After completing his LLB degree at the University of Pretoria and joining the department of foreign affairs, Roelof “Pik” Botha, who died at his Tshwane home on Friday at 86-years-old, helped perpetuate apartheid oppression.
He was a key member of the South African team that went to the International Court of Justice at The Hague to defend the country’s rule over South West Africa. South Africa won the case in 1966 after the court said the applicants, Liberia and Ethiopia, lacked jurisdiction over the case.
Over 20 years later, as foreign affairs minister, Botha helped negotiate the tripartite agreement between South Africa, Angola and Cuba that granted Namibia independence and saw the withdrawal of foreign forces in Angola’s civil war.
His legacy is replete with contradictions.
Botha became foreign affairs minister in 1977, served under three apartheid presidents, and defended apartheid as the government led a brutal campaign against activists and destabilised neighbouring countries.
He shot through the ranks of his department and briefly served as ambassador to the UN before South Africa’s membership was suspended and apartheid was later declared a crime against humanity. Foreign affairs minister until 1994, Botha travelled the world trying to dispel criticism of the apartheid regime and build allies during the Cold War and in its proxy battles fought in Africa.
But according to National Party standards, which is an extremely low bar, Botha could be progressive.
“As long as we can agree in a suitable way on the protection of minority rights without a racial sting … then it would possibly become unavoidable that in future you might have a black president of this country,” Botha famously said in 1985.
He was publicly admonished by president PW Botha, leading the foreign affairs minister to admit his comments didn’t reflect government policy.
In the same year, Pik Botha and others worked on the infamous “Rubicon speech”. According to historian Hermann Gilliomee, inputs called for the “government to recognise black human dignity, eradicate all forms of discrimination, find democratic solutions and create equal opportunities”.
The speech was hyped as the most important announcement since the arrival of Dutch settlers, but president Botha instead doubled down on apartheid policy and left Pik Botha to publicly defend the unmet expectations, despite his misgivings.
Botha listed his career highlights in a 2011 interview: the trilateral agreement on Angola; working towards Nelson Mandela’s release and the negotiations over South Africa’s constitution; the ill-fated 1984 non-aggression pact between Mozambique and South Africa; and the 1979 Lancaster House agreement that gave Zimbabwe its independence.
He served as minister of mineral and energy affairs in the first democratic government between 1994 and 1996 and then retired from politics after the National Party withdrew from the government of national unity and the party later disintegrated.
In 2000, he announced his support for ANC leader Thabo Mbeki and his intention to join the ANC. In a statement on Friday, the ANC said he joined the party in Tshwane in 2000, but in a letter to a newspaper in 2013, Botha’s second wife Ina said he never joined the party.
During his rare public appearances since his retirement, Botha was critical of the ANC’s employment equity and black economic empowerment policies and called instead for improvements in the education system.
“The NP would not have been party to a negotiated settlement which brought about a constitutional dispensation in SA if the ANC had insisted that affirmative action legislation – and particularly the way it is currently being implemented – be enshrined in the Constitution,” he was quoted as saying in 2007.
Mbeki responded in a lengthy letter explaining the government’s policies and asked: “What more do I have to say and do to convince you that I mean what I say when I say I am your brother’s and sister’s keeper?”
Botha’s son Roelof said on Friday that his father was concerned by the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma and delighted at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s election.
In a statement on Friday, the Presidency said: “President Ramaphosa said Mr Botha would be remembered for his support for South Africa’s transition to democracy and for his service in the first democratic administration.”
ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe said: “As the ANC, although Botha was a former minister of the Nationalist Party administration, we acknowledge and are appreciative of his positive contribution towards building a new and better South Africa.”
Botha served under apartheid’s last president, FW de Klerk, and on Friday De Klerk said Botha was a consistent advocate for reform during the 1980s.
“Perhaps his most important contribution, was the manner in which he and his colleagues in the department of foreign affairs held the line against growing international pressure until the collapse of international communism in 1989 opened the way to the negotiations that led to the establishment of our non-racial constitutional democracy,” said De Klerk.
While Botha may have called for reforms, De Klerk’s comments show how he helped prolong apartheid’s inevitable demise. DM
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