Can people change? Can leaders radically change their countries’ policies? We all recognize the audacity of Richard Nixon in his opening to China, but rarely do we examine what caused the change to take place. We admire the signing of the recent nuclear treaty between the United States and Iran, but we cannot fully comprehend the complex reasons behind the shift – the easing of economic sanctions is a simplistic, unicausal explanation.
For example, tributes to Nelson Mandela at his death re-affirmed a universal recognition of his extraordinary personal qualities and leadership in freeing South Africa from the curse of apartheid.
Narratives recounted how Mandela symbolized both a personal journey from 27 years in prison to his country’s presidency as well as how he became the non-violent leader of basic dignity for all, something internationally recognized and admired. No figure in modern history had been able to win the hearts and minds of so many people. His story, entwined with the liberation of South African blacks, is iconic, much like that of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.
Yet, in retracing the story of Mandela and modern South Africa, little mention was made of the role of Frederik de Klerk in ending apartheid. For if Mandela’s personal journey and political leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) were crucial in fundamentally changing South Africa, it can be argued that de Klerk’s actions were at least instrumental in the radical transformation. In a memorable speech at the opening of Parliament on February 2, 1990, the hitherto conservative President de Klerk surprisingly repudiated apartheid, unbanned the ANC and thirty-one other organizations and announced the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela with the beginning of negotiations.
What makes the above relevant today is the ambiguity surrounding the death of Ariel Sharon. In the beginning of his career, he was a much decorated military commander and Israeli war hero with the infamous Unit 101, known for his ruthless tactics towards the “enemies of Israel” and encouraging settlements in occupied territories. And yet, as prime minister, he administered the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a small portion of the West Bank. Initially someone who disdained negotiations with the Palestinians, Sharon abandoned the hawkish Likud Party and developed a working relation with the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Accordingly, those on the left condemn him as an unrepentant war criminal and those on the right as a traitor to the cause of Greater Israel.
In a 2004 interview, de Klerk said: “[w]e reached the stage where we had to admit to ourselves that we had failed to bring justice to the majority of all South Africans…and that we had reached the point of no return. It was failure. We could either cling to power…with our military might, protecting an unjust society – or we could make a quantum leap and say we were wrong and make an apology…and take an initiative to really change things and to really bring about a just society…”
Whether one accepts de Klerk’s lofty words about justice or one argues that he pragmatically accepted an inevitable reality, one has to recognize that de Klerk radically changed his position and his country’s policy. Although uncharismatic, he has been called a “transformational leader”. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 “for the termination of the apartheid regime”. Sharon’s shift, genuine or not, failed to significantly alter the policies of his country and one would never have considered him for a Nobel Peace Prize like Shimon Peres or Yitzak Rabin; his change was not transformational.
In Profiles in Courage, John Kennedy’s traced the historic biographies of eight United States Senators who courageously defied what they were expected to do. Each of the eight took a quantum leap, often to their political demise. The lesson of de Klerk shows that leaders can change. The ambiguity surrounding Sharon’s legacy testifies to his difficulties in making a true quantum leap.