One of the greatest South African speeches I’ve ever heard – The speaker: Pieter Cronjé

I recently hosted a Smart Thinking for Crazy Times morning business seminar. I enlisted the services of a friend of mine to share the platform. Pieter Cronjé presented possibly the finest, insightful and irreverent talk that I have ever witnessed. What made it so brilliant? It was the true story of his colorful, diverse and interesting career. True stories with a strong message make the most brilliant presentations of all.

I strongly endorse Pieter Cronjé as a brilliant strategist, a superb communications expert and a top keynote speaker. He will educate, entertain and inspire any audience. Contact Pieter at pieter@pietercronje.com to enquire about consulting and speaking engagements.

What follows is a transcription of his brilliant speech. Read and enjoy!

John Lloyd

READY! FIRE! AIM! – My South African Story (a speech by Pieter Cronjé)

Good morning Ladies and Gentleman, thank you for the kind welcome to this morning’s seminar.

Between Forrest Gump’s “Life’s a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get” and John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re planning something else” lies infinite variety.  The chocolate you pick and what happens to you make your story.  You do not know how it will touch someone until you tell it.

When you need to build a bridge, you find an engineer, when you need surgery, you look for a surgeon.  But we can all read, speak, and write, so what is the big deal about communication?   We should not complicate communication.  We need it every day.  We should also not underestimate it. It is a profession and a skill.

I was born in Bloemfontein in the Free State to two of the most amazing parents. I attended Grey College in Bloemfontein, a parallel medium school founded by Sir George Grey in 1855.  You know, of course, that the older a man gets, the further he had to walk to school!

I received mother tongue tuition, but everything else at the school was bilingual.  There were no black students at the time, but there were learners from different language, religious and cultural groups.  The school produced sporting heroes, leaders in business, government and other walks of life.  It also produced the likes of Robey Leibbrandt, a Nazi agent, and Bram Fischer, a communist icon.  This taught me my first lesson in diversity and tolerance.

One of the school’s critics once confronted a famous headmaster, Jock Murray Meiring.

“I see the accused in this prominent city court case is an Old Grey!” he said to Mr. Meiring.

“Indeed,” said Mr. Meiring, “and so is the judge on the bench.  You will find us in all walks of life!”

Reflecting on my school days, I realise how formative they were.

While doing my military service I successfully applied for a bursary from Bloemfontein’s local newspaper, Die Volksblad.  I started there as a rookie.  My colleagues were at least five years more senior.  I had the naïve audacity to ask the chief sub-editor whether I could write my reports instead of typing them.  “You’d better learn fast!” he thundered.  I was a marked man and was given a true baptism of fire with a series of daunting assignments.

Later my newspaper was embroiled in a fight with the Provincial Government of the Free State.  At a time when the national government had appealed to all to save, the Provincial Administration had paid large sums for a new and the extensive refurbishment of another official residence for two provincial ministers.

I was sent to interview the senior minister and the Provincial Secretary.  After posing three of my ten questions, I was shown the door.  Interview over.

I reported this to my editor, “Oom Bart” Zaaiman, a tall, distinguished, soft-spoken, courteous grey-haired man with a core of steel.  Together we wrote the lead story.  We gave the Administration’s response to the three questions, but also recorded the questions they were not prepared to answer.  “Oom Bart” wrote a scathing editorial opinion.

Mr. Marx the Provincial Secretary phoned.  “Please ask Mr. Zaaiman to back off.  We’ve had enough,” he said.  I conveyed the message.

Mr. Zaaiman leaned back in his chair and smiled.  “Tell Jan Marx that if he saddles a tiger, he should ride it.”

As I turned to leave, Mr. Zaaiman added: “And tell him if he does not know what a tiger looks like, I cannot help him.”

I was fortunate to find myself in the Press Gallery in Parliament at a young age.  I was in awe of the verbal gladiators in the House such John Vorster, Helen Suzman, Marais Steyn, Cas Greyling, Radclyffe Cadman, and Mike Mitchell.

We had our lighter moments.  My namesake, Pierre Cronjé, was a church minister and delivered speeches in sermon style.  The opposition raised a point of order.  “Mr. Speaker, is it proper for the House to sit while the Honourable Member is praying?”

The Opposition’s Prof. Nic Olivier, would gesticulate wildly during his speeches.  The Chief Whip of the National Party raised a point of order: “Mr. Speaker, is the Honourable Member allowed to play the concertina in the House?’

The ever-popular Agriculture Minister, Hendrik Schoeman, and I shared a love of speed and motorcycles.  He would always needle his bubbly colleague Dr. Piet Koornhof, minister of “black affairs” (by many names), education, mining and sport.

“When Piet tells a joke, people think it’s policy.  When Piet announces policy, people think it’s a joke!”  Hendrik said.

During Prime Minister John Vorster’s détente travels in Africa, he, the Foreign Minister, Hilgard Muller, and Foreign Secretary, Brand Fourie, were sipping cocktails in the presidential garden of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Cote d’Ivoire.  Uniformed guards were throwing chickens to the crocodiles in the presidential moat.

Vorster observed that he and his two colleagues were the only white people present.  He said to Fourie:  “Brand, this makes me think of Piet Retief and Dingaan.  I just hope these people have enough chickens!”

As London correspondent for Naspers from 1978 to 1981, it was quite strange to attend media conferences of the then banned liberation movements such as the ANC, PAC, Swapo and other anti-apartheid organisations during the day, and then to have cocktails with a visiting South African Cabinet minister at the South African Embassy that same evening.

I was there when Margaret Thatcher defeated Jim Callaghan and then took on the unions.  I witnessed ugly, violent strikes.  I indulged all my interests during those three years. I went to the Farnborough Air Show, Crufts Dog Show, did a Scottish whisky tour and was a member at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club where I saw jazz greats like Oscar Peterson and Buddy Rich perform live.

I was the first Afrikaans journalist to interview Robert Mugabe during the Lancaster House Independence talks in London.  It took long to arrange and it was a very secretive affair.

I still remember his response to my key question.  “If you win the election, will you be assisting the ANC and PAC in their struggle against the South African government?”

Mugabe said: “I have fought my liberation struggle.  South Africa must fight its own.”

When I covered the inauguration of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, BBC diplomatic correspondent, later editor, the late Brain Hanrahan, and I had to be taken back to our hotel under police escort after the ceremony.  The streets had erupted with violent protests staged by homeless people occupying empty homes.

I attended the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.  Did we play polo together?  No.  My bold (and truthful) motivation to the Foreign Press Association where all foreign journalists had to be accredited simply stated:  “I work for the largest Afrikaans newspaper group in the world.”

I was allocated a ringside seat on temporary stands erected on either side of the St Paul’s Cathedral altar.  I had a close-up, side-on view of the royal couple and faced the royal family.  It was a much better view than all the heads of state and other royals who could only see the couple’s back!  Although it all ended so tragically, my readers in South Africa simply could not get enough of this fairy tale and I sent reams of copy.

Back in South Africa in 1981 I covered developments in Southern Africa where I met presidents such as Nyerere, Kaunda, Machel, and now Mugabe.  I also wrote about the intense political activity outside Parliament.

I had been an avid SABC radio listener all my life.  When I started to work there it was a delight to meet the people behind the voice:  Eric Egan, Shirley Veale, Michael de Morgan, Nigel Kane, Paddy O’Byrne and many more.

I was Secretary of the SABC Board and spent four years working in a Cabinet task group to devise a new three-tier and regulatory broadcasting regime for South Africa.

One of my toughest assignments ever was to negotiate with then Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, on the lead actor of an epic co-production on the life of Shaka Zulu.  Mr. Buthelezi was the “patron” of the production.

The SABC’s American partner, Harmony Gold, wanted an Afro-American to play the lead role.  They believed it would make the series more marketable internationally.  It was tough, but I closed the deal.  And then we found Henry Cele, authentic Zulu, superb physique, presence, deep, booming voice – Shaka personified!

In January 1994 an esteemed jurist and judge, Johann Kriegler, walked into my office in Sea Point.  He told me about his assignment to run the first ever democratic election in South Africa – in four months’ time.  It was a mountain-sized challenge: the election would be seven times bigger than any of the previous ones, there was a functional illiteracy rate of 50%, the expert department, Home Affairs, could not be used for reasons of political credibility (only a few hand-picked experts were permitted), political tension was high and a whole organisation had to be built in record time (from only Judge Kriegler in December 1993 to 350 000 by April 1994!)

He offered me the job as Communication Director and spokesperson.  I was flattered.  But there was a sting in the tail.  This was Friday. He wanted an answer right now and I had to start In Johannesburg on Monday!  I said yes and started packing.

