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De Klerk tells our politicians: 'Lead public opinion in building peace, don't react to it'

By Joanne Sweeney

Published 16/10/2015

FW de Klerk gives a speech at Queen’s University last night
FW de Klerk gives a speech at Queen’s University last night

The man who brokered the deal to end South Africa's apartheid era has told Northern Ireland political leaders that they need to lead public opinion in building peace rather than reacting to it.

Former president FW de Klerk was speaking last night as he delivered the second William J Clinton leadership lecture at Queen's University, Belfast.

He promised that the resulting peace dividend would compensate for all the "risks and compromises" that politicians would have to make.

The 76-year-old was the last president to sit during his country's apartheid era and jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with former president Nelson Mandela in 1993.

He challenged our politicians to be statesmen and said: "My experience has taught me that the difference between politicians and statesmen is that politicians follow and react to public opinion: statesmen lead public opinion and channel it into new directions.

"I am convinced that South Africa's experience in changing public opinion and channelling it into new directions are relevant to the challenges which Northern Ireland have to deal with."

He told the audience he believed that among the "essential lessons" South Africa leaders learnt in building peace which would resonate with Northern Ireland was to put "the bitterness of the past" behind and to search for "genuine national reconciliation".

South African leaders had to learn that "we could not allow extremists on either side to stop our progress towards peace" as he insisted that all significant parties had to be included, "however unacceptable they or their leaders may be".

Former US President Bill Clinton, who gave the inaugural leadership lecture last year, had understood this when he opened a line of communication to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams "despite the anger of the British".

While he acknowledged that South Africa was still confronted with serious problems, he likened the struggle to build peace as like "paddling a canoe into a long stretch of dangerous rapids".

He added that when the canoe was seized by "uncontrollable forces", all the canoeist can do is to "maintain his balance, avoid the rocks and steer as best he can - and right the canoe if it capsizes".

In his address at the Queen's Leadership Institue at Riddel Hall, Mr de Klerk said his former opponent and later friend, Nelson Mandela, was "the greatest South African leader of his time" and had been "remorseless and extremely harsh" during negotiations.

Profile

Frederik Willem de Klerk was president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994. During this time he worked with Nelson Mandela to end the country's apartheid system of racial segregation and served as Mandela's deputy when he became president. He established the FW de Klerk Foundation in 2000 and the Global Leadership Foundation in 2004.

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