In 1984 a Tricameral Parliament for whites, coloured people and Asians was introduced. Subsequently a parliamentary sub-committee, headed by Chris Heunis, Minister for Constitutional Development and Administration, attempted to find a way of giving blacks representation in the highest decision-making bodies. South Africa had little hope of escaping growing internal turmoil and economic sanctions without extending significant political rights to blacks in a common political system
To find a way out of the impasse Pres. P.W. Botha convened a secret meeting of NP leaders in the Ou Sterrewag (Old Astronomy) building in Pretoria on 2 August 1985. The plan was to formulate proposals here that could be submitted to the congress of the National Party (NP) of Natal scheduled for two week later and to black internal leaders for endorsement.
It was hoped that this would quell the unrest and facilitate the lifting of sanctions. The Durban meeting where Botha mentioned that the reform measures he announced amounted to the ‘crossing of the Rubicon’ turned out to be a disaster and a major setback to reform.
Seeking black partners
During the first half of 1985 Heunis chaired a special cabinet committee that addressed the need to fill the huge gap left by the omission of any black representation in the Tricameral Parliament. Several other ministers also sat on the committee, which held several meetings with homeland leaders after proposing to them that they work together on common issues. Heunis hoped to widen the scope later to include those African leaders operating outside government structures.
The exclusion of blacks from the Tricameral Parliament turned out to be a major obstacle to any progress the government had hoped to make in attracting black leaders to the constitutional schemes it proposed. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the most important internal black leader, expressed no interest in government proposals for a confederation. He demanded a statement of intent before any negotiations begin and also insisted that Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders had to be released. P.W. Botha showed no inclination to do so before Mandela had foresworn violence
By mid-1985 Heunis had become frustrated by the lack of progress. Homeland leaders were unable to speak for urban blacks, and many of the real leaders were in jail. Part of the problem was the president himself. Twice during the preceding year Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee had rejected Heunis’s requests to speak to Nelson Mandela in prison. He knew the president did not want Heunis to talk to Mandela before Mandela had foresworn violence.
South Africa’s international isolation continued apace. On 25 July 1985 France recalled its ambassador and suspended all new investments. On 31 July the American bank Chase Manhattan decided that the risks of doing business with South Africa had become too high and resolved to call in all maturing loans and terminate borrowing facilities.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Pik Botha recalls: ‘I shall never forget the night of 31 July when Barend du Plessis [minister of finance] phoned me. I still perspire when I think of it. Barend said: ‘Pik, I must tell you that the country is facing inevitable bankruptcy … An American bank has decided to demand the immediate repayment of all its loans to South Africa. Can you help? Is there not someone in the United States who could talk to the bank’
In a telephone call Pik Botha call implored the retired secretary of state Henry Kissinger to intervene, but Kissinger called back to say nothing could be done and that other banks would soon follow suit. Pik Botha later wrote that he was convinced that the land was headed for economic destruction.
President PW Botha now agreed to call a extraordinary meeting of ministers and deputy ministers to discuss ways in which a government’s offer to blacks to become part of a common political system could be made more attractive. He undertook to announce decisions that would be taken to the congress of the Natal NP in Durban two weeks later on 15 August.
This meeting place in Pretoria on 2 August in a building called the Ou Sterrewag (Old Observatory), which served as a secret conference facility for military intelligence. In attendance were a total of 33 people, comprised of cabinet ministers and deputy ministers, and minsters of the white chamber of the Tricameral Parliament. Without informing the participants PW Botha ave instructions that the meeting be tape-recorded and that a transcript be made for his private use.
More than thirty-five years later, in April 2019 Fanie Cloete, who at the time was a director of constitutional planning in the Department of Constitutional Development, .discovered an unedited transcript of 133 pages of the proceedings in the archives at Free State University.
In his recent research Cloete interviewed some National Party (NP) ministers including F.W. de Klerk, Barend du Plessis and Adriaan Vlok, who attended the Sterrewag meeting. They all denied any knowledge of the meeting having been tape-recorded. Even P.W.Botha’s speechwriter and biographer, who worked closely with him, was unaware of its existence.
