Pik Botha: A good man working for a bad government

Former minister Pik Botha (File, Netwerk24).
Former minister Pik Botha (File, Netwerk24).

Roelof "Pik" Botha, who has died at the age of 86, was the world's longest-serving foreign minister, a charismatic career diplomat-turned-politician whose negotiating skills were in high demand as international opposition to apartheid gathered pace, particularly in the 1980s.

Greatly admired, even by many of his political foes, the verligte or "enlightened" Botha was, as one western diplomat put it, "a good man working for a bad government, one of the first National Party leaders who saw that democracy was inevitable. South Africa could have avoided years of turmoil and bloodshed if the NP had taken his advice".

And therein lay the rub. The merits of a "good man" serving apartheid have been questioned by those who have argued that, thanks to Botha's diplomatic successes — and they were considerable, given the odds — the advent of a democratic South Africa was considerably deferred. Simply put, he further delayed the inevitable.

It said a lot for his negotiation skills that his greatest successes in foreign affairs came in the mid-1980s, precisely at a time when the government's stubborn reluctance to scrap its apartheid policies was contributing to its further isolation.

He was, for example, instrumental in setting up the 1984 Nkomati Accord, a non-aggression pact signed by Pretoria and the communist People's Republic of Mozambique that was viewed with derision by other southern African countries.

It was soon revealed to be an agreement of little substance. Despite its stated intentions, Maputo continued to offer support to the then-banned African National Congress, and Pretoria continued, despite repeated pleas from Mozambique's Samora Machel, to supply arms to the rebel Renamo group.

More impressively, however, Botha arranged for Willie van Niekerk, then administrator-general of South West Africa, as Namibia was known when the territory was under Pretoria's control, and various other internal political parties to meet with insurgent Swapo leader Sam Nujoma in Zambia.

At the same time Botha also maintained an ongoing dialogue with the government of Angola to prepare for an end to the so-called "Border War", and to thus pave the way for Namibian independence.

His other significant achievement at the time was to organise then-prime minister PW Botha's (no relation) European tour in May and June 1984.

Again, the 18-day, nine-nation trip was trumpeted as a diplomatic breakthrough and an indication that the isolation from the international community was drawing to a close.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, and those Western European governments that met the South Africans all reaffirmed their continued opposition to Pretoria's racial policies.

Journalists who were assigned to cover these trips soon learnt that Botha had very little in common with his dour prime minister, and that his legendary reputation as a bon vivant and raconteur was not without foundation.

Simply put, Botha liked to drink – and he often chose to do so with journalists. These "off-duty" moments were often hilarious, especially when Botha was in a mischievous mood.

On one particularly long flight, he filled an ice bucket with the contents of various miniature bottles of spirits to produce a lethal concoction which he passed around like a large African calabash. When that was finished he began "throwing" the empty bottles – as a sangoma with bones – to jokingly predict the journalists' futures.

On another occasion, this time in Rome, Botha filled a large ceremonial marble skull with grappa and had the press corps drink it. Later, the press corps all joked that it was the first time they'd been drunk "out of someone else's head".

The fact that none of these stories surfaced during Botha's lifetime, and the rule that "what happens on the trip, stays on the trip" was universally upheld, spoke volumes of the fourth estate's respect for him.

Botha's poetic streak, one of staggering sentimentality, would often surface when he was in his cups. One rambling soul-searching free verse epic, scrawled on the back of a cigarette box around a bushveld campfire, read thus:

"Who am I?/an astronaut/a passenger/an animal/an almoner/a rover/hunter often missing the mark/thief who lies and deceives/wage earner/cave dwell-er/Afrikaner/twister of facts/middle-aged man/awaiting the grave/summonsed and awaiting trial/victim of my own thoughts/the hunter and the hunted/defenceless before fate/beachcomber and shipwreck/bruised branch/smoking wick/hypocritical believer..."

Another time, he declared, "Forget me. Who am I? In time and space, I am nothing."

Away from such introspection, however, South Africa's relationship with the outside world continued to sour as the hard-line government of PW Botha, now president, increasingly resorted to violent methods to quell growing domestic protests.

Pik Botha's first run-in with his boss came in 1985 when he reportedly drafted a speech that would have announced the release of the imprisoned ANC leader, Nelson Mandela. The draft was rejected by President Botha.

Then, in February 1986, Botha told a Cape Town press conference that it was possible the country would be ruled by a black president provided minority rights were guaranteed.

A furious President Botha, however, publicly repudiated him for this statement, and Pik Botha was forced to acknowledge, in a letter to his boss, that a black president was not part of government policy.

But the downfall of the Nationalists was already on the cards.

In December 1988, he flew to Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, to sign a peace protocol with Angolan and Cuban representatives.

At the signing he announced, "A new era has begun in South Africa. My government is removing racial discrimination. We want to be accepted by our African brothers."

This time there would be no such repudiation from PW Botha. Within weeks, the president would suffer the stroke that led to his resignation, and the eventual appointment of FW de Klerk as the last apartheid leader.

After the country's first democratic elections, in 1994, Botha went on serve in President Nelson Mandela's government as Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs from 1994 to 1996, after which he retired from politics.

He emerged from retirement in 2000 to declare his support for President Thabo Mbeki, and it was reported that he had joined the ANC. But he denied this in a 2013 interview in which he criticised the government's affirmative action programme.

The son of a school principal, Roelof Frederick Botha was born on April 27, 1932, in Rustenberg, in the then Transvaal. When he was four, the boy was struck by meningitis while on holiday in Mozambique and was treated at a hospital in Barberton. His mother vowed that if he survived, he would become a church minister.

He attended Paul Kruger Primary School, where his father taught, and Hoër Volkskool in Potchefstroom, where he became chairman of the debating society, captain of the first rugby team, and an officer in the school cadets.

He studied law at the University of Pretoria, where a theologian explained to him he was in no way bound to honour his mother's promise to God that he become a man of the cloth.

After completing his degree, he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in February 1953, and in 1956 was posted to Sweden and then, in 1960, to West Germany.

It was about this time that he acquired his nickname, Pik – short for "pikkewyn", Afrikaans for penguin – because his posture resembled that of the seabird whenever he wore a suit.

Upon his return to South Africa, in 1963, he joined the legal team to represent South Africa in their case at the International Court of Justice at the Hague over the administration of South West Africa.

The case, brought by Liberia and Ethiopia, ran from 1965 to 1966 and was ultimately dismissed the court ruled that the two African countries had no jurisdiction in the matter.

Botha was then appointed Foreign Affairs' law adviser and between 1966 and 1974 attended various sessions of the United Nations General Assembly as a member of the South African delegation. He rose up through the ranks and was eventually appointed Ambassador to the UN. A month into the job, however, South Africa was suspended and he returned home.

He was by then a prominent Nationalist MP, having won the Wonderboom seat in 1970 and 1974. In 1977 he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and in the same year became MP for Westdene, the Johannesburg constituency he represented for the rest of his career.

He is survived by his second wife, Ina, who he married in August 1998, and his four children and several grandchildren. His first wife, Helena, died in April 1996 after a long illness.

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