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Roelof 'Pik' Botha, the ultimate survivor

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Roelof ‘Pik’ Botha, the ultimate survivor

At 79 years, Pik Botha has outlived most of the senior officials he served with in the apartheid regime and now, with his heart illness, he has also shone a spotlight on the ever-diminishing circle of leaders from the years of the transfer of power and South Africa’s first non-racial democratic Cabinet. An initial summing up of Pik Botha’s long career and accomplishments certainly seems in order. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Born in Rustenburg, he had one of those high school careers that brought together rugby, debating, school cadets and academic success. He then entered the University of Pretoria for legal studies, before becoming a South African diplomat in 1953. In his first two assignments, he served in Sweden and Cologne, Germany. Botha reportedly gained the nickname, “Pik” – the diminutive of pikkewyn, Afrikaans for penguin – based on his apparent resemblance to a penguin in his posture, accentuated when wearing a suit.

Returning to Pretoria, he was assigned to work on the case that had been brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague by Liberia and Ethiopia over the legality of South Africa’s continuing mandate over South West Africa. South Africa’s authority derived from the original mandatory authority over the territory given to South Africa by the League of Nations after Germany’s defeat in World War I.

With South Africa’s victory in the case in 1966 – the court ruled Liberia and Ethiopia did not have standing to object to South Africa’s continued rule – Pik Botha gained his first national and international attention and he became the Department of Foreign Affairs’ legal advisor. Then, from 1966 to 1974, he attended the UN General Assembly as a member of South Africa’s UN delegation. In that period, he became Under-Secretary and Head of the South West Africa and UN-Section of his department, and then he was appointed as SA’s representative to the UN. Because SA’s right to hold a seat in the General Assembly had been suspended, he was reassigned back to Pretoria.

In 1970, Botha entered politics, winning a seat in Parliament for the National Party. During that period, he also became a member of the South African legal team at The Hague again in 1970-71, for the second South West Africa case. Then, in 1975, he became South Africa’s ambassador to the US – with a dual assignment as permanent representative to the UN.

Now increasingly in the public eye, he demonstrated a vigorous, assertive style that, although not entirely in keeping with more usual diplomatic style, made him popular with white South Africans as a vigorous defender of the country’s international position.

Two years later he became Minister for Foreign Affairs. Knowledgeable observers say he had been an early opponent of the increasingly bizarre information department effort designed to manipulate domestic and international public opinion by – among other things – financing a pro-government, English-language newspaper, The Citizen, and then trying to buy The Washington Star through intermediaries to create a chance to influence American opinion.

Around this time, Botha became identified with the verlighte wing of the Afrikaner establishment. When BJ Vorster had to resign, partly in response to the information department scandal, Botha threw his hat into the ring for the soon-to-be-vacant position of prime minister. Although his quest was deemed hopeless, he did draw sufficient votes away from another challenger, the tainted information minister, Connie Mulder, that PW Botha won the prime ministership instead.

As foreign minister, Botha moved forward – cautiously – with efforts to normalise South Africa’s position internationally. These included reaching the Nkomati Accord with Mozambique, designing the prime minister’s multi-nation European tour, establishing contact with Angola’s leadership, and achieving a first meeting between SWAPO and the South African administrator of South West Africa, together with various internal political forces. Events like the De Jonge arrest and the broader political mobilisation by the UDF and other groups eventually overwhelmed Botha’s tentative moves towards a broader normalisation of SA’s relations with the continent.

Watch Denis Beckett on “catching Pik Botha’s plane”:

In 1985, Pik Botha reportedly wrote a speech that would have announced the release of Nelson Mandela, but PW Botha apparently rejected it. Just imagine. Pik Botha then made worldwide headlines in February 1986 when, in response to a question by a German journalist, he said it would be possible for South Africa to be ruled by a black president, provided minority rights were sufficiently protected. The ensuing uproar among whites meant PW Botha issued a public rebuke and a strong reaffirmation of apartheid and Pik Botha was forced to recant in a letter to the State President.

A veteran western diplomat, commenting on Botha’s long-running role in South African diplomacy, told the author “Pik Botha was a good man working for a bad government, one of the first National Party leaders who saw that democracy was inevitable. South Africa could have avoided years of turmoil and bloodshed if the National Party had taken his advice”.

As the military situation continued to deteriorate for South Africa in Namibia, in late 1988, Pik Botha flew to the Congo-Brazzaville to sign a peace protocol together with the President of the Republic of the Congo and Angolan and Cuban signatories. At the time, Botha explained “A new era has begun in South Africa. My government is removing racial discrimination. We want to be accepted by our African brothers”. Botha then signed a tripartite agreement with Angola, Cuba and South Africa at the UN on 22 December 1988. That agreement led to Security Council Resolution 435, relinquishing South Africa’s control of Namibia.

Astonishingly, on 21 December 1988, Pik Botha, together with his traveling party had initially been booked to travel to that Namibian independence ratification ceremony in New York via the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 103. This booking had been serendipitously cancelled when he and six delegates took an earlier flight, thereby avoiding the fatal explosion and crash at Lockerbie, Scotland.

As the white-minority-ruled government gave way to a government of national unity in 1994, Botha became minister of minerals and energy affairs, although he resigned in May 1996. As the National Party’s status continued to erode, he joined the African National Congress in 2000, throwing his support behind President Thabo Mbeki.

In recent years, Botha has expressed criticism for affirmative action policies saying that the then-South African government would never have achieved the 1994 constitutional settlement had the ANC then insisted on its current affirmative action programme.

A leading South African political scientist recalled for the author his surprise in discovering Pik Botha was a man of great chutzpah, energy and personal charm. Botha has always enjoyed a good story, a snifter of fine brandy and convivial company, but he has also had an intuitive sense about how to carry out diplomacy in the contemporary world. A long-time observer of South African politics  added that when he grew to know Botha, he found “he was a theatrical figure, often given to exaggeration and dire prognostications and overstatement. It was partly a tactic, I think. [Moreover] Pik on ethanol was a kind of primal force”.

Taking a leaf from Henry Kissinger’s book, Botha skillfully brought together diplomacy and a more public form of communication, and he traveled widely to bring his own impact to bear on issues and negotiations. Again like Kissinger, despite sometimes deprecating the people he worked with, he managed to instill a fierce brand of loyalty to him among “his” people. The South African scholar added that it has been a loss to historians that Pik Botha, a man who could tell a tale of diplomacy just like Kissinger has done, has apparently never chosen to tell about his extraordinary years of service in a full-scale memoir of his own. DM

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