Last Friday saw the passing of one of apartheid's most famous ministers, Pik Botha.

A younger Pik Botha, 1977
A younger Pik Botha, 1977

Roelof Frederik Botha, nicknamed 'Pik' (the diminutive of pikkewyn - a reference to the his perceived likeness in stance to that of a penguin), had an illustrious political career, but is most famous as South Africa's longest serving Minister of Foreign Affairs, a post he held from 1977 until 1994.

Considered by some to be a liberal of the time, ironically the bulk of Pik Botha's career was spent defending apartheid against foreign criticism. Described by many to be a 'colourful politician', Botha was seemingly the ultimate diplomat. In one interview with an unnamed British journalist, Botha clearly states that "there will never be one man one vote", and yet in 1986 he is famously quoted as acknowledging the possibility of a black president ruling South Africa, but with the caveat that there would have to be a guaranteed protection of minority rights for white people. Just as Botha was forced to apologise for this statement and publicly admit that his position was not that of government (he was apparently severely reprimanded and almost fired over his remarks), a year earlier what was to be a landmark speech written by Botha and the Deputy Director General of Foreign Affairs, Carl von Hirschberg, was at the last minute tossed aside by Prime Minister PW Botha.

Pik Botha & Prime Minister PW Botha, 1983
Pik Botha & Prime Minister PW Botha, 1983

On the 2nd August 1985, a highly confidential meeting of the National Party's inner circle took place at the Old Observatory in Pretoria. One of the supposed outcomes of this meeting was an agreement to draw black politicians into cabinet. Von Hirschberg is said to have reported on Pik Botha's excitement after the meeting, and how he used Botha's account of the policy changes agreed to at the meeting as the basis for his speech, which was to be delivered by the Prime Minister at a congress in Durban on the 15th August. In the original draft of the speech Pik Botha included the following statement:

I believe that we are today crossing the Rubicon. There can be no turning back

In the days leading up to the Durban congress Pik Botha and his diplomats traveled to foreign capitals all over the world to prepare the powers that be for what was purported to be a paradigm shift in South African politics. An audience of over 200 million people tuned in to hear what they hoped would be the announcement of the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela, but with a change of heart at the last minute, instead PW Botha chose to reiterate South Africa's commitment to a 'whites only' government. The world reacted by imposing harsher sanctions, further isolating South Africa from the international community. In response the Rand fell drastically against major currencies, and the economy continued to shrink rapidly until after the democratic handover of power, nearly a decade later.

Pik Botha with Nelson Mandela at a rally in 1994
Pik Botha with Nelson Mandela at a rally, 1994

Had Pik Botha's original draft been accepted by the Prime Minister, much violence and turmoil may or may not have been avoided, it's difficult to say. It's also difficult to say for certain what Pik Botha's motives were when pushing for a more democratic future for South Africa, or when he later became a member of the ANC. But regardless of the thoughts behind his actions, there's no doubting that Pik Botha was a moderating force of the National Party, and that his actions went some way towards helping to form the South Africa we all live in today.

Images courtesy of, and

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply