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The former South African president who ended apartheid said Saturday that statesmen have the power to change the world and positively alter the course of history, but a rule of law must be established before real change can happen.
“It is the notion that the affairs of mankind do not take precedent over the tastes of the day or the wishes of the majority but by clear objective and inherently clear, immutable laws,” said FW de Klerk shortly after accepting the O’Connor Justice Prize administered by the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
“It is grounded on the principle that everyone, however rich or powerful, however grieved or grievous, however popular or unpopular, should be equal before and subject to the rule of law administered by independent, impartial and competent courts.”
De Klerk, 82, visited Phoenix to accept the honor for dismantling apartheid and ushering in a new era of civil rights in his country. He was also recognized for the work of his nonprofit, Global Leadership Foundation, in which he continues to play a constructive role in the promotion of peace, democracy and development in countries across the world.
“Each year we recognize extraordinary individuals who have dedicated their lives to advancing the rule of law, justice and human rights. This year we are honored to award the fifth annual O’Connor Justice Prize to FW de Klerk,” said ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester. “President De Klerk is one in a long line of truly worthy recipients including the Honorable Mrs. Anson Chan, President Jimmy Carter, Minister Ana Palacio and Dr. Navanethem Pillay.”
About 200 people attended the award ceremony at the Arizona Biltmore. Some of the attendees included Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor; Arizona Congressman Greg Stanton; Arizona Chief Justice Scott Bales; and several members of the O’Connor family.
The O’Connor Justice Prize was established in 2014 to raise visibility for rule-of-law initiatives; recognize people who have made extraordinary contributions to advancing the rule of law, justice and human rights; and to honor Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy.
O’Connor Justice Prize co-chairs Barbara Barrett, former ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Finland and with her husband the namesake of ASU's honors college, and retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth McGregor presented the award.
“Simply put, in my lifetime in all the world no one has done more to advance human rights than President De Klerk,” Barrett said. “His heroic decision to end apartheid and reach a peaceful transition to a full democracy in South Africa may have upset some of his countrymen, but it also inspired democracy and human rights as a movement across the African continent and around the globe. Decades after his presidency, his global leadership foundation continues to advance freedoms in scores of other countries.”
De Klerk briefly recounted for attendees the years-long process to establish a new government system in South Africa after he took office in 1989. He said the apartheid system was riddled with corruption, violence, segregation and economic discrimination.
Shortly after assuming office, he astounded his countrymen by announcing his intention to establish equal rights for all South African citizens and release Nelson Mandela from his 27-year imprisonment.
He said the U.S. Constitution provided the blueprint for his nation's new constitution, which was adopted in October 1996.
“The process by which the United States drafted and adopted the Constitution in 1787 is one that we South Africans followed some 200 years later,” De Klerk said. “You were most fortunate to have some of the greatest minds of the 18th century involved in the drafting of your Constitution. Men of the stature of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.”
De Klerk said the U.S. Constitution arose from deliberations steeped in the intellectual provisions of the essays in the Federalist Papers. He said the United States' founding fathers wrestled with the time-old challenges of limiting the power of the executive and of the majority, finding the best balance between the rights of states on one hand and the federal government on the other.
“In our case, we had to build bridges across the great divide in our society that had been clouded by centuries of colonialism and apartheid,” De Klerk said. “We had to find a balance between the fears of minorities that had much to lose and the formerly disenfranchised majority that had much to gain.”
He said negotiations for a new constitution, which lasted for several years, were marred by “faceless violence executed by extremists on all sides” who were opposed to a constitutional settlement.
Against all odds, De Klerk succeeded in dismantling the country’s long-standing apartheid system and initiated and presided over the inclusive negotiations that led to the adoption of South Africa’s first fully democratic constitution.
“We succeeded despite all the crises, the walkouts, the violence. We all had to make painful concessions and compromises. Our achievement, I believe, was regarded by the whole world as one of the crowning glories of the latter part of the 20th century,” De Klerk said. “It was seen everywhere as an example to all of the violent societies of what could be achieved by rational debate, compromise, constructive dialogue and goodwill. I believed that whatever party we belonged to, it was our finest hour.”
De Klerk’s thoughts concluded with a summation of the United States and the esteem in which it is held by the world.
“Let me end by saying America needn’t be made great again … America is great. What we in the outside world, the free world, want to see in America, is that it does not look too inward, that on the basis of the values which made it great, that it continues to provide greatness through the leadership of the free world.
“We want America to remain great.”
Top photo: Former South African President FW de Klerk accepts the 2019 O’Connor Justice Prize on Saturday at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. The1993 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize addressed more than 200 attendees, speaking about repealing apartheid laws. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now