Pik Botha was apartheid-era South African min­is­ter


Roelof “Pik” Botha, the last for­eign min­is­ter of South Africa’s apartheid era and a con­tra­dic­tory fig­ure who staunchly de­fended white mi­nor­ity rule but rec­og­nized that change was in­evitable, died on Fri­day at age 86.

Botha died in “the early hours of the morn­ing” at his home af­ter an ill­ness, his son, also named Roelof, told South Africa’s ENCA news out­let.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, Botha was the most vis­i­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tive of apartheid at the height of protests and sanc­tions against the racist rule that ended with Nel­son Man­dela’s elec­tion as the first black pres­i­dent in 1994.

Of­ten will­ing to pas­sion­ately de­bate crit­ics, the long­time for­eign min­is­ter was vil­i­fied around the world while draw­ing the ire of his own boss, pres­i­dent P.W. Botha, when he said in 1986 that South Africa might one day have a black leader.

“Merely be­cause you are rid­ing on a plane doesn’t mean that you agree with the pi­lot’s de­ci­sions,” Botha said in a 1996 in­ter­view with peace ad­vo­cate Padraig O’mal­ley.

Pik Botha, who was not re­lated to the apartheid-era pres­i­dent, later served for two years as min­is­ter of min­eral and en­ergy af­fairs un­der Man­dela, and said in 2000 that he would join the African Na­tional Congress (ANC), the rul­ing party that had led the move­ment against white mi­nor­ity rule for decades.

Botha was “one of the few” in the apartheid struc­ture who re­al­ized “at an early stage that apartheid was a wrong and crime against hu­man­ity,” the ANC said in a con­do­lence mes­sage.

He will be re­mem­bered for “his sup­port for South Africa’s tran­si­tion to democ­racy and for his ser­vice in the first demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion,” the of­fice of Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa quoted him as say­ing. It said Botha’s 17-year stint as for­eign min­is­ter was “a world record in the diplo­matic com­mu­nity.”

Apartheid’s last pres­i­dent, F.W. de Klerk, said Botha was a “unique and colour­ful per­son­al­ity” who ad­vo­cated re­form, con­sti­tu­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions and the re­lease of Man­dela from prison dur­ing in­tense dis­cus­sions within the white mi­nor­ity govern­ment in the 1980s.

How­ever, some South Africans are crit­i­cal of Botha and other apartheid-era lead­ers who ne­go­ti­ated their own po­lit­i­cal exit in rel­a­tive peace, say­ing their as­so­ci­a­tion with a sys­tem that de­nied basic rights to most of the pop­u­la­tion was un­for­give­able.

In 1996, Botha dropped out of ac­tive pol­i­tics af­ter leav­ing Man­dela’s cabinet when the Na­tional Party, the rul­ing party dur­ing apartheid, pulled out of South Africa’s na­tional unity govern­ment. He has said he op­posed the party’s de­ci­sion.

He made few pub­lic com­ments af­ter that, though he said in some in­ter­views that he felt re­morse and was even haunted by apartheid’s le­gacy while high­light­ing his ef­forts to change the sys­tem from within and op­pose in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nism.

Botha was “ab­so­lutely de­lighted” when Ramaphosa, a key ANC leader and ne­go­ti­at­ing coun­ter­part dur­ing the tran­si­tion to demo­cratic rule in the early 1990s, be­came pres­i­dent in Fe­bru­ary, Botha’s son said. Ramaphosa re­placed Ja­cob Zuma, the scan­dal-marred pres­i­dent who re­signed.

Botha, also a former South African am­bas­sador to the United States, was for­eign min­is­ter from 1977 un­til the end of apartheid in 1994.

He was in­volved in ne­go­ti­a­tions in the late 1980s that led to in­de­pen­dence in neigh­bour­ing Namibia and the with­drawal of Cuban troops from An­gola, where South Africa had been in­volved in a con­flict of Cold War prox­ies.

The re­duc­tion in re­gional ten­sions was fol­lowed by the 1990 re­lease of Man­dela, who had spent 27 years in apartheid pris­ons.

In the 1996 in­ter­view with O’mal­ley, Botha pon­dered the hard choices he made as apartheid’s front­man.

“Now you can say to me, but I should have re­signed and gone into the desert and iso­lated my­self and shout and kick. That was one choice, yes,” he said.


Former South African for­eign min­is­ter Pik Botha at a news con­fer­ence in Cape Town, South Africa, in May 1996.

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