R F ‘PIK’ Botha
Genial-seeming foreign minister of South Africa who defended apartheid but survived its collapse
ROELOF FREDERIK “PIK” BOTHA, who has died aged 86, was the long-serving last foreign minister of apartheid-era South Africa from 1977 until 1994; he was regarded both at home and abroad as a moderating influence on successive National Party presidents.
Urbane, jovial and well-liked outside the ranks of South Africa’s extreme Right, Botha hit the headlines in 1986 when he earned a stern ticking-off from President PW Botha (no relation) after telling western diplomats that South Africa might one day have a black president. Rebuked by the president in parliament, he only saved himself by writing a humiliating apology.
Yet PIK Botha was a much more contradictory figure than his reputation as a liberal might suggest. He had spent most of his career defending apartheid, and even after it became clear that change was inevitable, he continued to blow hot and cold and was not above the odd act of deviousness designed to secure the most favourable outcome for the white minority.
In 1992 it emerged that in 1989 and 1990 – as South Africa’s President FW de Klerk took the momentous decision to lift the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and release its jailed leader, Nelson Mandela, with a view to negotiating a constitutional settlement – Botha had sanctioned secret funding for Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC’S main rival.
The revelation was an embarrassment to de Klerk, with whom Mandela had agreed to negotiate as a “man of integrity”. He denied he had known of the payments and demoted two of the ministers involved. Botha denied that the government had given Inkatha secret subsidies as “totally and utterly untrue”, only to be forced to admit a month later that the payments had been made.
Yet Botha was too important an ally to lose, and despite having been caught out telling a lie, he was retained as foreign minister. In later life he claimed that Mandela had been like an “elder brother”, and there were reports that he might even join the ANC.
Roelof Frederik Botha was born to an Afrikaner family in Rustenburg on April 27 1932. His father was a maths teacher and headmaster. Botha acquired his nickname in childhood when he was given a black suit which made him look like a penguin – “pikkewyn” in Afrikaans.
At the age of four he survived a bout of meningitis, overcoming partial paralysis. He went on to study Law at the University of Pretoria, though he might have chosen several other paths. A star pupil at high school, he had shown promise as an actor, wrote short stories and poetry and became chairman of the debating society and captain of rugby.
Botha joined the South African Diplomatic Service for a bet in 1953 at a time when there were few Afrikaners in the foreign ministry. Three years later he was posted as third secretary in Stockholm. After a posting to West Germany, he served for three years in the mid-1960s on his country’s legal team at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in the matter of Ethiopia and Liberia v South Africa, which related to the continued presence of South Africa as the Mandatory power in South West Africa (now Namibia).
From 1966 to 1974 Botha served on the delegation representing South Africa at the UN and in October 1974 was appointed South Africa’s ambassador to the organisation. A month after he presented his credentials, however, South Africa was suspended from membership of the General Assembly, though it remained a UN member.
In 1970 Botha had been elected to the House of Assembly as National Party MP for Wonderboom in the Transvaal. His maiden speech, in which he urged the government to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, earned him the distrust of many on the Right of his party.
In 1975, in addition to his UN post, Botha was appointed South Africa’s ambassador to the United States. In 1977, he re-entered Parliament as MP for Westdene, and was appointed minister for foreign affairs – with the unenviable job of defending apartheid on the world stage as South Africa became more and more of an international pariah.
Two years later the prime minister, John Vorster, was forced to resign amid a political scandal involving secret plans to divert funds from the country’s defence budget to fight a propaganda war for the National Party government. Botha stood for the leadership but went out on the first ballot with just 22 votes before PW Botha was elevated to the presidency. The contest was testimony to Botha’s survival skills – he retained his job at the foreign ministry – but also his inability to muster support among his own colleagues.
He was regarded as a skilled behind-thescenes negotiator, and his achievements under PW’S regime included securing a peace deal in 1988 that led to the withdrawal of the Cubans and the ANC from Angola and ended South Africa’s military involvement there. He also became involved in the negotiations that led in 1990 to Namibia’s independence.
Botha was known to have pressed colleagues for Mandela’s immediate release and the scrapping of apartheid’s Group Areas Act, yet sometimes the strains of pushing colleagues towards moderation while defending the system to the outside world led him to lose his cool. In 1986, in a belligerent speech to National Party faithful, he angrily defied the imposition of sanctions by the country’s trading partners, declaring that “either we bow down to the world’s demands or refuse to take any more of its meddling”. One-man-one-vote, he said, would be “tantamount to suicide”.
In 1988, infuriated by hostile questioning, he strode out of a foreign press dinner at which he was the guest speaker, telling his audience: “If you don’t like it here, go to any of the 50 countries north of the Limpopo.” He was, he said, “sick and tired of a lot of foreign representatives descending on my country and pointing up all the dirty work instead of all the promise, beauty and good will of this country’’.
Sometimes nicknamed “the housewife’s darling’’, Botha remained a popular, charismatic figure among whites. A survey in 1986 showed that 54 per cent of white voters wanted him as the next president, against three per cent for the eventual victor, FW de Klerk. Yet when the party leadership was contested in 1989, Botha ran a poor third.
The vote had been triggered by
PW Botha’s resignation as leader of the National Party in February 1989 after suffering a stroke. In March the NP elected de Klerk as president but PW refused to resign. It was PIK Botha’s championing of de Klerk which finally forced PW out of office.
De Klerk’s elevation gave a new momentum to the process of reform and in 1990, in a speech to a National Party congress in Durban, Botha declared, to prolonged applause: “We have a new future in a new South Africa. There is no way that we can turn back. There are a lot of rewards if we carry on … We might not smell like roses, but we are not the polecat of the world any more.”
After Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, Botha served for two years as minister of minerals and energy. In 1997 he became the first former National Party minister to give evidence to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when he asked “God’s forgiveness” for failing to do more to prevent atrocities, which he blamed on the security services.
He was said to be delighted when Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Jacob Zuma as South Africa’s leader earlier this year.
In 1953 Botha married Helena Bosman, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. She died in 1996 and in 1998 he married Ina Joubert, who survives him with his children.
R F “Pik” Botha, born April 27 1932, died October 12 2018
PIK Botha, ‘the housewife’s darling’, in 1994 with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, left, and Nelson Mandela