P. W. Botha

President of South Africa whose tentative reforms were disabled by his adherence to apartheid

Thursday 02 November 2006 01:00 GMT

Pieter Willem Botha, politician: born Paul Roux, South Africa 12 January 1916; Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs 1958-61; Minister of Community Development and of Coloured Affairs 1961-66; Minister of Public Works 1964-66; Minister of Defence 1966-80; Leader-in-Chief, National Party 1978-89; Prime Minister of South Africa 1978-84, State President 1984-89; Minister of National Intelligence Service 1978-84; married 1943 Elise Rossouw (died 1997; two sons, three daughters), 1998 Barbara Robertson; died Wilderness, South Africa 31 October 2006.

P. W. Botha, interviewed in 1988 by the South African Broadcasting Corporation on his party's 40th anniversary in power, relied on jest to explain both his and the party's longevity. Botha, then 72, told the story about the village pastor, feted on his 80th birthday, who insisted that he did not have an enemy in the world. "How is it possible after all these years?" enquired his parishioners. "Simple," replied the crusty octogenarian, "I outlived all the other bastards."

The joke was half-serious. Through 50 years in politics (11 as head of government) Botha survived numerous crises, outlived many opponents and outlawed a legion of others.

During his tenure he was accused by the white right wing of betraying the people; to the left he was an unregenerate racist - only more subtle. He was charged, contradictorily, with presiding over the collapse of white power and being the most successful exponent of its entrenchment. By some he was painted as uniquely malevolent; by others, primarily the coterie that surrounded him in the presidency, as a prophet and missionary. Both views were extreme and yet it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Botha narrowly missed being one of South Africa's great men.

Pieter Willem Botha was born in 1916 on the farm Telegraaf near the town of Paul Roux in the flatlands that are now the Free State Province. His parents were relatively wealthy farmers. Both had suffered during the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 - his father as a commando away from home for long months and his mother as an internee in the civilian concentration camps set up by British troops in their scorched-earth policies.

From this strong republican, anti-Empire and nationalist background, it was not surprising that he should eventually be drawn into politics. He left university to become a full-time worker for the National Party, then a smallish but ardently Afrikaner nationalist lobby. He flirted with the militant and neo-Fascist Ossewabrandwag during the Second World War but withdrew when the National Party split with the OB over, among other things, the use of violence.

He won the south-eastern coast constituency of George in 1948 - the year in which the National Party triumphed over General Jan Smuts's more cosmopolitan, pro-Empire United Party. In 1958 he was appointed Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs by Dr Hendrik Verwoerd - architect of South Africa's statutory apartheid - and later put in charge of the country's mixed-race or "coloured" population.

It was here that a long and ambiguous relationship was to develop between himself and the country's "brown Afrikaners". On the one hand he presided over their wholesale relocation from existing residential areas to newly developed racially segregated suburbs, while on the other he never lost hope of drawing in the community as political allies of Afrikaner nationalism against the numerically superior black population.

From 1966 until 1980 he was Minister of Defence. It was under his guidance that the South African Defence Force matured from a fairly ramshackle institution to one of the most powerful armies on the continent. At the same time, Botha joined hands with South Africa's private sector and through the Armaments Development Corporation (Armscor), created the 11th largest arms industry in the world - despite an international arms embargo.

This long and fruitful relationship with the military was to have a fundamental impact on Botha's fortunes. It placed him in a powerful position to take the party leadership but also informed his political style. Central here was his liturgical anti-Communism, his technocratic and expedient approach to the problems of a modernising society and his heavy reliance on force as the ultimate arbiter of political dispute.

On 28 September 1975, P.W. Botha was elected leader of the National Party and thus Prime Minister of South Africa in place of the ailing John Vorster. It was a bitter succession struggle in which allegations of corruption played a large part in defeating his rivals within the party. Botha, emerging from the carnage, pledged then that he would never revisit such an experience on his party.

