“Leadership is not for sissies”

So, it’s been a great week. Is it because I haven’t been in the classroom much? Rubbing shoulders with philanthropists and politicians? Hard to say.  On Thursday afternoon, I was thoroughly impressed by the humble demeanor  and playfulness of F.W. de Klerk. Moxie gets a little star-struck at times, not by A-list actors or musicians (well maybe a little), but face-to-face with a former head of state? I melted.

My question: “When did your ideology change about blacks and whites in South Africa? When did you come to realize that all should be equal under the law?”

His Answer: “It wasn’t a road to Damascus moment, rather it was a gradual change over time. Ask me that in the Q&A, rush right up there, and I will give you a fuller answer.”


Below is a blurry shot I took while I listened to a rather ignorant undergrad ask the President his thoughts on a federalized Africa. OBVIOUSLY, de Klerk debunked the idea by praising Africa for its love of multi-culturalism. He reminded this young man of how difficult it has been for the relatively homogeneous EU to become federalized, a tremendous continent with varied regions would not benefit from such a system.

While I wasn’t talking to the guest of honor, I snooped around a little and learned that he had flown in that morning on his private plane from Naples, Florida (we have so much in common), and now that he is retired, he spends much of his time on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Must be nice.


Before the speech we had about an hour to kill, and since it feels like spring in Atlanta these days, my professor, another former student, and I basked in the sun and discussed black nationalism. (glorious) Our question: Can you be a black nationalist and believe that race is socially constructed?” In other words, if race is a created concept, how can one promote black unity?

My initial response: I thought all educated people believe that race is a social construct, certainly it is not biological, is there something beyond the obvious binary?

Dr. R: Saying that race is socially constructed says something about power. It means that it is something created by human choice. In the case of race, if white people created an oppressive system, then they created the social construct, which undermines black nationalism…

To introduce his speech, Bridging the Gap: Globalization without Isolation,” he told the audience that after talking to us “students” beforehand, he realized that we wanted to hear about South Africa’s radical transformation over the past 20 years. He was right, and what an incredible formative assessment! He proceeded to discuss the role of leadership in a time of dramatic change. He gave eight qualities leaders need to possess to be successful. I’ve c&ped some of my notes below…

  1. Impartial, dispassionate assessment of reality: relentless self-assessment

South African context: The Nationalist Party could have held on, they could have endured sanctions and international isolation, but they decided  to admit and confront the fear that they had failed to bring justice to South Africa, that their policies had led to manifest injustice, and they had to change course. In history, we know that the prospect of imminent disaster has not always caused leaders to change; this is a hard decision since resistance to change is deeply seeded in all of us. We naturally fear unknown, unchartered territory.

2. Take calculated risks.

It is riskiest to do nothing

3. Avoid temptation of pretending to change

Ex: Gorbachev’s perestroika—didn’t want to admit that there was something deeply wrong with communism, tried to simply alter it to make it better, but that didn’t work

Ex: white South Africa fooled themselves into thinking they could reform softly to avoid dramatic decisions and risks.

They had to abandon separateness and embrace inclusivity. Only then could they initiate real change.

4. Real and achievable vision that gives direction and purpose

You need to be able to measure your progress and convince others to come along with you.

5. Outstanding communication skills

6. Good timing

Even if you are right, if you have the wrong timing, it can be ineffective

You can’t move so far ahead that your followers can’t hear or see you

7. Leaders must persevere until they achieve their objectives

There will be far reaching and unforeseen consequences to decisions, and you will feel like you are steering a canoe in a storm. Many crises will cause or almost cause the canoe to capsize, must learn to endure and react

8. Plan for his/her own departure, leadership is not for sissies!

Accept that change is a never-ending business

Biggest take away: De Klerk’s greatest achievement and legacy is his surrender of control

FW de Klerk at GSU

Peace does not fare well where poverty and deprivation reign.
It does not flourish where there is ignorance and a lack of education and information.
Repression, injustice and exploitation are inimical with peace.
Peace is gravely threatened by inter-group fear and envy and by the unleashing of unrealistic expectations.
Racial, class and religious intolerance and prejudice are its mortal enemies…
The new era which is dawning…will lift us out of the silent grief of our past and into a future in which there will be opportunity and space for joy and beauty – for real and lasting peace. –de Klerk

On Thursday, along with 35 other Georgia State University students, I will get to meet FW de Klerk before he gives a speech to the community at 3PM. de Klerk was the white president of South Africa when apartheid ended, and he was responsible for Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Along with Mandela, de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The title of his talk is Bridging the Gap: Globalization Without Isolation.

What an opportunity! I have to come up with some really good questions to ask him. What do you think, readers?

Old Stuff, New Thoughts.

Youth protest

Today when reading Nelson Mandela’s first speech after his release from prison in 1990 out loud to my class, I was sideswiped by my unexpected tears.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Although powerful words, my deep reaction struck me as odd because I’ve been teaching this same stuff for 5 years now. Maybe time number 6 is when it really sunk in. Or more likely, my flesh and blood experience in South Africa this summer touched me more deeply than I thought. It was comforting to know I’m not too cynical for this story.

I’ve taken two African-American history classes with a white woman who went to prep school and UVA. When I asked her how she found herself with a PhD in African-American history, she said “I’ve always been drawn to the struggle.” I think that’s how I feel about South Africa. The redemptive themes, the non-violent civil disobedience, the peaceful, patient dissent—I wish I had been there. I’m drawn to the struggle, but I’m skeptical still.

Here’s another tidbit I wrote over the summer.

As a (self-proclaimed) historian, I’ve been that person in our group who asks wayyyy to many questions. I’ve loved this opportunity to learn more about this unique nation and how the system of Apartheid continues to oppress and threaten the livelihood of many South Africans decades after it legally ended. I saw this in Capetown as well as in Mamelodi (the township we visited in Pretoria). The most obvious yet also most powerful aspect of this situation is that Apartheid is not exactly history in the traditional sense of the word. I mean, Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994. Clearly, the wounds are fresh, which causes whites to tread lightly in Mamelodi since race relations are still excruciating. Curfews, passbooks, massacres, The Nationalist Party, and District 6 are all recent memories for older generations. For some, like Pastor Vincent, it is still too painful to talk about. However, seeing the ways in which formerly oppressed people are seeking forgiveness and peacemaking here is a clear sign that God is transforming hearts.

Here’s the ultimate question. So what DOES it look like for mostly white Americans coming to Africa? What does help mean? I’ve learned that the white church here is lazy. Racial reconciliation is not even on the radar for the Powerhouse church because it seems so out of the realm of possibility. However, we know we serve a God who delights in proving the doubters wrong. I hope they are wrong.

According to the Africa Revolution folks, help looks like empowerment not paternalism, grassroots change rather than political protest,  partnership not leadership. Authentic relationships,  dignity, prayer. But I have to admit, it makes me uncomfortable. Walking around the township I wish my skin was darker (not a new feeling for me). It still feels like we have the answers. I believe that white skin and western values are not the answer, only Christ is the answer. This truth is more complicated than it sounds, maybe because colonialism and westernization have not completely disappeared, even from our own post-modern hearts. But I am hopeful… because from my limited view, this group does not look like The Poisonwood Bible, or The Berlin Conference, or The Dutch Reformed Church.  It looks like Christ-centered love of neighbors, acknowledging dependence on something greater than themselves, and it looks like God is at work.