The last five Afrikaner leaders

Hermann Giliomee says there is an eerie parallel between the NP and the ANC govt today

Winston Churchill once said: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." He fully carried out his decision, made early in his life, to write copiously and absorbingly about history, his ancestors and his political career.

Indeed it could be argued that for much of his career he was above all a writer. It peeved him somewhat that he did not win the Nobel Prize for Peace, but it was quite appropriate for the committee to award him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Sadly there was no Churchill among the white leaders who scaled the political pinnacle in South Africa. With the exception of FW de Klerk no one wrote his autobiography. In his life Jan Smuts penned more than 20 000 personal letters to but he never seemed to have given any thought to writing the story of his life and remarkable career. It is a great pity. His remark made in letter penned in December 1948 encapsulates the true character of the country: "In South Africa the best, or the worst, never happens."

Because very few of the white leaders sat down to write their life's story the historian has a special obligation to try to lift the cover of  crucial decisions that  affected the lives of all of us. A main theme of my book The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Crucial Test of Power (Tafelberg), which appeared last week, is the crucial role of individual leaders and of the contingent nature of developments (see here).

Social scientists in particular are inclined to underestimate the role of leadership. It is when they enter politics that they realise how wrong they were. After talking to Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir and other leaders on one of his shuttle missions in the Middle East in 1974, Henry Kissinger said: ‘As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.'[1]

An embattled ethnic or national group, such as the Jews or the Afrikaners, fearing not only the loss of their power but also of their cultural heritage, attaches great weight to leaders to secure the group's survival and material welfare. In the mid-1970s a large opinion survey found that 60% of Afrikaners would support the leaders ‘even if they acted in ways they did not understand or approve.'[2]

In 1992, when white civil servants felt very insecure about their career prospects, a poll was taken to measure their trust in politicians. It found very low levels of trust in politicians in general, but more than three quarters of NP- or DP-supporting respondents trusted De Klerk to negotiate a settlement that they could endorse.[3]

One does not have to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, to recognise that the character of leaders and the kind of leadership they provide are of vital importance. For better or worse, they left a far greater imprint on the course of history and our lives than is normally assumed.

The great American diplomatic historian George Kennan, who produced seminal perspectives on the capacity of the Soviet Union's capacity for reform, observed that the historian has to go beyond the what of history to consider the how.

Historians have to ask how the leaders saw the facts and how they related to them. This leads to other questions: What did they think they were doing and what did they in actual fact achieve? What motivated them and what was their vision? What role did this vision play in the outcome? Finally: in the light of the historical perspective, how did their efforts relate to the ultimate results of their behaviour?[4]

In my book I address these questions with respect to five white South African leaders (Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, PW Botha, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, and FW de Klerk). How did these leaders manage to build up their position, what motivated them and what did they achieve (and not achieve)? Some other aspects are also important. Did they rely on sage advice? Did their health or other personal circumstances affect their decisions?

The most intriguing figure of the five is Verwoerd.  The battle for control over the state that was waged from 1976 to 1994 was never a military one but one fought to an extraordinary degree by means of propaganda.

For some reason the African National Congress leadership decided in the early 1960s to single out Verwoerd as the arch demon, but that was not how he was seen by a wide spectrum of public opinion in the mid-1960s. A week before his death Time magazine described him as "one of the ablest white leaders" Africa has ever seen. The Financial Mail published a special edition, entitled ‘The Fabulous  Years' on the period 1961 to 1967, when South Africa grew by 30 per cent in real terms.

Harry Oppenheimer observed that in the first half of the 1960s black wages in secondary industry grew faster than those of whites, adding that this might be the reason why the country "was so much more stable than many people are inclined to suppose."[5]

There are many misconceptions about Verwoerd. It was not his stance on apartheid that won him staunch support among Afrikaners but his unexpected success in winning a republic. In private he was remarkable flexible about apartheid. 

To Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary General who visited the country in 1961, he privately spelled out a vision of what the two leaders called a  "competitive alternative to integration" that was compelling enough for them to decide to explore the matter further.  (Hammarskjöld died shortly afterwards in an air crash).

John Vorster, his successor,  missed major opportunities for reform and was such a poor administrator that it is easy to underrate his abilities.  But Henry Kissinger, who met him in Germany in 1975, described him as "highly intelligent." 

Helen Suzman  was a fierce critic of his policies but did not write him off as a political leader. She told me once: "Verwoerd was ideologically obsessed, so you could not argue with him, PW Botha was a bully, so you would not argue with him, but Vorster had a mind. I liked listening to him."

She believed Vorster had a far higher regard than the  ANC leaders for the right of opposition parties in Parliament to receive proper answers from government for its action .  

Fanie Botha, the minister of labour who appointed the Wiehahn commission, revealed that it was Vorster who first mooted the idea of such an initiative in a private conversation between the two them in 1975.  

Vorster allowed rampant departmentalism. The cabinet never discussed the incursion of South African troops in Angola in 1975 or the decision to impose Afrikaans in black schools in Soweto and other the southern Transvaal townships in 1975. In both cases disaster ensued.