Cloete gives a good description nature of the Sterrewag meeting:
‘The main discussion during the meeting consisted of consecutive, formalistic position statements in the form of political shopping wish lists, first by the president and thereafter by one minister after another. It took place in typical P.W. Botha cabinet ‘discussion’ style, in strict order of seniority in the cabinet. Furthermore, there was no real debate of the different views expressed, and each speaker only had one opportunity to state his views.’ 
It was a defective format for the kind of political debate that could break a stalemate. The main impression is that of a president showing little inclination for entertaining novel ideas and of a cabinet too scared to challenge him.
A state of unrest
At the start of the Ou Sterrewag meeting the President emphasised that only twenty to thirty districts were in a state of emergency but that in the rest of the country no serious disruption had taken place. Louis le Grange, Minister for Law and Order, stated that the greatest source of concern was the Eastern Cape where industrial and economic boycotts were seriously affecting the Port Elizabeth metropolitan area, Port Alfred, Grahamstown and some other towns. Here insurgents seriously challenged the authority of the state.
Dr. Gerrit Viljoen, Minister of Education and Training, expressed the view that in 80 per cent of the country peaceful administration is the order of the day. In the Eastern Cape the state’s administration had indeed been brought to standstill but the government had started to re-establish control, Black leaders in the homelands strongly aligned themselves with central government and introduced measures to restore the state’s authority. Viljoen declared unambiguously that ultimate white control could not be compromised for the foreseeable future.
Gen. Magnus Malan, Minister for Defence, offered a sobering perspective. He argued that the South Africa was confronted with a revolutionary battle that was becoming ever fiercer. This struggle could only be won on the political field. The government could win only by regaining the political initiative.
Opening the Sterrewag meeting Botha laid down the parameters of the debate: ‘own affairs’ had to stay, ‘one man one vote’ had to be rejected, and the permanence of some blacks had to be acknowledged. He insisted that blacks outside the homelands had to be accommodated in a way that differed from the incorporation of coloured people and Indians
The President rejected a federal state, a unitary state, or a fourth chamber for blacks in the Tricameral Parliament. He intimated that he would consider a confederal state. He stated: ‘We are facing a decisive period. In Biblical terms: “The Philistines are upon us”'.
Botha was sceptical about having black local government bodies elected. He asked: ‘Are we not enforcing a form of local government on them that they are not accustomed to?’ He pointed out that that black traditional black leadership, were not themselves based on democratic elections. He claimed that ‘most black communities were associated with witchdoctors’ He quoted a ‘witch doctor’ who alleged that ‘one man one vote is one of the biggest delusions in the world.’
Minister Chris Heunis was confident that it was possible to accommodate blacks politically while maintaining white control. He believed that giving blacks control over their own affairs would mitigate the black demand for control over all matters.
Some fifteen years after the event Heunis told his son, Jan that at Sterrewag it was decided to include blacks in the cabinet, in anticipation of the outcome of negotiations over the accommodation of blacks. When his son asked him whether that meant the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Mandela, he replied: ‘Not at that stage, but it would inevitably lead to that. Once you admit that they have to be included in cabinet you also admit they are part of the South African citizenry and have the right to be part of government.’ 
De Klerk would later state in his autobiography the meeting took certain decisions to enable Heunis to embark on a new initiative in negotiations with blacks. The six non-independent homelands would ‘not necessarily’ be expected to progress to independence; blacks outside the independent homelands would become South African citizens, and negotiations would take place with them on how they would be accommodated in a new constitution. Black representation in the President’s Council would be considered. He described the Sterrewag decisions as the end of the policy of ‘grand apartheid’ and as an initiative that had the potential of persuading the world that real change was underway.
According to the Sterrewag minutes F.W. de Klerk supported the idea of ministers’ councils dealing with the ‘own affairs’ of black communities living outside the homelands. He pointed out that NP policy stipulated that there could only be a single government in the country and that all the inhabitants of South Africa had to be able to participate in the decisions that touch their lives up to the highest level. This policy now had to apply to blacks. He pointed out that proposals made at the meeting related only to the executive level, which he considered a defect.
