The DA, PW Botha and the 'awful rise of virtue signalling'

Hermann Giliomee says Diane Kohler Barnard's expulsion was all about moral positioning, and had little to do with an understanding of our past

The DA’s reckless and vengeful expulsion of Dianne Kohler-Barnard brings to mind a recent article in The Spectator by James Bartholomew on what he calls the “awful rise of virtue signalling”. There is a growing tendency in contemporary life for people to advertise how kind, decent and virtuous they are. In South Africa one of the most popular ways of doing this is by saying how much one detests white racism and the racially-based previous order. The merits of the case counts for little. It is the assertion of moral superiority that is the “positional good”.

Virtue signalling of course requires no physical or moral courage. Without any cost to yourself you can show that you are a more decent person than the “dreadful Nats” of the previous political regime.

In Kohler-Barnard’s case there was no attempt by the party’s Federal Executive to see it as an error of judgement by a valuable party member, which she tried to rectify as quickly as possible. Instead the DA chose to engage in “virtue signalling” by meting out the most extreme punishment a party can inflict on a representative.

Its first priority was to show how much it hates racism and despises the now deceased NP leaders of the past. It wants to feel good about itself even as it fails to do the far harder work of standing up to the living racial nationalism of today, which the ANC government is pursuing while paying only lip-service to non-racialism.

James Myburgh has given an excellent account of how the DA arrived at this low point in its history. It has been described by Tony Leon as “unjust” and as “disproportional” by Wilmot James, its previous chairman. In Business Day Gareth van Onselen has astutely described what he correctly typifies as the DA’s “show trial”. The purpose of such trials is retributive, as the punishment meted out serves primarily as propaganda.

It also draws a line through the DA’s founding history.

In an exchange of views with Van Zyl Slabbert in 1988 in the journal Die Suid-Afrikaan the incomparable Lawrence Schlemmer asked: “Why can we not strive towards a future political order in which all parts of our society enjoy security and in which they are not required to write off their entire history?”

This is what the Democratic Party did in the 1990s when it started under Tony Leon to build a multi-ethnic platform in a new democracy. And it was a goal towards which Nelson Mandela also worked when visiting the widows of previous National Party leaders.

This mood has changed dramatically in the poisonous atmosphere created by the failures of the Zuma presidency. The demand now is that white people have to write off their history. The DA seems to be happily singing the same tune; it is only perhaps only F.W. De Klerk of all the leaders of the previous regime that is accorded some grudging respect.

In reality though P.W. Botha more than F.W. de Klerk represents the bridge between the old and the new South Africa. As a cabinet minister he was zealous in executing the apartheid policy in particular the Group Areas Act. He supervised the District Six removals form District Six and scores of other cities and towns. He even later suggested to Allan Hendrickse, the Labour Party, leader that coloured people had to be “grateful” that they were being moved to “decent houses”. He simply had no idea how much pain and damage the removals caused.

Under John Vorster, prime minister from 1966 to 1978, the state resembled a ramshackle family firm struggling to cope with the radically changing demands and threats. With Botha’s rise to power in 1978 came a radical rethink of the way in which the state should be administered. Botha was impressed with the professionalism and can-do mentality of the military, sharing its dismay with the tardy way in which some of the state departments implemented the upgrading of facilities in black and coloured townships.

Initially few commentators expected much of Botha as the new leader. But he hit South Africa like a storm. In contrast to Vorster, who acted like a potentate inviting the homeland leaders to come to his office for occasional ‘apartheid summits’, Botha reached out to black people. He called them ‘fellow South Africans’, visited Soweto with ‘a message of hope’, and toured all the homelands to meet the leaders.

He urged Afrikaners to study the lessons of their own history. ‘The moment you start oppressing people … they fight back. We must acknowledge people’s rights and … set ourselves free by giving to others in a spirit of justice what we demand for ourselves.’ Great changes seemed to be under way. After his first year in office, the Washington Post noted that the changes astonished blacks and kindled hopes of an alternative to violence and despair.

Yet it was still inconceivable that the white community would contemplate yielding its political power. Botha wanted a more rationalised, efficient, white-controlled system, but he made it clear that parliament would not be elected on the basis of one man, one vote while he was NP leader. ‘We are not prepared to accept black majority rule … We are not prepared to hand over power in such a way that our children would not have a future in South Africa.’

He was determined not to be sucked by stealth into reforms he rejected. According to Magnus Malan, minister of defence in his cabinet, Botha would crush any person who tried to bypass him instead of being open with him.

Jannie Roux, director-general in his office and cabinet secretary, sums up Botha’s hold on power: ‘He was not afraid of taking decisions and he disliked long discussions in cabinet. He looked people straight in the eyes and told them just what he thought. He had no secret agenda and never pulled any punches.’ His power was direct and personal; he was a straight talker, tough, brutal, overpowering and at times thuggish, vindictive and petty.

Botha reached the pinnacle of his power between November 1983 and September 1984. In November 1983 the NP won the referendum for a tricameral parliament. It resoundingly ended the symbolic supremacy of whites-only rule, but it came at a very high price: the alienation of all blacks. Botha did not try to intervene when the labour reforms went well beyond the government’s original intentions. In September 1984 he was sworn in as the first executive president.

Instead of enhancing the state’s legitimacy the Botha reforms destabilised the state. The black community was no longer prepared to wait until they too were represented in the new non-racial parliament. The independent trade unions, which now were part of the statutory industrial relations framework, seized the opportunity to become the ANC’s battering ram. The new system of black local government provoked rather than accommodated blacks because no provision was made for a viable revenue base.

No one has described the destabilising effects of reform better than the nineteenth century French political thinker Alexis De Tocqueville. He wrote: “It is not always in going from bad to worse that one falls into revolution. It more often happens that a people who have borne without complaint, as if they did not feel them, the most burdensome laws, reject them violently once their weight is lightened. The regime that a revolution destroys is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it, and experience teaches that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform itself.”

Botha’s credentials as a reformer were fatally damaged by his Rubicon speech on 15 August 1985. The details have long been forgotten (see text here – PDF) but the speech has become a metaphor for a leader failing to seize a golden opportunity. The underlying assumption is that PW Botha’s failure to embark on negotiations then led to the bloodshed and the polarisation of the years that followed. But is it realistic to assume that negotiations were on the cards?

When he made his Rubicon speech Botha had no intention of embarking on open-ended negotiations. Determined to smash the internal uprising, he was far from convinced that releasing Nelson Mandela would restore stability. He was acutely aware of the need to maintain the support of his constituency.

Johan van der Merwe, who was head of the security police in the mid-1980s, gave this assessment: ‘Electorally the NP would have committed suicide by starting negotiations with the ANC. The memory of the ANC bomb in Church Street, Pretoria in 1983, killing 18 people, had produced a strong white backlash.’[1]

By August 1985 the ANC was definitely not ready to talk. Most of its leaders remained adamant that as long as the regime had not been weakened sufficiently, negotiations had to be ruled out.[2] For the ANC leadership the issue of negotiations was fraught with danger. Negotiations could mean a major split on economic policy at a time when many still considered the Soviet model a real alternative.

Indeed the great majority, if not all, of the ANC/SACP leadership in exile were aiming for the imposition of socialism in SA at that time, which meant the nationalisation of all but the smallest of enterprises.

Enjoying large-scale support from the Soviet Union, the leadership of the ANC-in-exile had little interest in negotiations before white rule showed signs of collapse. Not hampered by police harassment or a funding crisis, it could continue the fight as long as its main ally, the Soviet Union, continued to subsidise it.

By 1987 the leadership of United Democratic Front was considered turning away from a head-on confrontation of the state’s forces, but their emissaries to the ANC leadership in Lusaka were told to go back and ‘keep the revolution going’.[3]

Looking back 25 years later, General Magnus Malan, minister of defence, said to me: ‘We could have negotiated before 1990, but with the Russians and Cubans behind them the ANC would have refused to do so. Why would they take the chance?’[4]

Internationally the climate was not favourable. The Cold War was still a reality. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had not yet met at Reykjavik for mould-breaking talks and the Berlin Wall had not yet fallen. Ultimately, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall that convinced the ANC that there was no alternative but to negotiate and to make serious concessions on its once sacrosanct historic commitments. The fall of the Wall was also decisive in F.W. De Klerk’s decision to negotiate.