It was to be the most challenging, yet rewarding highlight of my career.  We had close shaves in no-go areas and with light aircraft in severe thunderstorms.  I saw the Shell House shooting from an office window.  A top IEC delegation flew in to Mmabatho to plead with President Lucas Mangope of Bophuthatswana to join the election.  He refused.  Flying back, Commissioner Frank Chikane sat with me.  “Pieter, this would have been a joke if people weren’t going to die.” Twenty four hours later members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging were shot in cold blood when they invaded Bophuthatswana.

A defining media moment was when a hacker had adjusted voting totals on the Independent Electoral Commission’s computer systems.  This called into question the credibility of the entire election.  The country was on a knife edge.

Reuters phoned from London. ”Mr. Cronjé, we want to interview you about the hacking of the election results.  I am recording this interview and it is only fair to warn you that what you are about to say will affect the stock markets.”  No pressure!

I told my staff:  “Every day I walk into this office, the St Christopher around my neck flips over and says: “You’re on your own, buddy!’”

Johann Kriegler was a superb leader and gave me three of my most memorable quotes.

With all the odds stacked against a successful and above all peaceful election he said:  “This is an insurmountable opportunity.”

When the IEC faced the overwhelming challenge of a national democratic election in the most far-flung corners and without the aid of modern technology, the media became increasingly restless and agitated.  Late one night the judge and I left the office in search of a meal.  A British TV crew accosted him:  “Judge why is this election such a mess?”

Without blinking and eye, he simply said: “I must apologise to you for my failure to provide you with violence.”

He walked off.  We had a late dinner.

When I walked Commissioner Helen Suzman to her car after the announcement of the results, she said: “This is a dream result.  The ANC did not get a two-thirds majority, the National Party retained the Western Cape and Inkatha KwaZulu-Natal.”

Shortly thereafter Judge Kriegler confessed to a business forum: “Maybe we were too stupid to realise it was impossible!”

When I joined Shell after the 1994 election, it was almost as though the company was trying to provide some of the adrenaline rush that kept me going for eighteen-hour days at the IEC.  The Nigerian government had executed Ken Sara-Wiwo and fellow human rights activists.  Shell was producing oil in Ogoni land, in partnership with the Nigerian government.  Many demanded that Shell should disinvest.  Shell wanted to sink the Brent Spar oil rig in the ocean.  As a SCUBA instructor I could tell you that would have been a good choice.  It would have been teeming with marine life within a short while.

There were boycotts and protests.  Shell’s retail sales in Germany dropped by 34 percent.  Remarkably, its fuel was selling at a 7c per litre premium in South America because of its technical superiority.  This taught me an important lesson in brand management.  If something’s wrong with your brand:  fix it, don’t ditch it!  It was exciting to be a project team member for the introduction of unleaded fuel in South Africa – a sizeable undertaking!

The day I joined Sanlam, was Day One of its massive demutualisation project.  Marinus Daling, executive chairman of Sanlam, and Mike Levett, his counterpart at Old Mutual, had had a gentleman’s agreement to consult on imminent demutalisation and the listing of their organisations on the stock exchange.  Daling told me Levett had phoned him out of the blue to say his board had just approved demutualisation and that he was about to announce it at a media conference.

Daling decided to concede Old Mutual’s first-mover advantage, but announced: “I will do it first.” He completed the process within a year.  Old Mutual followed a year later.

When I was recruited as Director of Communication and Marketing at the City of Cape Town just after it had become a “Unicity” it was not so much about the status of being part of the top management team, but the opportunity to guide communication and marketing at the source of decision-making, instead of after the fact.

Communication and marketing represent the baking powder in the cake, not the icing you put on afterwards to “sell” a bad cake.

In eleven years of frequent political turbulence in local government I served under three City Managers and six Mayors.  My St Christopher quip at the IEC came back to haunt me.

I dealt with xenophobic violence that displaced 20 000 people, there were massive fires and flooding in informal settlements, strikes, violent protests and disruptive power failures.

In preparing for and learning from such incidents there was humor too!

When the City had to demolish the Athlone Cooling Towers, because they had become structurally unsafe, it was to be a technical implosion.  We totally underestimated the public interest and sentiment!  We had to recreate a 2010 World Cup Soccer Fan Fest event with full transport, security, resident, media and contingency plans.