Sequel to Sterrewag
The meeting adjourned in high spirits. Pik Botha departed for Europe in order to inform the leaders of the counties with which South Africa had the closest ties. President Botha was pleased with the Sterrewag meeting as well. In identical letters he wrote to Chancellor Kohl of Germany and Prime Minister Thatcher of Britain he said that breakthrough proposals had been made to him to which he was giving serious consideration.
Heunis intended to give a speech just after the Durban meeting but discarded the draft after Botha had made his Rubicon speech. The draft conveys a sense of the speech the department wrote for the president. The government would negotiate with black leaders about black participation at all levels of decision-making. The speech pledged government to recognise black human dignity, eradicate all forms of discrimination and create equal opportunities. ‘The First World component of South Africa had to be prepared to sacrifice some of their rights and vested interests and to make sacrifices in order to meet the demands of political and social justice.’
All the legitimate political aspirations of blacks had to be accommodated. This meant that ‘as South African citizens they had to be able to realise their political rights up to the highest level’. There had to be ‘a search for democratic solutions because they best meet the demands of social justice.’ The government was prepared to consider restoring the South African citizenship of black communities ‘including that of those living in the independent and self-governing states’. Neither the president nor Heunis’s department at that point considered Mandela’s release a priority.
‘Giving my own speech’
In the run up to Botha’s speech on 15 August, media speculation both in South Africa and abroad reached fever pitch. Time magazine described it as the ‘most important announcement since the Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa 300 years ago’. A few days before the Natal congress Gerrit Viljoen, the minister responsible for education, told an audience of Afrikaans women that ‘the future position of whites would be radically different from the present and that the country’s youth have to be prepared for drastic changes’.
Viljoen was probably referring to future prospects in a general way, but his words simply increased the excitement. Even Die Burger, which rarely deviated from the president’s line, wrote that major changes were likely to be announced – until it received word of Botha’s furious state of mind. It then promptly published a cartoon depicting ‘anti-South African forces’ pumping up expectations.
On 10 August President Botha decided to deviate from the original intention to put across a strong and consistent reformist message. In retirement, Botha told a journalist that Pik Botha had deliberately inflated international expectations in order to embarrass him. ‘That was his game, that’s why he does not come here.’
Heunis later told his son that there had been a report from Europe about Pik Botha’s presentation of the proposed reforms, implying that he had exceeded his brief, but there is no other evidence that this had triggered the president’s wrath. It is significant that he never publicly reprimanded his foreign minister.
Ters Ehlers, PW Botha’s private secretary and aide-de-camp who worked closely with him during those days, rejects any suggestion that Pik Botha’s ‘over-promising’ in Europe had angered the president. In the office he did not once mention his foreign minister as a reason for what he called ‘making his own speech’. He said to Ehlers: ‘I am not going to let people like Chester Crocker (the US Asssistant Secretary of State for Africa) prescribe to me the kind of speech I must make.’
Prinsloo’s biography of Botha suggests a more likely possibility. It states that a report by senior journalist Tos Wentzel in the Weekend Argus of 10 August provided ‘the catalyst’ for PW Botha’s discarding the most venturesome interpretations of what had been decided at the Sterrewag. The report stated that the president would announce far-reaching changes in his speech and speculated that ‘the government was trying to find a power-sharing formula with blacks without stating this too openly for fear of a right-wing revolt’.
When Heunis drove to the president’s home at noon on Saturday 10 August to hand over his department’s input, he saw the posters of the Weekend Argus trumpeting the news of imminent bold reforms. The president did not invite Heunis – his closest ally – into his home. Over the telephone a few hours later he told him he was not prepared to give the ‘Prog speech’ that Heunis had prepared for him. Heunis replied that it was not a Prog speech, but a draft that reflected ‘decisions’ taken at Sterrewag.
President Botha was intensely irritated by press speculation that threatened to make almost any reform initiative an anti-climax. He felt that while he was still was considering, still contemplating the recommendations of the Sterrewag meeting, the press had already announced his decisions. The term ‘power sharing’ in the Weekend Argus touched a particularly raw nerve, because it was this term that caused the NP to split in 1982 on the much less weighty issue of coloured and Indian participation.
