood victims, we’re left clinging to the few certainties that have not yet been swept away.

Accepting the need
Some 24 years ago, when I became president, South Africa was confronted with the urgent need to change. We were facing international isolation and a growing downward spiral of conflict and repression. During the next five years, we succeeded in changing our environment and in creating new and more positive realities. How did we do it?

The first step was to accept the need for change. Resistance to change is deeply ingrained in us. We fear the unknown and dread the prospect of moving into uncharted waters. In South Africa, the whites and other minorities had well-founded reasons to fear change. For example, we were deeply concerned about the failure of other newly independent African countries to build stable, democratic and prosperous societies.

Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 1980s, it was becoming increasingly clear that we were on the wrong course.
However, the main reason for our acceptance of change wasn’t the pressure we were experiencing from the international community or rising discontent in South Africa. For me, the key point was simply the realisation that the policies we’d adopted, and which I’d supported as a young man, had led to a situation of manifest injustice. It was this, in the final instance, that persuaded us to accept the risks of radical change.

Having accepted the need to change, the next challenge was to avoid the temptation of only pretending to change. Very often, countries, companies and individuals who know they must change, simply think of brilliant new ways of doing the wrong thing better. Smokers will tell themselves that if they cut down the number of cigarettes they smoke, they will be addressing their problem. The same thing happens on an international or national scale.

For example, when he launched his perestroika reforms, my old friend President Mikhail Gorbachev continued to insist that there was basically nothing wrong with Communism. It just had to be reformed and implemented in a more open and democratic manner.

In the same way, countries and companies will, for sentimental reasons, cling to industries that are no longer relevant instead of breaking through into entirely new cutting-edge technologies. For years, we white South Africans also fooled ourselves that we could ‘reform’ apartheid and thereby avoid the traumatic decisions and risks that real change always involves. It was only when we accepted that we would have to take extremely uncomfortable decisions and risks that real change could begin.

Need for vision
Once you have accepted must articulate a clear and achievable vision of where you want to go. On 2 February 1990, I presented a new vision to the SA parliament – of a peaceful and democratic solution to our problems. I set goals that included a new and fully democratic constitution, the removal of any form of discrimination, equality before an independent judiciary, the protection of minorities as well as of individual rights, freedom of religion and universal franchise.

By 1994, to the astonishment of the world, we had turned our vision into reality. A vision gives direction and purpose to our actions and provides a way of measuring our progress. Without a vision, we have no idea of where we’re going or of how far we’ve come. In addition, leaders must be able to encourage their own supporters and reassure them that they are on the right path. Most people can deal with change and are even prepared to make essential sacrifices, but they cannot deal with uncertainty.

Time and tide
Timing is crucial in the management of change. It’s stupid for leaders to be vociferously right at the wrong time, or to move so far ahead in the right direction that their followers can no longer hear or see them. History, markets and events move at their own pace, sometimes agonisingly slowly, at other times with frightening speed.

Leaders must watch the tides and currents and must position themselves accordingly. I was often criticised before I became president for not racing out ahead of the pack in the pursuit of reform. Had I done so, I would have alienated key players and important constituencies. I would not have become leader of my party in 1989 and I would not have been able to do the things that I did when I was president.

Strong leadership, then, is essential when it comes to managing change. History recognises only those who have the ability to translate their vision of what is right into reality. A leader must have a weather eye open for changes in political and economic tides and currents. After I became president my hand was greatly strengthened by events in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The collapse of international Communism helped to allay fears of Soviet expansionism and of the influence of the SA Communist Party within the ANC alliance. By February 1990 we were ready to launch our transformation process.

Calculated risks
If they want to manage change, leaders must be prepared to take calculated risks. There were many points during the transformation process when we had to do this. Among these were our decisions to permit free political activity for all parties; to commit ourselves to a negotiated solution; and to hold a referendum among white South Africans in 1992 to prove that the majority still supported the process of change.

Many of my colleagues believed we would lose the referendum, but I had confidence in our electorate. In the end, 69% of whites voted to continue with our reform programme. We also realised that these decisions would unleash a chain of events with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.

It was rather like paddling a canoe into dangerous rapids. You might start the process and determine the initial direction – but, after that, the canoe is seized by enormous and often uncontrollable forces. All you can do is to maintain your balance, avoid the rocks, steer as best you can, and right the canoe if it capsizes. It’s a time for cool heads and firm, decisive action.

Never ends
Finally, one must accept that the process of change never ends. There is no point at which you can say that you have ‘solved’ any problem in a rapidly changing environment. As soon as you’ve achieved your objectives, you must begin to address the next challenges that change will inevitably throw down. This is very much the case in South Africa now. We’ve achieved most of the primary objectives that we set ourselves in 1990.

We have one of the most democratic constitutions in the world. We’ve rejoined the global community. We’ve adopted economic policies and approaches that are, by and large, sensible and effective. We’ve done all this with surprisingly little violence and with a great deal of goodwill. Nevertheless, we dare not rest on our laurels. Our main challenges now will be to ensure that:

  • Our Constitution takes root in the hearts of all our people.
  • We improve relationships between our different communities.
  • We continue to implement sensible economic approaches, such as those set out in the government’s National Development Plan.
  • We work together to address the very real problems that confront us, including crime, unemployment, poverty and AIDS.

Permanent flux
Effective change management has worked well for us so far, bringing us from the very negative environment of 1989 to the much more positive environment of 2013. And change management has worked for our species. Once, humanity comprised small bands living a miserable existence as hunter-gatherers. Today, we straddle the world. We’ve created civilisations and technologies beyond the dreams of our ancestors.

As Heraclitus of Ephesus observed 500 years before Christ, change is the central reality of life: “You cannot step into the same river twice,” he said, “for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” He believed that everything was in a state of permanent flux and that reality was nothing more than a succession of transitory states.

He was right. Our species is defined by change and our success as individuals, companies, industries and countries will continue to be determined by our ability to change and manage change, to imagine better worlds and to turn our vision into reality.

Extracted from a speech delivered by former SA president FW de Klerk at the recent International Egg Commission Conference in Cape Town.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.