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Marais Viljoen

Figurehead president of South Africa

Marais Viljoen, politician: born Robertson, South Africa 2 December 1915; Deputy Minister of Labour and Mines 1958-66; Minister of Labour and Coloured Affairs 1966-70; Minister of Labour and Posts and Telecommunications 1970-76; President of the Senate 1976-79; State President of South Africa 1979-84; married 1940 Marietjie Brink (one daughter); died Pretoria 4 January 2007.

Marais Viljoen was the last figurehead president of apartheid South Africa, giving way in 1984 to an executive president in his prime minister, P. W. Botha.

After a poor farming childhood in the western Cape Province, Viljoen had left school early and become a post office telegraphist, then a reporter on Die Transvaler, edited by the future prime minister and architect of apartheid, H.F. Verwoerd. He represented the Transvaal constituency of Alberton in the House of Assembly from 1958 and is remembered as a moderately enlightened Minister of Labour for allowing mixed-race workers, when needed, to work on certain construction projects in 1971, an early fissure in the "granite" apartheid policy of Verwoerd, who had been assassinated in 1966.

In 1972, however, after illegal strikes by black workers, he stood out against the legalisation of their unions, blaming the nationwide strikes on student and labour agitators rather than on the need for a living wage. The strikes had started the biggest fissure of all and by 1979 black unions were made legal.

Viljoen had become President of the Senate in 1976 and, with the resignation of Verwoerd's successor, B.J. Vorster, as State President, he was elected by the party's caucus to succeed him. The post had been enacted by the 1961 Republican Constitution, perpetuating the previous "head of state" functions of the Governor-General.

His tenure was obscured by the "total strategy" of the Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, in response to what he presented as the "total onslaught" of South Africa's Marxist enemies. This involved concessions across the colour line, destabilising attacks on the country's neighbours and harsh repression within. It also ended Viljoen's office, with its replacement by an executive presidency, occupied, of course, by Botha and terminating Viljoen's political career. He had started out on the quest for Afrikaner political unity, and enjoyed the fruits of office, though never corruptly, when the Afrikaner Nationalists held political power, only to preside over the early stages of the collapse of apartheid rule.

The state funeral accorded Viljoen might indicate that in South Africa "the past is another country" and that reconciliation is alive and surprisingly well.

Randolph Vigne