Mathews Phosa: The enigma that was Pik Botha

Mathews Phosa

Pik Botha was never far from controversy. Among those who knew him, many felt he thrived on the intellectual challenge of difficult debates, sometimes stirring up hornet's nests as he went, not always meeting with everyone's approval, but certainly bringing a refreshing sincerity, an open mind and boundless energy to the table. 

His was a restless energy, working long hours into the night studying legal opinions from his international law advisers; considering complex memoranda and policy proposals from his departmental officials; dictating Cabinet documents; writing letters to his constituents; consulting with his close aides, or receiving an ambassador who had requested a hearing; and often holding impromptu meetings with fellow MPs or journalists who would pop in for a quick chat. A day with Botha was never dull.

He was not a conventional politician. He had little time for boring meetings and listening to meaningless speeches. Parliament was a purgatory for him, and he was seldom to be seen there, except when answering questions in the House, delivering his budget speeches, or attending the opening session. Otherwise he would be in his office, throwing himself at his work, or travelling extensively as his job required. In fact, nothing about him was conventional, which made him such an intriguing and fascinating figure.

Most intriguing, perhaps, was just how different he was from his National Party (NP) colleagues in the parliamentary caucus and the Cabinet. He was always a maverick, viewed by many of his fellow MPs as an outsider whom they were not quite sure how to deal with. That did not stop them from inviting Botha to address public meetings in their constituencies, as he was guaranteed to fill whatever hall they chose, and although Botha would often say things they did not like, his charisma and stage presence was a sure vote-getter. 

Journalists often commented on the irony that someone like Botha, who was so far ahead of the political system he operated in, could survive as long as he did as Foreign Minister from 1977 to 1994. And yet he remained a force for change, often the only force, in his political party. We have not seen the like for a long time.

His early speeches drew extraordinary public support, telling anyone who would listen that discrimination based on colour could not be defended; or that he was not willing to "die for an apartheid sign in a lift". 

He was publicly opposed to the tri-cameral parliament introduced in 1984, believing it would make a bad situation worse as it excluded the majority of the population, and was therefore dead-on-arrival. Its only merit, in his view, was that it broke the paralysis in NP thinking at the time, and could possibly serve as a springboard to more fundamental change. On its own it was too deeply flawed to serve as any kind of solution for South Africa.

By 1985 he was calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and a negotiated future for the country. He said so during a media conference in early 1986. This was heresy in the NP at the time, and he came perilously close to being fired (not for the first or last time). Senior leaders of his party thought Botha had finally gone too far, and he had to be shown the door. He survived by the skin of his teeth. PW Botha brutally repudiated him in Parliament, little knowing that four years later Mandela would be a free man and historic negotiations would commence.

After seven years of negotiations (1981–1988) the war in Angola finally came to an end, and it was Pik Botha who signed the Trilateral Agreement with Cuba and Angola at the United Nations in New York in December 1988. But for him his biggest moment as Foreign Minister came shortly thereafter with the independence of Namibia, an issue he had worked on since the World Court case in the 1960s. 

Botha knew at the time that things were changing rapidly, and with the collapse of communism and the withdrawal of Soviet and Cuban troops from southern Africa, new possibilities were on the horizon for South Africa. He welcomed Mandela's release and the dawn of a new era of constitutional democracy, in which he played his part as Minister of Minerals and Energy Affairs in the Government of National Unity.

For many in the liberation movement, and especially those in exile, Botha was variously an enigma, a riddle, a breath of fresh air, a lone voice trying to convince his party and his followers to imagine a different future for the country, and at the same time the international face of the apartheid government. He was all of those things, but he also defied easy description. 

He believed deeply in South Africa and its people. He could see no reason why his government, or any government of South Africa, should not put its faith in the people, and deliver a non-racial future where every citizen could enjoy equal rights under a democratic constitution. 

Many in his own party labelled him a sell-out, while many in the opposition labelled him an arch racist. Botha was neither, and never was.

I was one of the first of the exiles to return to South Africa after Mandela's release to commence the process of normalising the political situation in the country and laying the groundwork for the democratic transition that was to follow. Years of negotiations and our joint work to build and consolidate the institutions and practices of a new democracy at the southern tip of Africa, brought me into regular contact with Botha, the man and the politician. 

We in the ANC found in him someone we could relate to; someone we could work with; someone who wanted much the same outcome as we did. We could not say that for everyone in the NP whose paths we crossed. Nor could we always agree with Botha on many issues, but there was a degree of sincerity in the man, and a desire to do what was right for the people of South Africa that was unmistakable and set him apart from so many of his peers, in his own party and in others. 

It was not only his technical expertise, his personal charm, and his quick-fire mind that gave him an elevated status, but ultimately his human qualities and the endless battles he fought over many years that defined him as a truly great South African.

He became a personal friend, to me and other comrades who got to know him. 

As we say farewell to Botha, let us reflect on where we came from and how far we have travelled. No-one said it was going to be easy, and it still isn't. There are other mountains to climb, but looking back it seems hard to imagine what South Africa might have been without Pik Botha. We all owe him a quiet word of thanks.

- Dr Phosa is a politician and attorney and former ANC treasurer general and anti-apartheid activist.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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