Botha’s entire career up to that point had been directed at preventing blacks from gaining a foothold in, and then control over, government. Moreover, the report hinted at radical reforms that had not yet been canvassed in the NP’s caucus or provincial congresses. Defence minister Magnus Malan recalled people in his circle saying it would take at least five years for the NP government to persuade the electorate to accept some of the Sterrewag proposals.
There was also a real threat that the speculation might jeopardise future negotiations. PW Botha had just received a letter from Margaret Thatcher, his strongest supporter among Western leaders, in which she suggested: ‘We should exchange our ideas as far in advance of your announcement as possible and preferably without attracting attention.’ It is also possible that Heunis had mentioned to Botha his unhappiness with all the loose talk about power sharing, since it could undercut his strategy for negotiations. At this stage Heunis wanted to make only his opening move – inviting blacks to serve in the cabinet.
The stakes for the country were very high indeed, but President Botha was not the kind of leader who could be pressurised. He possibly felt trapped by the snares prepared by the constitutional planners in his government and wanted to reassert his authority and control. He did not understand how vulnerable to foreign pressure his government and the country’s economy had become. He decided to lash out, regardless of the consequences, and to re-establish his dominance in policy making. He instructed Daan Prinsloo in his office to rewrite the speech he had received from Heunis in a way that he would be comfortable with.
On Monday 12 August he summoned some senior cabinet members to his office. De Klerk would later tell the story. First, Botha asked who had been involved in the draft speech. He then picked up the copy, threw it down on the table and declared: ‘I will not make that speech. I will make my own speech.’ He humiliated those present by forcing them to listen for nearly 45 minutes to the speech that he would give three days later. The draft speech from Constitutional Development with the inputs from Foreign Affairs had been gutted.
Heunis responded in a dignified way by telling the president that the draft he had handed him reflected the Sterrewag decisions and that he had nothing to add. Later he told his son: ‘We sat there like a bunch of small children, listening to him reading his speech to us. No one protested. In fact, everyone nodded in agreement.’
Part of Botha’s speech did indeed announce a significant shift in the government’s stance. First, the government was willing ‘to share its power of decision-making with other communities’, and, second, blacks living permanently in ‘white’ South Africa would be granted political rights in the same system that accommodated whites, coloureds and Indians. But to a foreign audience these reform initiatives sounded insignificant.
While the speech President Botha gave did incorporate important parts of the draft speech, the tone and terminology were radically different. Carl von Hirschberg’s eloquent formulations in the Foreign Affairs input and the measured academic formulations of the officials in Heunis’s department had largely fallen by the wayside; in their place came the harsh and strident tones of the President acting as the party boss assuring his faithful that he had the situation firmly in hand and would not yield to foreign pressure.
Everything pointed to a major crisis. Although knowing full well that the speech was to be broadcast to a world audience, Botha’s highest priority was reasserting his control, a far cry from language that foreign leaders would recognise as part of the democratic lexicon.
A communications disaster
The speech President Botha gave on 15 August was screened live to a world audience of more than 200 million. Instead of a heroic leader renouncing apartheid, they saw ‘an old president’s twisted, hectoring image’, making it difficult to listen to what he was saying. ‘Don’t push us too far,’ he warned at one point with a wagging finger, confirming the stereotype of the ugly, irredeemable apartheid politician. Instead of a short, well-rehearsed statement with a core message, he delivered a long, rambling harangue.
The great irony was that Botha was in fact announcing reforms that at another time would have been recognised as major policy shifts. Influx control was on its way out. Independence for black ‘states’ was still the policy but, as the president put it in his speech, blacks in the non-independent homelands ‘remain part of the South Africa nation, are South African citizens and should be accommodated within political institutions within the boundaries of the RSA’. Structures would be established where all South African communities would attain the goal of ‘co-responsibility and participation’.
In calmer times this would indeed have been seen as a Rubicon of sorts that was being crossed. After nearly 40 years the NP finally admitted that black people had to be incorporated into the same system as whites. Here they would be considered to be full citizens sharing rights with others. At the same time, however, Botha ruled out almost everything his audience would have understood as democracy: In particular he rejected majority rule
While calling for negotiations to bring about a system in which all South Africans participated, he bluntly dismissed any suggestion of far-reaching change. He said: ‘But let me be quite frank with you … I am not prepared to lead white South Africans and other minority groups on a road to abdication and suicide. Destroy White South Africa and our influence, and the country will drift into factional strife, chaos and poverty.’