We had considered all the things that could go wrong.  Failed implosion, delayed implosion, partial implosion and more.

We had not contemplated a success rate in excess of 100 percent!

On D-day all still and video cameras were trained on the towers.  They were to come down at twelve noon exactly.

Mayor Dan Plato took up his position next to a giant (symbolic) switch a safe distance away.

Three minutes before twelve, an explosion ripped through the air and the towers came tumbling down in a pile of dust.  Some TV presenters suffered whiplash as they spun around to try and salvage the final seconds of the action.  Most blamed Mayor Plato.

Only then did we discover there was a “master blaster” safely ensconced in a steel shell quite close to the blast.  He had to run through a safety and readiness checklist of some 60 items, more than a jumbo pilot before take-off!  At three minutes to twelve the list was done, the perimeter was secure, the wind and rain were picking up.  It would have been risky to wait. He hit the button.

We could only take this one on the chin and explain it after the fact.  Three days later at a Council meeting and to his credit, Mayor Plato used the following speech I had drafted.  “Mr. Speaker, after what happened at the implosion of the Athlone Towers this weekend, I went for a medical check-up.  I have received the results.  I would like to assure Council and the residents of Cape Town that I do not, repeat do not suffer from premature detonation!”

All had a good laugh.  The story went away.

Highlights during my City years included my involvement with the World Design Capital 2014, leading the City’s campaign for Table Mountain’s successful election as one of the News Seven Wonders of Nature and being a core project team member for the 2010 FIFA World Cup for five years.

I visited the Cape Town Stadium construction site three or four times a week.  When I had to do on site media interviews over weekends, I sometimes took my family along to share in the excitement.  It also confirmed my alibi for my absence from home!

One of the many stars was Zoliswa Gila, a single, unemployed mother from Philippi.  Her dream was to become a pilot. She successfully applied to become a crane operator on the stadium site.  Sitting in a glass cockpit 80 metres above the ground was the closest thing to flying.  After the stadium was built, she became a tour guide there and then started her own meat business.  Someone is running that for her now, but she’s back doing what she loves, operating cranes.    We arranged for her to fly in a helicopter with the City’s photographer.  Her dream came true – albeit briefly. We still speak.

A Chinese media group visiting the stadium demonstrated how big the World Cup is  – four times bigger than the Olympic Games in terms of viewership!  Two young presenters told me 200 million people watched their travel show.  Someone with a text message news service boasted 400 million subscribers!

I did countless interviews with most of the major news networks – readiness, crime, transport, Bafana’s chances, allegations of a massive refugee camp to keep the unwanted street people out of the public eye!……The presenter of ESPN Brazil and I talked about my love for Brazil, its wildlife and its bossa nova music.  I still cannot believe he twisted my arm to sing something on camera.  They broadcast it.  The Brazilians did not come.

The Fan Walk, the star of the show with more than half a million people (many without tickets) soaking up the colours, languages, excitement and atmosphere of the World Cup, started as part of the transport plan!  The MyCiTi buses could transport 10 000 people per hour.  That meant six hours to fill and six hours to clear a 60 000 seater stadium.  The weather was kind.  The Fan Walk was a major boon and became a success story in its own right!

In 2012 FIFA invited me to Brazil to present a workshop in Cuiabá, central Brazil, for the twelve Brazilian Host cities for the World Cup in 2014.  It was like a pilgrimage.  I had read so much about the Amazon, its wildlife and had had a lifelong love affair with bossa nova music.  After work I went to explore the vast Pantanal wetlands where one could find jaguars, anacondas, piranhas and literally thousands of other flora and fauna species.

I explored the Pantanal on foot through the forest, on a bicycle, by truck, by boat and on horseback.  Riding waist deep through water, my horse threw me off without any warning and bolted.  I stood blinded in the muddy water.  When the leader reached me he led me away slowly from the submerged Cayman that had snapped at my horse.  It clearly had no interest in a South African meal!

And thus the legend of Crocodile Cronjé was born.

For the past year I have been using these T-shirts in consulting on communication, marketing and business strategy.  My views are that communication and marketing should be fully integrated and should not be seen and used as two separate disciplines; that communication is too important to be left only to communicators – it is a leadership skill; that media skills and the ability to handle a hostile, live interview, will improve all your other communication skills in presentations, speeches and interaction; and that being prepared for bad things or disasters is exactly like medical aid – don’t wait until you are speeding to hospital before you buy it.

