Melanie Verwoerd

Pik Botha, Evita Bezuidenhout and a hospital visit from Madiba

2018-10-17 07:38
Former foreign minister Pik Botha gives Evita Bezuidenhout a kiss. Photo: Joyrene Kramer

Former foreign minister Pik Botha gives Evita Bezuidenhout a kiss. Photo: Joyrene Kramer

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"Is dit Melanie Verwoerd?" a voice on the other side of the phone asked. I immediately recognised the deep, nosy tone. It was, after all, the voice that throughout my youth filled our TV screens, defending the government's policies while insisting that foreign governments were mistaken in their opposition to apartheid. 

For a moment, I panicked. "How do I address him?" I wondered. My Afrikaner upbringing kicked in and it felt hopelessly too familiar to call him "Pik". Then again, "Oom Pik" didn't feel right either. 

"Meisiekind," he said in Afrikaans before I could think any further. "You don't know me, but my name is Pik Botha." "Natuurlik weet ek wie u is," ("Of course I know who you are,") I answered in my best, respectful Afrikaans, letting the "meisiekind" comment slide.

It turns out Botha was calling me, because I was chairing a session a few days later at the 2018 Woordfees in Stellenbosch. He was due to appear on a panel together with Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout and (!) Pieter-Dirk Uys. Knowing that this could be a challenging discussion to manage, I had e-mailed the participants earlier to discuss the content and arrangements. 

Botha was responding to the mail, but first wanted to get a few things clear. "Kyk hierso, jy moet een ding goed verstaan," ("Look here, we have to get one thing clear,") he said gruffly. "I had the greatest respect for Dr Verwoerd." 

"But, of course" I responded. "I would have expected nothing less." 

"Ja," he responded – the irony in my voice clearly passing him by – before launching into a long history lesson filled with Verwoerd anecdotes. 

I listened patiently… what else could I do? After about 20 minutes he passed the phone to his wife, Ina, so I could discuss the arrangements and content of the discussion, before ringing off. 

On the day of the panel, the room was packed to the rafters. This was clearly one of the key events of the festival. I finally met Botha, who was frail, but full of beans. He still had a twinkle in his eye and even at the age of 86 he flirted with the women who came to greet him. 

But the real surprise came when Evita Bezuidenhout arrived in all her glory. Botha, who was already on stage, immediately lit up. He got up slowly, but determinedly and grabbed Evita in a bear hug. 

"Piiiik," cooed Evita. "My darling, I have missed you." The audience laughed and applauded. After all, it had been rumoured for years that he and Evita had had a fictional affair. The hug went on for ages… so the crowd applauded and laughed more. "Goeiste Pik," tannie Evita said after a while. "Let go of me."

I tried to control the conversation, but neither Pik Botha nor Evita Bezuidenhout was going to pay any attention to me as chair. Watching the two chat and share anecdotes like two old timers on a park bench was hilarious. Watching Botha flirt with Evita was confusing. Eventually tannie Evita excused herself – she had something urgent in Parliament to attend to. A few minutes later, she was replaced by Pieter-Dirk Uys. 

The tone of the conversation changed as we finally got to the topic of the panel discussion: Nelson Mandela and his legacy. Botha discussed the 1994 transition with clarity and passion, sounding again like the feisty and formidable foreign minister of my youth.

As we were about to close, Botha said he wanted to share a personal anecdote of Madiba. He explained how he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998. When he woke up in ICU after a procedure to remove the cancer, he found Mandela sitting at his bedside. Seeing his eyes opening, Madiba took his hand and said: "Don't worry Pik, these doctors are good. Please just relax now and get better quickly."

As Botha told the story he became emotional. "He was an exceptional person," he said, choking up. I saw many in the audience wiping away tears.  

Over the last week many people had written about the contradictions of Pik Botha. On the one hand he was the face of apartheid to the world for almost two decades. Yet, he was also the person who angered his National Party colleagues by insisting long before that South Africa must get a black president. He was the one who attacked the ANC and their communist links for many years, yet was the man who the ANC could relate to during the negotiations. Someone who, to quote Mathews Phosa, "wanted the same outcome as we did".

I also felt many contradictory emotions during that panel discussion. Yes, I remembered his role during apartheid, but up close he was human, funny and strangely charming. 

At a time when there is an increasing tendency to again categorise both issues and people simplistically as "black or white" and "good or evil" it is perhaps good to be reminded that it is always more complicated – especially when it comes to individuals. This is something Madiba understood so well. 

As Botha started to leave after the discussion in Stellenbosch, he said: "Sien jou volgende jaar, meisie," ("See you next year, girl,") "and remember, I had a lot of respect for Hendrik Verwoerd." He waved his finger at me, laughed and then the broad shoulders, slightly bent, disappeared around the corner.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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Read more on:    evita bezuidenhout  |  pik botha  |  nelson madela


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