Pik Botha: The Death of a Showman

November 20, 2018 Updated: November 25, 2018

Roelof Botha died in October, at the age of 86.

“Pik,” as he was known, had the honor of being the longest-serving foreign minister in South Africa, and possibly the world. “Pik” was his childhood pet name because as a little boy, when dressed in a black suit and white shirt he looked like a pikkewyn—a penguin in his mother tongue, Afrikaans.

He leaves a legacy that some say is emblematic of the corruption and moral turpitude of the apartheid regime.

But he spoke against the tide of his era. That made him a hero.

“We should remember Botha as the prodigal son. He sinned against the nation in supporting apartheid. But he realized his sin, recanted, and repented. In the end, he did the right thing. We must thank God for his life and for the role he played in helping us cross the Rubicon into democracy,” said a member of Parliament.

Botha was a large man with voracious appetites. He loved hunting, drinking, and women. I once saw him surreptitiously smoke a cigarette on stage at a political meeting. No one noticed, such was his ability to mesmerize his audience. They sat gazing at him like hungry guests.

He had a laugh that could knock the cream off a shortcake. People liked to be around him—women, especially. Some learned that his sentimentality cloaked a narcissistic brutality. But it was his charisma that they remembered.

***

It was during the country’s most violent and excessive epoch that I interviewed Botha, who was then foreign minister. The interview appeared in the Johannesburg Sunday Times, the country’s largest circulating weekly newspaper.

I was given a half-hour with him in the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The half-hour stretched into three hours. He was hugely charming. I knew he was a black-belt BS’er when he started the interview by complimenting me on my shoes.

As a child of 4, he contracted meningitis in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). His mother made a promise to God: If he survived, he would one day become a church minister. Instead, he became a politician. God wouldn’t expect him to keep that kind of promise. But, he says, he endeavored to uphold Christian principles.

Armed with a law degree from Pretoria University, Botha joined the South Africa Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1953. In the same year, he married Helena Bosman, with whom he was to have four children.

Botha’s name snagged newspaper headlines internationally and daily for a half-century in the killing fields of détente. While his gung-ho style of dueling left his detractors groaning, there were those that smiled on the showman, as Elgar would on the young Menuhin.

His resilience, adroitness, and toughness were legendary. Long before our interview, it was Botha who made one of the memorably verligte, or enlightened, remarks, when he said that he wasn’t going to die “for a sign in a lift,” i.e., for all the small conspicuous nastinesses of segregation. Botha was smart enough to know that the fight was not about that, not about separate buses, and benches, and lifts, and bars. The South African struggle was—and always will be—about power.

Few were better placed than Roelof Botha to understand that.

***

Born into Afrikaner nationalism and white supremacy, Botha became the chief campaigner in the referendum by which the nationalist government won approval from the white electorate to share power with the colored and Indian communities. It was a brilliant move.

“People perceive events in such a way that colors and affects their minds and their decisions. And it can be totally false throughout human history. This is exactly our dilemma politically inside this country. It is a perception among the Conservative Party members, for instance, that we are selling the country down the drain. It’s perception!” he said.

It was hard not to laugh in his face. So I laughed in his face.

South Africa’s enemies always underestimated him and his pragmatism.

“How should we handle negotiations between countries? There’s such a thing as the locomotive of history which exists in the willpower, the determination, the inventiveness, imagination, creative capability, capacity to understand, accumulate knowledge, use is, apply it, seeking the interconnection of all things thinkable that is here … solely here.” He jabbed his forehead with an index finger.

***

His father was principal at the Paul Kruger Primary School, which he attended. It’s located between Rustenburg and Swartruggens, which was Herman Charles Bosman’s heartland.

“Those hills … when I was a child, people absolutely believed that the greatest concentration of ghosts in the whole of the Transvaal was found there,” Botha said.

“I think it’s attributable to the fact that a large number of skeletons were found as a result of Mzilikazi’s murders of the Tswana. He devastated the whole environment. Historians reckon that he killed up to two million. Putting them in kraals. Burning them to death. It was faster than spearing them. As the farmers ploughed, up came the skeletons.”

He was curiously unaffected by the gruesome image he had conjured.

He offered to throw the bones for me once. He had the sangoma/witchdoctor act down. He blew into the skin bag, muttered some Xhosa phrases and then with a flourish emptied the contents of the bag—bones, rats’ feet, and a bird’s beak—on the shiny desk. He gazed at the random way the objects had fallen.

“There are a lot of changes coming to this country,” he said. Then, he took a marrow bone that had landed vertically. “This is you. Absolutely solitary and alone.”

Foreign correspondents who accompanied him abroad would tell tales of revels that included drinking grappa from a human skull. There were stories of enthusiastic womanizing. Bottom-pinching, even.

At the end of our interview, he showed me a framed poem by Eugène Marais.

“‘n Druppel gal in die soetste wyn …”

It’s relentlessly sentimental.

