Grasping at the Whirlwinds of Change: Transitional Leadership in Comparative Perspective. the Case Studies of Mikhail Gorbachev and F.W. De Klerk

By MacKinnon, Elaine | Canadian Journal of History, Spring-Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Grasping at the Whirlwinds of Change: Transitional Leadership in Comparative Perspective. the Case Studies of Mikhail Gorbachev and F.W. De Klerk


MacKinnon, Elaine, Canadian Journal of History


I. Introduction

The second half of the twentieth century bore witness to significant processes of democratization and regime change. Germany, Italy, and Japan emerged from the ashes of World War II to build modern market economies and democratic states. Between 1974 and 1990 over thirty countries made transitions to democracy in what Samuel Huntington has termed a "third wave of democratization." (1) But perhaps two of the most monumental transformations in modern political history took place between 1985 and 1995 in the Soviet Union and South Africa. Both experienced the dismantling of an authoritarian regime and a transition to a more democratic political system. In neither case, however, did this occur as a direct product of revolutionary violence, military defeat, or mass action, though certainly in South Africa the longstanding movement of popular protest had created the conditions and pressures that precipitated regime change. In both countries, personal agency helped determine the timing and course of reform. Individual state actors were critical in instigating the processes of change: Mikhail Gorbachev in the case of the Soviet Union and F.W. de Klerk in South Africa. Then, amid the turbulence of these remarkable transitions, a strikingly similar human drama played itself out as each of these leaders was cast aside by the very changes he had helped set in motion. Neither proved able to ride the whirlwind of change to its final destination.

Gorbachev and de Klerk are historically significant examples of a "transitional leader," one who leads during a time of change, who is particularly well suited to initiate that change, but who is unable to stay in power once the foundations for a new system have been laid. (2) One could argue in the case of Gorbachev, as George Breslauer does, that J.A. Schumpeter's term "transformational leader" best acknowledges his unmistakable contribution in changing the Soviet system, dismantling Marxist-Leninist ideology and one-party rule while introducing into it elements of civil freedom and democracy. According to Breslauer, he initiated what Schumpeter called "creative destruction," dismantling an old system while simultaneously establishing foundations for a new one. While recognizing that Gorbachev failed in his attempt to build a new order based on a mixed economy and a stable federation, Breslauer nonetheless argues that Gorbachev took the steps that made it impossible after a certain point for the old system to resurrect itself. (3) But the term "transformational" leader fails to account for Gorbachev's inability to retain political authority and to complete the process of transformation. It is, therefore, the concept of "transitional leadership" that best captures the striking similarities between Gorbachev and de Klerk.

Both Gorbachev and de Klerk were career politicians skillful at maneuvering and manipulating the levers of power, yet neither were mere careerists. Each had a strong commitment to core values associated with their respective political systems, and it was the preservation of these values that impelled them to seek change. Their experience and acumen, along with loyal service in their political systems, enabled them to push through major reforms from above, and without instigating cataclysmic levels of civil violence. Yet, the very factors that made it possible for them to initiate change also prevented them from being able to embrace fully or work effectively within the new political systems each helped create. Neither leader set out to destroy his respective system, but to preserve and strengthen it through reform. Each thought he could maneuver between right and left and construct a system that blended old and new without negating the entire legacy of the past. But each reached a point where the momentum of change pushed beyond the limits of his outlook and experience.

Almost immediately following de Klerk's historic speech on 2 February 1990, when he announced the release of Nelson Mandela, the commencement of negotiations with the previously outlawed African National Congress (ANC), and the reform of the apartheid system, people began to draw comparisons between Gorbachev and de Klerk. …

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