The new Prime Minister assumed power in South Africa at a critical moment. He did not come to office within the muscular and comforting arms of a foreign imperialism as did earlier predecessors like the generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts. The first National Party post-war leader, D.F. Malan, reaped the fruits of Afrikaner ethnic mobilisation: his successor, J.G. Strijdom, was a caretaker; Hendrik Verwoerd enjoyed the drama of unveiling a revitalised vision but never lived to answer for its terrible economic and human consequences. John Vorster, Botha's predecessor, methodically, sometimes brutally, merely enforced those impossible dreams - with some minor adaptations.

It fell to Botha to face the legacy of which he was part architect and part victim. He was obliged to deal with the security threats raised by the collapse of the Portugese dominions in southern Africa in the mid-1970s, the emergence of a young and better educated black élite hungry for power and dignity, the growth of the black trade union movement, mounting international pressure and a South African economy weakened by diminishing foreign markets and state profligacy at home.

In confronting these problems in his early years Botha showed courage but, all too often, insufficient understanding. Sometimes he also displayed a lack of conviction. By the end of his tenure his score card read ambivalently.

During his administration, it is true, he extended industrial citizenship to black South Africans with his labour reforms and social citizenship with the slow and sometimes haphazard relaxation of petty apartheid. Thus he scrapped the laws forbidding sex and marriage across the colour line, opened public facilities to all race groups and took the first tentative steps towards recognising legal, racially mixed residential areas.

More important, he scrapped the iniquitous pass system which so controlled the labour mobility of black South Africans and committed himself to opening equal opportunities for all. His administration sought, quite self-servingly, to shift the cost and responsibility for modernisation on to the shoulders of the individual in housing, education and health. His critics ceaselessly argued this was merely an expedient cop-out but the fact remained that under his rule the avaricious and often brutal bureaucracy that served apartheid lost ground to ordinary people - their right to own land, raise loans, start businesses and get on with the simple tasks of decent living.

In political citizenship, as well, Botha made some progress - sufficient to break off the crust of conservative resistance within his own party but inadequate to draw in new allies from other race groups. Here, at least, he recognised the indivisibility of the economy and through that the polity (accepting at last in 1988 that both whites and blacks shared a common citizenship), although practical expression in constitutional form remained confused and complex throughout his tenure.

None of this would have occurred without a dramatic reshaping of both the constitutional and political powers of the head of government - given form in the drafting of a new constitution in 1983 that created an executive president and a tricameral parliament for whites, coloured and Indian South Africans. Thus arose a presidency that was imperial in both constitutional form and personal style - authoritarian yet not quite dictatorial.

Botha quickly winkled out opponents within the National Party and licked the rank and file into shape by marginalising them. He shook out a creaking civil bureaucracy with an alternative security-dominated chain of command, crafted the constitutional form of the powerful new executive presidency and stamped a personal, often deeply abrasive, style of management on the administration.

These changes provided the vehicle which drove his earlier, significant reforms. Many of these reforms were forced upon the administration by the changing sociology and economy of the country and yet it is fair to say that Botha never received adequate recognition for the courage shown in confronting the conservatives within his own tribe and challenging the historic myths which had been of such compelling importance in the emergence of Afrikaner nationalism.

Typically, the reforms, hesitant as they may have been, were undermined by a number of factors: a bumbling reform management style, ideological limitations set by Botha himself (primarily his belief that political rights could only be exercised through racial groups), the incompetence of the early participators in the government-created structures, a weakening economy beset by many structural dysfunctions, the morbid and often uncomprehending opposition of the security forces towards dissidence and, finally, the tactical myopia of the radical opposition who saw even genuine acts of reform on the part of the administration as inspiration for yet another round of provocation.

It was this last aspect that was to write much of the script for the period from 1985 through to the end of Botha's rule. It led, inevitably, to an escalating spiral of resistance and repression in which reform took a back seat and Botha, comfortable but not always adept with power, relied heavily on his omnipresent generals ruthlessly to crush the insurrection of 1984 through to 1986.