***

Botha was foreign minister during much of South West Africa’s (Namibia’s) 23-year guerrilla war. The country was under South African administration between 1915 and 1990. On a day that saw the heaviest fighting in the history of the war, 750 insurgents of the South West African People’s Organisation were killed. Nineteen members of the South West African Police were also killed. Botha announced that “SWAPO’s attack is illegal” and that he hoped “that Sam Nujoma realizes he has made a complete fool of himself.”

My editor, the late Tertius Myburgh, was chums with Botha.

Jonas Savimbi was, for 20 years, a figure as important in Southern African politics as Nelson Mandela. South Africa had a two-decade-long alliance with UNITA in a proxy Cold War fight against international communism.

In mid-1988, Myburgh and Botha returned from visiting Savimbi in the Angolan bush. Savimbi, they said, was a brilliant military strategist, a highly educated man, and a poet.

I was to set up an interview with Savimbi.

Although strengthened by heavy Soviet weapons captured by South African troops and American weapons, Savimbi could never take Luanda against the combined Cuban and MPLA government armies with Soviet support.

It all came to a head with a military stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988.

South Africa intervened to block a large-scale MPLA attack with Soviet and Cuban assistance against UNITA’s primary operating bases at Jamba and Mavinga. The campaign culminated in the largest battle on African soil since World War II and the second largest clash of African armed forces in history. The MPLA offensive was halted and the stalemate ensued.

Botha was sent to negotiate.

He convinced the delegates that, “We can both be losers and we can both be winners.” Botha offered a compromise that would appear to be palatable to both sides, while emphasizing that the alternative would be detrimental to both sides.

His proposal was that South Africa could claim victory with the removal of Communist military aggression from Southern Africa (including Angola), and Cuba could claim victory with the withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia (South West Africa) in accordance with U.N. Resolution 435 (tabled 10 years earlier in September 1978).

Botha told Myburgh to cancel my interview (it had taken months to set up) literally as I was at the airstrip. Thanks to Botha’s pragmatism at full throttle, I never did get to meet Savimbi. He was shot dead on Feb. 22, 2002, by advancing MPLA troops.

***

There were times when Botha demonstrated rare sensitivity. In 1970, during his first parliamentary address, he urged the government to subscribe to the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a move that had been strongly resisted.

In 1974, as South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, he stated that discrimination on the basis of skin color was indefensible. In 1986 at a press briefing, he said, “It would possibly become unavoidable that in the future you might have a black president of this country,” as long as minority rights were guaranteed. The president of South Africa, P.W. Botha (no relation), forced him to retract the statement.

***

My path crossed with Botha’s on another occasion.

I was in Mauritius when the Helderberg, an SAA Flight 295 passenger jet, crashed into the sea off Mauritius on Nov. 28, 1987. Helderberg experienced a catastrophic in-flight fire in the cargo area, broke-up in mid-air, and crashed into the Indian Ocean east of killing all 159 people on board.

Botha and a woman “friend” flew into Plaisance Airport.

Journalists were curious as to why a foreign minister would visit an air disaster scene.

***

The official inquiry was unable to determine the cause of the fire.

In 2014, the Sunday Times reported that the passenger airplane was carrying rocket fuel and ammunition. The claim was made in an affidavit provided by Allan Dexter, a former SAA consultant on his deathbed. The CEO of SAA, Gert Van der Veer “openly admitted to me that SAA carried arms and ammunition in and out of South Africa to get around the sanctions.” The planes used, said Van der Veer, were passenger planes.

Asked for comment on Dexter’s affidavit, Botha said he had been deeply involved with the events at the time.

“We did our best to have the best commission of inquiry, including international experts. Many claims have been made, including in this affidavit, but people must remember that evidence and claims need to be proven under cross-examination, where strongly held views often collapse under scrutiny, as the Oscar Pistorius trial showed.”

Botha had not lost his gift for polit-speak. He was smooth as a moth’s nose.

Twenty-seven years later, David Klatzow, a forensic expert explained why he had pursued the case so doggedly.

“The evil done by the apartheid regime in transporting rocket fuel aboard this aircraft with passengers and their subsequent cover-up attempts and dishonesty in trying to make certain that the truth never comes out, must stand as a monument to government perfidy throughout all time,” he said.

***

I recalled recently how Botha had shared his philosophy with me.

Everything can be brought down to a Latin phrase engraved on the lawn in the State Guest House.

“Pereunt et imputatur. The hours that I have measured have not been in vain,” he translated.

Botha served as foreign minister from 1977 until democratic elections in 1994 ended apartheid. He joined the Mandela’s ANC government, the same African National Congress—that had waged the fight against white-minority rule—as minister of minerals and energy.

If I were to describe his political color, I would have to say “plaid.”

“Pik” Botha (Roelof Frederik Botha), politician, born April 27, 1932; died Oct. 12, 2018.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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