I share my advice to SCUBA pupils with clients: when you are in the water with sharks, do not show fear, do not make sudden movements and do not bleed!  It works – most of the time!

Appropriate humour is an essential part of the crisis toolkit and a coping mechanism.  Some of my favourite examples are:

Spike Milligan: The best cure for sea sickness is to sit under a tree.  And his award-winning epitaph reads:  I told you I was ill!

Jerry Seinfeld:  Dogs rule the planet.  When you observe two life forms, one of them is making a poop and the other one is carrying it for him.  Who would you assume is in charge?

Billy Connolly:  Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.  After that, who cares?  You’ve got his shoes and he’s a mile away!

Technological progress and innovation have had a major impact on communication – although some of the fundamentals will remain valid.  There is now seamless connectivity through cloud based data and mobile devices.  Hurricane Sandy in the United States produced 20 million Twitter posts and 25 percent of all Americans followed the Boston marathon bombings on the social media.

Here is a sobering post from a teenager on Tumblr: “I won’t be impressed with technology until I can download food from the Internet!”

Some of the lessons my career and life have taught me include:

  • Empowerment without alignment is chaos
  • The mind is like a parachute.  It works best when it is open.
  • You never get a second chance to make a first impression
  • Learn from positive AND negative
  • A fish really DOES rot from the head.

Former Minister Chris Heunis had some deep words about our country:  “People who are not confused by the situation in South Africa, are not well informed.”

So what was that success recipe that made us feel so good as South Africans with the World Cup in 2010.  Was it just a once-off dream?

Let us analyse it:

  • We had a powerful dream – to host the biggest sporting event in the world after years of isolation.
  • The prize for success was great – new and upgraded infrastructure and services, economic benefits and the biggest multi-year, global marketing platform imaginable.
  • The price of failure was too ghastly to contemplate – we would have been shamed if FIFA had moved the World Cup to the “plan B” country.
  • There was a valuable period when politicians continued to fight about everything else, except the World Cup.
  • There was a valuable window of opportunity when national, provincial and local government aligned their budgets, planning and the political will to get things done.  It was a powerful catalyst for the economy. The private sector followed government’s lead.
  • And above all, it was about the sense of pride and accomplishment we felt as South Africans.

Can we do it again?  Yes, the recipe is there, but it requires LEADERSHIP – not only at the top, but at all levels of government, business and society.

South Africa needs leadership badly.

There are so many definitions: Leaders must be able to laugh, cry and stand alone.  They must choose to be either competent or popular.

Traditional apprenticeships and mentorship helped to shape leadership within companies and organisations.  This is no longer common practice.  People do not stay long, structures change.

My own, very subjective definition of leadership is “applied intellect, integrity and courage”.  I have had the privilege of working with many leaders, but would like to single out three leaders in this vein:  Johann Kriegler, Constitutional Court Judge and Chairman of the IEC, Marinus Daling, executive chairman of Sanlam, Robert Maydon, Chief Executive of Edgars and City Manager of Cape Town.

Individuals have shaped the course of history.  Think about Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, Wang Weilin (the Tiananmen tank man who stopped a tank column armed with just two shopping bags), Oseola McCarthy, (the poor Southern washerwoman who started a bursary scheme with her savings).

I once talked to an official in the so-called homelands.  They were falling far behind with job creation targets.  “I consider myself a sculptor looking at a block of granite.  If I can chisel out a foot, my successor can continue with the leg.  If I give up and walk away, this will stay a rock.” A moving metaphor.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a hunger for your knowledge, expertise and wisdom.  If you find where it is needed, it would be greatly valued.

As we express our concerns and fears about our country and its future, we sometimes quote from the book “Cry the Beloved Country.”

I invite you all to become co-authors of a new book: “LEAD THE BELOVED COUNTRY!”

16 thoughts on “One of the greatest South African speeches I’ve ever heard – The speaker: Pieter Cronjé

  1. In addition to an inspiring speech, It was also a good trip down memory lane. Well said and very informative.
    (Pieter nou sien ek eers uit na daardie koppie koffie)

  2. Pieter, it was fantastic to work with you during the World Cup – and this speech has just reminded me how cool, calm and collected you were during those months leading up to the greatest sporting event we have ever held. Keep leading us!

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