There were three consequences of this imbroglio. It led to the retreat of the presidency towards an unhappy political isolation - in his last years in office Botha became increasingly distanced from his bureaucracy and party. In 1989, after a minor stroke, he sought to disentangle the office of the presidency from that of Leader-in-Chief of the National Party, ostensibly to establish the office as a unifying force but in reality to further entrench his imperial presidency. It was an implausible step and widely rejected. He had already alienated his earlier support bases - the private sector, the Afrikaner intelligentsia and black "moderates" because of his inflexibility and imperious manner. Now he lost out on the party itself.

Worse, this personal and isolated style of government suffused the administration and the society itself. As foreign pressures increased, including sanctions, Botha and the white electorate turned inwards - defensive, xenophobic and truculent.

The second consequence of this stagnation was that it diverted attention away from the urgent need to crank up a credible political process to accompany socio-economic changes while at the same time it hampered steps to salvage the economy - to reduce the bureaucracy, unshackle enterprise and cut taxation.

Third, it wrought terrible damage to the principle of democratic government. This was something Botha imperfectly understood throughout his life. Democracy, like manners, is learnt by example and over time. It does not spring fully formed upon an individual or a nation.

Under Botha's rule there was little evidence of democratic manners. It was true, there were national, regional and local elections for various racially segregated bodies and a plethora of powerless forums were created for black "voice". But at no time in South African history was there such a sustained and massive erosion of basic civil rights - of freedoms of speech, assembly and association as there was in the wake of the civil insurrection from 1984 to 1986.

From the early years of reformist rhetoric, the promise of change, P.W. Botha thus left a sour legacy: South Africa became more authoritarian, its government more secretive and thus corrupt, its security forces more callous, its revolutionaries more violent. Remarkably, its people, by and large, remained both tolerant and susceptible to political change.

Did Botha have it within himself to lead South Africa from its dark past to a juster new, non-racial order?

Probably not. He remained during his life wedded to the "group covenant", the belief that white survival could only be ensured through white autonomy and domination. To that end he was prepared, pragmatically, to seek new allies of other colours, he was willing to share limited power but never to lose it. He was also prepared to use quite reprehensible means to preserve it.

Despite this, his real contribution lay in at least making the notion of reform respectable among the majority of whites, thus forcing them to address the inequity of the society left by the cold, cerebral mysticism of Verwoerd. Botha inevitably exposed apartheid's worst anomalies, destroying it as a viable and coherent programme and propelling many whites willy-nilly into a search for a genuine accommodation with black fellow citizens.

During the early part of his tenure Botha struggled to supplant Verwoerd's racist dream with his own vision - a juster, subtler, softer form of racial politics. In this, inevitably, he failed.

Botha will receive some credit from posterity, nevertheless, for taking the step during his final six months between resigning as party leader and leaving as President, which led to the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990, after 27 years in prison, with all that followed. For four years, there had been sporadic negotiations with a committee which he had supported and Mandela, already identified by many as the future leader of a non-racial South Africa.

In July 1989 Botha and Mandela met secretly and informally in Cape Town. Mandela found "Die Ou Krokodil" - "The Old Crocodile", notorious for savaging his opponents - "unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly". He was "disarmed" by him. Although Botha said that he could free no political prisoners, their easy meeting did much to convince Mandela that negotiation could achieve his and the ANC's objectives.

Soon afterwards Botha was ousted as President by the National Party's new leader, elected in February, F.W. De Klerk - with whom Mandela would share the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

P.W. Botha retired to a seaside home at The Wilderness near his old constituency of George. Despite many calls for it, there was no reckoning for all the evil deeds - the death squads, the torturing - he had countenanced, even instigated. In 1996-97 he refused to appear at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but sent a written statement after a 10-month delay, was subpoenaed to appear and, when he didn't, brought to court before a black magistrate.

After damning evidence had been offered by the prosecution, as an octogenarian and allegedly sickly he was given a suspended sentence and a fine, both waived on a technicality. It was an undignified and humbling finale.

Brian Pottinger

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