Pik Botha remembered as both 'visionary' and 'two-faced'

Pik Botha has died. (Lisa Hnatowicz, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)
Pik Botha has died. (Lisa Hnatowicz, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)

Former apartheid minister of foreign affairs Pik Botha, who also served in the first democratic Cabinet, was on Friday remembered by former colleagues as a far-sighted politician who foresaw the end of apartheid long before the rest of the National Party government did.

But political adversaries say Botha was never quite trusted by the ANC and the democratic order because while he was open to dialogue, he was also willing to defend apartheid to the hilt.

READ: Former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha dies

Leon Wessels, who was deputy chairperson of the Constituent Assembly between 1994 and 1996 and later became a human rights commissioner, says Botha played a major role in South Africa's transition to democracy and that he was privileged to serve as deputy minister of foreign affairs under Botha between 1989 and 1991.

"He had enormous insight and knowledge about world affairs and diplomacy. He was a hard worker who demanded much from his staff."

OBITUARY Pik Botha: A good man working for a bad government

Botha, much more than any other politician of the apartheid era, saw that the system was not workable, says Wessels.

"In his maiden speech in Parliament he drew the ire of the National Party when he said South Africa could not ignore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that the world was changing. After that, the party whippery was very reluctant to give him time at the podium; he was considered a risk."

'A colourful career'

"But he also had a big fight with PW Botha when he said he expected South Africa to have a black president one day and that he'd be prepared to serve under such a leader. And he also accepted that Nelson Mandela had to be released."

Wessels believes Botha should be remembered as a pioneer and thought leader who believed in democratic values.

"He was a great believer in constitutionality but wasn't naïve about the challenges South Africa faced."

Mac Maharaj, one of the ANC's lead negotiators in the early 1990s and also a member of Mandela's Cabinet, says Botha had "a colourful career".

"He was a man of many parts; he was very complex. On the one hand, you had the Pik Botha who would defend and market apartheid across the world. And on the other hand, you had the Pik Botha who was able to respond to the pressure of a changing world and was willing to talk," Maharaj said on Friday.

It would be wrong to say Botha was either "verlig" or "verkramp", the two Afrikaans terms used to describe the progressive and conservative camps in the National Party in the 1990s, says Maharaj.

Botha's death 'tragic'

"To say he was either would be to box Botha in. He had the ability to change his views on matters as time went along. For example, he defended South Africa's continued rule over Namibia in front of the World Court in The Hague, but at the same time was able to confront PW Botha, who did not trust him."

Maharaj says Botha was prone to hyperbole in an effort to be liked.

"Even though we never became friends and the social divide which apartheid forced us into was never crossed, we got on well with him. My condolences to his friends and family and I hope they find a way to keep him in their thoughts."

Dawie de Villiers, a former minister who served in both the last apartheid and first democratic cabinets, says Botha's death is "tragic" and agreed with Wessels' sentiments.

"He was far-sighted and had the ability to make quick and effective decisions. He did a lot for South Africa on the international stage during the final years of apartheid."

Ben Turok, a senior ANC MP in the 1990s, says Botha had a reputation for being "two-faced".

Building bridges

Among ANC MPs it was known that Botha was a "strongman" but that he could also be personable and friendly.

"We never knew which Botha would show up. I don't think he was ever fully trusted by us."

Wessels says during the negotiations Botha had the ability to build bridges where others could not.

"This is illustrated by one incident at a cocktail function after the big confrontation between Mandela and FW de Klerk at Codesa. At one stage it was only myself and Botha who were left at the function, only us two who were part of the De Klerk Cabinet. We were standing to one side talking and Mandela walked over and told me: 'Would you mind if the old men had a word in private?' Well of course I didn't and I left them alone to talk.

"Their heads were close together as they spoke about what had happened, and when they were done Mandela walked across to me and said: 'Don't worry Leon, Pik and I will sort this out.' And they did."

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