Botha called his speech ‘a manifesto for a new South Africa’, but almost in the same breath went on to state that ‘our enemies – both within and without – seek to divide our peoples … Peaceful negotiation is their enemy … They wish to seize and monopolize all power ... Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Asians … shall jointly find solutions acceptable to us. But I say it is going to take time. Revolutionaries have no respect for time … because they have no self-respect. Look what they have done to Africa, a continent that is dying at present.’
There were two particularly disastrous aspects. One was his rejection of the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. He made it appear as if Mandela and his comrades in the early 1960s were motivated solely by communist convictions. There was no reference to grievances widely considered legitimate and he presented no evidence that Mandela was indeed a communist.
The other was that Botha also explicitly refused to issue a statement of intent, which Buthelezi – the major internal black leader – had insisted on as a prerequisite for negotiations. Buthelezi had demanded an assurance that the negotiations would be about ‘power sharing’ and not just about structures where blacks would merely be consulted.
Incomprehensibly, Botha linked this demand to what he termed a ‘wish to destroy orderly government’. By refusing to free Mandela unconditionally or to make a statement of intent, Botha stiffened Buthelezi’s resolve not to talk about a future constitution before the ANC leaders had been freed or allowed back into the country.
Botha ended his speech with the words: ‘The implementation of the principles I have stated today can have far-reaching effects on all of us. I believe that we are today crossing the Rubicon. There can be no turning back.’ But these words – and the entire speech – simply mystified the international audience.
Dave Steward, who later would become President De Klerk’s main communications adviser, sums it up: ‘PW Botha showed a complete lack of understanding of modern political communication. Instead of addressing his TV audience of hundreds of millions of viewers in the West, he addressed the NP faithful. Instead of language that his real audience could understand, he used the rough and tumble idiom of South African party congresses.’
Pik Botha was devastated. Earlier he had told audiences the president’s speech would be the most important event for South Africa since Jan Van Riebeeck’s arrival, a turning point from which there was no going back. He phoned Time magazine’s Peter Hawthorne to apologise. ‘What can I do, Peter? What can I do to get this old bastard to change?’ But the ‘old bastard’ had lashed out: he made his own speech and had secretly taped all the inputs from ministers at the Ou Sterrewag meeting.
Seven months later, when divisions were paralysing his cabinet, Pres. Botha referred to it as follows: ‘The big problem was the accommodation of the black community. He was not in favour of one man, one vote in a unitary or federal state. The Special Cabinet Committee had made all sorts of inputs into his [Durban] speech, which had created confusion.’ Botha almost plaintively told his cabinet: ‘I thought on August 2 that we had clarity, but I do not think we have it anymore. Because you want me to say we stand for a unitary South Africa, you allow me to say it, you write it in my speeches, and I accept it, but what do we mean by that?’
The renowned Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, an expert on reform in potentially unstable societies, visited South Africa during this time. Addressing a conference, he warned that a combination of challenges would make it very difficult for the white minority in South Africa to hold on to power for more than a few decades.
He remarked ‘Revolutionary violence does not have to be successful to be effective. It simply has to cause sufficient trouble to cause divisions among the dominant group over the ways to deal with it.’ To avoid losing the initiative, Huntington suggested that the government had to keep power concentrated in their own hands. For the most part, seeking support for reform had to take place secretly.
To apply Huntington’s ideas to South Africa was no easy task. PW Botha and Heunis were Cape-based politicians keen to end the exclusion of the coloured community, but neither knew the black community well. With the exception of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha movement, few black leaders with popular support were willing to talk to the president or Heunis.
Initially they had little idea of the extensive support for the ANC and its internal ally, the United Democratic Front. Also, Botha was accountable to his party, lacking the free hand of a Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, or the military-based dictators of Latin America. He listened not only to Heunis but also to the ‘securocrats’, particularly Magnus Malan (minister of defence), Pieter van der Westhuizen (chief of the special cabinet committee’s secretariat) and Niel Barnard (head of the National Intelligence Service).