After suffering a stroke P.W. Botha resigned in August 1989 and has since been universally condemned as a reactionary who failed to cross his Rubicon. In the literature he stands in stark contrast to his successor, F.W. de Klerk, who became NP leader in February 1989 and president in September 1989 after a general election. 

Yet Botha's period in power was not without major achievements. He broke down the symbolism of a white Parliament and he presided over a dramatic redistribution of income to blacks from whites, whose tax rate, according to the International Monetary Fund, was very high for a middle-income country. The pass laws, restrictions on black economic activity in the townships and all forms of job reservation were abolished during Botha’s term office.

By the end of the 1980s the state under his command had restored a substantial measure of public order without the spiralling level of bloodshed seen in other multi-ethnic states. The political deaths as proportion of the total population were the lowest of all the major ethnic or racial conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless it has to be said that there was an illegal strand in the Botha government’s total strategy, and a growing resort by certain elements in the security forces to the assassination of the state’s revolutionary opponents both at home and abroad. As Anthea Jeffery formulates it: “The government used the Vlakplaas unit to give itself the advantage of plausible deniability when ANC activists were killed or disappeared.”[5]

In the 1987 general election the NP won by a large margin. It was the first time that most English-speaking voters supported the NP. Surveying Botha’s record, Simon Jenkins, editor of the London Times, wrote in 1988 that what Botha achieved was “no mean feat – State of Emergency or not: it demanded every ounce of pragmatism in a leader.”

Botha’s refusal to free Nelson Mandela unconditionally was his greatest error. With that the NP government condemned itself to an ever shrinking margin of manoeuvre. The meeting between the two leaders in June 1989 went off remarkably well however. Mandela told me three years later that one of his greatest regrets was that he did not have the opportunity to negotiate a new constitution with P.W. Botha.

Botha balked at dismantling political apartheid in a way that meant the surrender of collective power of the dominant minority. It is difficult to say whether Botha had it in him to develop a viable plan for power-sharing that moved beyond political apartheid. But he was correct to insist that there was not simply the stark alternative of apartheid or majority rule.

In scholarly circles outside South Africa there has been an increasing acceptance that a deeply-divided society like South Africa can only be governed successfully by way of power-sharing. Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford University wrote: “I am not aware of any divided society that has been able to achieve stability without power-sharing... The best protection for minority groups lies not so much in statutory provisions as in institutional instruments that assist in the sharing of power.”[6]

The most striking recent example is the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998. All major issues can only be resolved if backed by majorities on both sides of the legislature.

Dr. Niel Barnard, who as head of National Intelligence was the only man that saw both Botha and Mandela on a regular basis in the late 1980s, and then De Klerk after, believes Botha would have said: “Let’s govern together for ten years and let’s see how it goes.” He also thinks Mandela would have given serious consideration to this proposal.

Botha resigned in August 1989. Lacking Vorster’s ability to personally attract people to him, he built up his power through much improved control over his party, the cabinet and the state administration, greatly boosting the oversight capacity of the head of government.

He reduced the number of state departments and introduced a cabinet secretariat that could keep minutes effectively and supervise the execution of decisions. Standing at the apex of the system, Botha soon established a well-earned reputation as an effective administrator who came to every meeting well prepared.

It is ironic that Kohler-Barnard was expelled for apparently endorsing the view that Botha was a capable administrator at a time that the incumbent president is probably the least successful administrator the country has ever had. It is not surprising that it is happening at a point when the collective DA leadership is at its very weakest.

Hermann Giliomee is author of The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Crucial Test of Power (Tafelberg 2012), from which this article is partly drawn.


[1] E-mail communication to author from Johan van der Merwe, 24 March 2008.

[2] Shubin, ANC, pp. 236, 250.

[3] Interview with Joe Slovo by Patti Waldmeir, 14 November 1994.

[4] Author’s interview of Magnus Malan, 9 February 2011.

[5] Anthea Jeffery, People’s War: New Light in the Struggle for South Africa (Jonathan Ball, 2009), p. 54.

[6] Vernon Bogdanor, Forms of Autonomy and the Protection of Minorities”, Daedalus, Spring 1997, p.66.