The man widely seen as instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk, knows what it's like to be at the sharp end of international disfavour. Until he began promising reforms, his black dominant, but at the time white-controlled, nation was an outcast. Then came Mr de Klerk's landmark speech as prime minister in 1989 promising change, talks with the opposition African National Congress (ANC), the release from 27 years of prison of its leader, Nelson Mandela, a new constitution and South Africa's rebirth with elections in 1994. A decade later, the nation's economy is now booming and it is seen as a model for the developing world. Mr de Klerk, 68, out of politics and mostly pleased with what he helped create, has embarked on a new venture - advising leaders facing the sorts of dilemmas he did on the best way forward. He has assembled an impressive roster of former presidents and senior ministers to provide help to national leaders on governance. Launched in March, the Global Leadership Foundation already has its sights on half a dozen countries. Mr de Klerk, in Hong Kong this week to meet a partner in the venture, former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, and to raise funds, said he knew of no other organisation offering such services. 'There's a niche for hands-on advice on a confidential basis,' he said. A handful of countries are already on a shortlist of potential projects the group hopes to begin work on early next year. Mr de Klerk would not identify them, citing confidentiality, apart from saying that two were in Africa, two in 'the Caribbean and thereabouts', and in the medium term, two in Asia and one in Europe. The time was not yet right for the Asian nations involved, he determined. 'Although we see positive signs of a change in attitude, they must change a bit more,' he said. 'We are not going to be misused to advise leaders how to do the bad things they do better. We are not going to allow ourselves to be used as justification for bad governance and for undemocratic actions. We will only be prepared to assist when we are convinced that the leadership wants to change for the better.' Pro-democracy and good governance advocates point to several Asian governments as needing such help, most notably Myanmar, East Timor, North Korea, Laos and Nepal. Mr de Klerk said the idea evolved from a conversation with a South African-born friend who headed a multi-national company. Leaders in developing countries lacked good civil services and the expert advice necessary to resolve problems, he was told. He said that at first he was sceptical, but found the idea compelling and called a meeting of fellow ex-leaders. Given the number of global conflicts, all but a handful within national borders, they concluded that there was promise in the suggestion of 'people with no political agenda, who do not represent any specific interests, who are prepared to sit down, not for profit, and just share their experience and lend a helpful hand'. Then came the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, and a new global environment that energised Mr de Klerk into bringing the idea to fruition. It now has 18 former leaders involved and eventually wants to encompass all continents. 'They are people with good experience of governance - all of them no longer having any political ambitions, not on ego-building trips and prepared to give a week or two of their time every year to sit down with leaders who want to change,' he said. 'We want to talk to leaders who realise they need a paradigm shift in their country to create better prospects for their people. They know they've got to move towards democratisation, begin to build a human rights culture and implement well-balanced economic policies.' The process would have to be handled delicately, most likely initially by go-betweens, Mr de Klerk suggested, because leaders would not want to be seen getting outside help. The foundation's members would select a group of three or so ex-leaders with skills specific to a situation to assist in finding solutions to a country's problems. 'There's a loss of face for a leader if outsiders come in with blinking television cameras and press conferences are held to say what advice was given,' he said. 'We're not a secret organisation, but we want to confidentially advise the leader. If he or she thinks it's good advice, accepts it and implements it, then they take the credit. We're not in it to focus attention on ourselves.' Advice, although not at such a co-ordinated level, was plentiful when Mr de Klerk assumed the leadership of South Africa's then-dominant National Party in February 1989, shortly after prime minister P.W. Botha suffered a stroke and resigned from the post. In his acceptance speech, he confounded observers who saw him as yet another conservative adherent to apartheid by calling for a non-racist South Africa and negotiations on the country's future. Seven months later, he had replaced Mr Botha as prime minister and began the process of creating what became known as the new South Africa. With the ending of the ban on the ANC and the freeing of Mr Mandela, two decades of international sanctions were stripped away, ending the country's political and economic isolation. In 1993, Mr de Klerk and Mr Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year, the ANC convincingly won democratic elections and Mr Mandela replaced Mr de Klerk as president. Mr de Klerk, recalling those events on Tuesday morning at his Mandarin Oriental hotel suite, was modest about his role in ending apartheid. 'I don't want to be arrogant,' he said. 'In any conflict, especially ones which have been going on for decades or even centuries, leadership in one of the important aspects - the right man or woman at the right time and place - quite often is the spark which leads to the initiation of the right steps. But that in itself is not good enough. 'Proper planning, teamwork, timing, the right methodology - all these play a role. The mere personality of a leader in itself is just one of the components of the solution of long-standing problems.' He put the success of the process down to being serious about ushering in changes rather than 'playing games'. The foundations for meaningful negotiations were laid by his own initiatives and an answering response from the ANC. Mr de Klerk stayed in opposition politics for three years after Mr Mandela's election, but retired in mid-1997 to write an autobiography, The Last Trek - A New Beginning, and establish the F.W. de Klerk Foundation. He divorced his wife of 18 years the following year and remarried a week later. As a parent of the new South Africa, there was little doubt he was proud of what it had achieved. 'We have become on many issues a role model to the rest of the world,' Mr de Klerk said. 'We have proven that seemingly intractable disputes and conflicts can be resolved peacefully. Some of the lessons we've learned are relevant to other conflicts, although no two situations are directly comparable. It doesn't mean that the new South Africa is perfect - but we've negotiated a very good constitution and I'm very proud of our transition.' Despite economic growth rates of at least 3 per cent, he believed at least double that rate was necessary to reduce high levels of unemployment. The polices of President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mr Mandela, were generally good, although he described his approach to fighting the country's HIV/Aids epidemic as poor, until recently. Mr de Klerk said he was on a 'good footing' with Mr Mbeki and that his foundation had had talks with the government several times. 'My integrity as someone who wants to be helpful and constructive has been accepted by the government,' he said. 'I don't support the government or vote for the ANC, but on two occasions, President Mbeki has set aside a whole day to sit down with me and concerned people I brought together on fundamental issues facing South Africa. He brought with him some of his ministers and advisers. I welcome this sort of constructive dialogue.' The former leader said he was also good friends with Mr Mandela, despite their relationship often being 'stormy' during his leadership. He put that down mainly to disagreements over ongoing violence at the time between security forces and the ANC. 'Now, in our retirement, we have a very good relationship,' Mr de Klerk revealed. 'He's been to my house for lunch, I and my wife have been to his house on more than one occasion. He and I share platforms from time to time.' The ties are so strong that Mr Mandela accepted an invitation to take up an executive role with the Global Leadership Foundation, although it is an honorary position to give added prestige. 'He gracefully accepted, but asked that partly because of his age [Mr Mandela is 86] I don't ask him to do any work,' he said. 'Instead, he is lending the moral authority of his stature.' Mr Mandela's status as one of the world's icons adds weight to the foundation's authority, but the negotiating skills of Mr de Klerk, Mrs Chan and other members will be the measure of its success. If their track record as leaders is any indication of the foundation's future, it would seem to be well assured.