Heunis and his advisers saw it as their task to delicately steer the debate to a point where the president would buy into their proposals. The situation calls to mind Huntington’s observation: ‘The problem for the reformer is not to overwhelm a single opponent [in this case Botha, who was lukewarm about incorporating urban blacks] with an exhaustive set of demands but to minimise his opposition by an apparently very limited set of demands.’
Alternatively, the proponents of substantial reform had to secure agreement for some abstract principles, hoping the president and the conservative faction of the cabinet would not discover its concrete implications until it was too late. Heunis prided himself on his ability to ‘shift boundaries’ by using ambiguous wording for ambivalent proposals. ‘Got that one past them,’ Heunis once chortled after President Botha had announced a fairly significant shift in policy in a way that escaped the attention of the Conservative Party.
The name of the game was incremental reform: to engineer a common political system step by step, preferably by forcing the conservatives to accept abstract principles they had previously endorsed without grasping the practical implications. PW Botha once complained to Heunis: ‘I only later realised what some of the things you have made me say actually mean.’ No wonder the president secretly taped the Sterrewag meeting.
Hermann Giliomee is the author of the book The Afrikaners: A Concise History (Tafelberg).
 Interview with Chris Heunis by Jan Heunis, undated, ca. 2005.
 Hermann Giliomee, The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A supreme Test of Power (Cape Town: tafelberg, 2012), 190.
 Pik Botha, ‘Die land was op pad na ekonomiese verwoesting’, Rapport, 6 June 2010.
 I was among the scholars who discussed the Sterrewag meeting without the benefit of this transcript. Inevitably I got some things wrong, See my The Rise and the Demise of Afrikaner Power (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2019), ‘A word in advance’ and ch.9..
 Fanie Cloete, ‘Resolving P.W. Botha’s Rubicon riddle’, Historia, 64,,2, 2019, pp.132-55.
 Jan Heunis, Die Binnekring (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007, p. 78.
 Interview of Chris Heunis by Jan Heunis, undated.
 De Klerk, Die laaste trek, p.120.
 Prinsloo, Stem uit die Wlldernis, p.309.
 ACA, Amanda Botha, ‘Navorsing oor Chris Heunis’, 16 January, 2007, unpublished memorandum; Heunis, Die binnekring, pp. 84-85.
 This paragraph is based on Prinsloo, Stem uit die Wildernis , pp. 346-47.
 Die Burger, 14 August 1985.
 Waldmeir, Anatomy of a Miracle, p. 54.
 Interview with Ters Ehlers, 7 June 2008.
 Weekend Argus, 10 August 1985; Heunis, Die binnekring, p. 82.
 Heunis, Die binnekring, p. 82; interview with Chris Heunis by Jan Heunis, ca. 2005.
 Prinsloo, Stem uit die wildernis, p. 343.
 Interview with Magnus Malan, 8 February 2008.
 Prinsloo, Stem uit die wildernis, p. 346.
 Brian Pottinger, The Imperial Presidency, p. 330.
 Beeld, 12 November 2007.
 Interview with Chris Heunis by Jan Heunis, ca. 2005; Heunis, Die binnekring, p. 80.
 Waldmeir, Anatomy of a Miracle, p. 54.
 E-mail communication from Dave Steward, 3 May 2008.
 Verbatim text of the speech, issued by the SA Consulate General, New York, published in Schrire, Adapt or Die, pp. 147-59.
 Lawrence Schlemmer, ‘Message Received’, Sunday Times, 18 August 1985.
 E-mail message from Dave Steward, 3 May 2008.
 Papenfus, Pik Botha, p. 375.
 Verbatim extract from cabinet minutes, published in Sunday Times. 28 August 1994.
 Samuel Huntington, ‘Reform and Stability in a Modernizing, Multi-Ethnic Society’, Politikon, 8, 1981, p. 11.
 Huntington, Political Order, p. 347.
 Brian Pottinger, The Imperial Presidency: PW Botha – The First Ten Years (Johannesburg: Southern, 1988), p. 82.