National Press Club

De Klerk Praises New South African Leader But Says to "Watch Him"

May 6, 2009 | By Bill Miller

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F.W. de Klerk, former president of South Africa who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace prize for ending apartheid and launching a new multiracial South African democracy, expressed both optimism and concern about the country’s new leadership in a speech at the Club Tuesday.

Appearing at NPC during the week of the 15th anniversary of South Africa’s first free elections, de Klerk said he is “personally optimistic” that Jacob Zuma, elected April 22 as the nation’s fourth president and due to be inaugurated this weekend, “will make the right choices” in governing.

Despite corruption and racketeering charges against Zuma – for which he recently was acquitted – de Klerk praised the incoming South African leader.

“He has no ideological pre-conceptions,” said de Klerk. “He is a good listener. He is charismatic and a man of the people. … He makes no secret of the pride he takes in his Zulu heritage.”

Yet, warned de Klerk, “South Africa and the international community would be well advised to watch [Zuma’s] administration very carefully.”

De Klerk expressed fears that Zuma will be influenced by populist demands of the left wing of his political party, the African National Congress. De Klerk also said he is concerned by efforts of some in the ANC to dilute the independence of the country’s judiciary and to undermine the constitution.

An early test of Zuma’s effectiveness, de Klerk predicted, will be how he deals with a proposed constitutional amendment, approved by the cabinet just before the April 22 election, that would empower the national government to overrule local decisions by municipalities.

De Klerk was making his third appearance at NPC. He reviewed progress by South Africa in the 15 years since he left office.

The recent elections, he said, were “as free and fair as in any other constitutional democracy.” Moreover, he said, South Africa has the largest economy in Africa and until last year had enjoyed 14 years of uninterrupted growth; will host the soccer World Cup next year; is an increasingly popular tourist attraction; and is seeing greater numbers of its black population has join the middle class.

However, he said the country, which has the highest incidence of AIDS in the world, must do more to combat the disease. Poverty, he said, “needs to be brought down dramatically” and the educational system improved.

De Klerk briefly described the work Global Leadership Foundation, of which he is chairman. He said that he consortium of former government leaders, which offers confidential advice to current heads of government in troubled areas, is now working with some eight client governments.

In answer to a final question, De Klerk described how his relationship with Nelson Mandela, with whom he shared the Nobel Peace Prize, “developed into a very personal one” over the years. “He is very frail now,” said de Klerk. “He needs our prayers.”