Interviewing Vorster in 1980 on the very day Robert Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe, I posed this question: "Had Ian Smith as leader of the white community in Zimbabwe squandered options that could have prevented this fate?" He had, Vorster replied, and but he rejected all Vorster's attempts to negotiate a compromise solution. Exasperated, Vorster asked him: ‘Do you not know the story of the sultan's horse?' The sultan had sentenced three men to death but promised to set free any of the three who could make his horse talk. While two of them were being dragged to the executioner's block the next day they saw the third standing about free. ‘What did you tell the sultan? We said it was impossible to make a horse talk.'  The free man replied: ‘I told the sultan I could make his horse talk, but it would take five years. In that period a lot can happen: The sultan could die, the horse could die or I could die, and, who knows, I may even get the damn horse to talk.'

Vorster noted that when Smith did finally accept majority rule the regime had its back against the wall, unable to set conditions. He had wasted the time when he could have made much better deals. The parable's implications for Vorster and for South Africa were obvious, but our conversation did not dwell on that. The sudden appearance of Moscow aligned governments on South Africa's borders and the apartheid state's failure to provide urban blacks with any representation left Vorster paralysed.

PW Botha against all expectations turned out to be a shrewd and rational leader during his fist seven years in office. In 1982 Javier Perez de Cuellar, UN Secretary General, remarked privately : "Two leaders have made a great impression on me,  China's Deng Xio Ping and South Africa's PW Botha. They understand power."

Botha fatally miscalculated by omitting blacks in the first step of constitutional reform. But he accepted a unified system of industrial bargaining and without his support the Wiehahn Commission's reform proposals would have been emasculated.

Botha's erratic performance in the second half of his term was due to a stroke he suffered in 1985, which was hushed up and is revealed for this time in the book. A neurologist who studied the scan is convinced that Botha ought to have retired.  The stroke almost certainly accounts for his strange behaviour in the first three weeks of August, culminating in the disastrous Rubicon speech.

By 1975 South Africa was the world's 18th largest economy and the world's 15th trading nation. By 2007 it had fallen to 28th and 37th.[6] Although there were rumours about corruption, Transparency International, which measures the perceived level of corruption, ranked the country in 1995 -the earliest survey available -24th, just below Japan and above Portugal.  By 2011 it had fallen 40 places and was ranked 64th in the world.[7]  

Life expectancy of population rose improved from 51 in 1960-65 to 61 in 1985-90. Financially the government was under pressure, but, as Derek Keys, the last Minister of Finance, told me: "We could go on".  The state was not bankrupt, as is often stated.  The resistance movement offered no immediate armed challenge to the state by the end of the 1980s.

Why did the government find it necessary to hand over power in 1993-94? Magnus Malan, minister of  defence, told me frankly: "We won the war militarily but lost it at the negotiating table." It was Van Zyl Slabbert, who drummed in the message that a state t isolated universally and confronted by an increasingly hostile labour force could not hope to restore growth and stability.  But Slabbert miscalculated in believing that the ANC was a confident, market-friendly body concerned with the welfare of all, instead of a populist movement bent on the enrichment of the powerful while providing hand-outs to the poor.

The last leader discussed in the book is FW de Klerk. His gamble was to lock the ANC in a power-sharing arrangement that provide the basis for a successful economy and co-operation between white and black. I still believe it is the best system of government for South Africa.

White rule was inherent unstable with most of the population disenfranchised and most of the labour force excluded from the formal negotiating framework. But as inherently unstable over the longer run is a system like the current one, with more than two-thirds of the ANC supporters paying no taxes, apart from sales tax.

There is an eerie parallel between the NP and the ANC government: the people in power believed that the system on top of which they sat was working  and needed only minor modifications. As in the case of the NP after the Mid-1980s the ANC leadership will soon find the ground under their feet shifting and crumbling. 

In an obituary of Eric Hobsbawm, the doyen of Marxist historians,  Cambridge professor in law David Feldman pointed out that winners rarely ask the interesting questions. "How could they? Their victory seemed right and inevitable or both. "  Hobsbawm, he added, was on the losing side and was better placed to asked how history turned out the way they did, and also, one could add, how the country could set out on a more promising path.[8]

South Africa is in danger of becoming a losing country. It is time for winners and loser to get together and talk about becoming a success story.

Hermann Giliomee is editor of the New History of South Africa (Tafelberg 2007) and author of The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Crucial Test of Power (Tafelberg, 2012) - which can be purchased online here


[1] Cited by Walter Isaacson in Michael Leventhal, ed., The Hand of History (London: Greenhill Books, 2011), p. 69.

[2] Theo Hanf et al, Südafrika: Friedlicher Wandel? (Munich: Kaiser, 1978), pp. 421-22.

[3] [3] JS Wessels and A Viljoen, ‘Waarde-oriëntasies en toekomsverwagting van die Vereniging van Staatsampternare', (Pretoria: RGN, 1992), pp. 6-7, 44.

[4] Robert Ulan, ‘The US and the World: An Interview with George Kennan', New York Review of Books, 12 August 1999, p. 6.

[5] Anglo American Corporation, "Chairman's Statement", 1964, p.2.

[6] RW Johnson, South Africa's Brave New World: The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid (London: Allen Lane 2009), pp. 598. The figures are from the World Trade Organisation.,

[7] Martin Plaut and Paul Holden, Who rules South Africa? (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2012, p.282.

[8] David Feldman, Ëric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012", The Observer, 7 October, 2012.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter