The hollowness of Pik Botha

Glenn Babb says the NP foreign minister was the wrong man, pursuing the wrong policy


“No man is a hero to his valet”

Anne-Marie Bigot de Cornuel {1605-94}

More than a year has passed since Pik Botha’s death and the claque of praise-singers has become a distant echo. By his overwhelming personality and theatrical persuasion, Pik for 17 years reigned over the National Party’s foreign policy.

He got the name “Pik” from being cheerleader (rasieleier) at the University of Pretoria’s intervarsity rugby sing-song, wearing swallow-tails and white bow-tie, looking like a penguin (pikkewyn), hence Pik. This role suited him and for his full career he was rasieleier, always looking for the limelight, wanting to be, as someone said on his death, “the bride at every wedding and the cadavre at every funeral”.

He made his name in the foreign service at the South West Africa case in 1966 at The Hague. Pik had been given the task of drawing up the memorials for the legal team proving that South Africa was fulfilling its Mandate responsibility of promoting the welfare of South West Africa’s local population. This was the thrilling part of his career – he recounted without end how he had slept under the proofs at Cape Town Printers, how he had pretended that the Prime Minister’s office had given approval for delaying the SAA flight to Amsterdam and how he sped to Jan Smuts Airport with police escort to get the memorials to The Hague in time.

The memorials were not needed in the end because the President of the Court, Sir Percy Spender, refused to apply teleological interpretation to the South West Africa Mandate and decided that Ethiopia and Liberia had no locus standi to bring the action and dismissed it.

As a reward, Pik was made head of a new section, Legal and UN, to which I was transferred from Protocol where I was arranging dog licences for diplomats, paying back excise duty on petrol and having the Pretoria municipality quash traffic tickets for the corps. I had written a memo on de iure recognition of Rhodesia and this came to Pik’s attention.

Pik was bored and ignored so when National Party delegations came to persuade him to stand for parliament in Wonderboom against the dreaded Herstigte Nasionale Party, he agreed and went to Parliament before being appointed in 1974 Permanent Representative to the UN andambassador to Washington.

The post-Republic Foreign Minister had been the anti-Semite, Eric Louw, who coined the phrase “South Africa, the polecat of the world”. His reaction to South Africa’s isolation was to pen a book The Case for South Africa which railed against other states whose human rights record (India, Canada, Australia) were allegedly more hypocritical than South Africa’s. He was followed by Hilgard Muller who was genuinely hurt at how rude the world could be. Then came Pik. Much was expected: he had said that South Africa should buy into the principles of the UN Human Rights.

That was a false dawn – Pik continued right where his predecessors left off.

Pik had put himself forward as an African: “African solutions for African problems”, he said and, bizarrely, in Brazzaville: “Africa must build its own cars and refrigerators...” Yet Pik was never comfortable in the company of Blacks – only two of significance attended his funeral: Bantu Holomisa and Moeletsi Mbeki. No African or international politicians came.

Getting the West to protect the Laager

To Black Africans, he was alternatively patronising (George Matanzima), hostile (Afonso Dhlakama), disdainful (President Abdallah), dismissive (Abdouldaye Wade) or smarmy (Mobutu Sese Seko) – and he could be downright rude towards petty officials (customs officials in Botswana).

It was to the chanceries of Europe or the beltway of Washington that he turned for salvation. This was the hollow and ultimately failing foreign policy he pursued for two decades. For this, he gathered around him a cabal of like-minded officials who became known as the “Washington mafia” and who fell happily into Pik’s slipstream as suave mediocrities. They preferred the luxury hotels of Europe and the US and durably remained holding the reins of this doomed policy.

They consisted of Neil van Heerden, Derek Auret, Herbert Beukes, a man who struggled to speak English and had the air of a mortician and, then, outriders, the uncommunicative Johan Kilian and, later, Leslie Manley.

Chester Crocker counted Pik Botha amongst the Cabinet Ministers he would not like to meet in a back alley on a dark night according to his book, High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood. Pik’s coterie shared a deficiency: none of them spoke foreign languages except van Heerden who spoke some German.

It should have been clear to Pik and the cabinet he served , that our saviour would not be the West. The sanctions, the hostility and the boycotts started in Africa. Despite this blindingly obvious fact, South Africa’s policy accepted African resistance as a given and turned counter-intuitively to the West. Where should your foreign policy be concentrated? Answer 101: sensibly on Africa.

Pretty well all the resources went on endeavouring to convince the Western powers to stick with South Africa’s government. This was a failing and pessimistic policy. There is logic in trying to keep major trading partners on side, but aiming all your rescue remedy there is like putting Elastoplast on war wounds.

This policy was doomed. It was asking allies to help keep the barbarians from the gates, it was retreating again into the laager. It could not succeed and, in their hearts, our Ministers and in particular, Pik, knew it. That is why, impressed with Masada in Israel, where the Romans had pinned the Israelite resistance till they committed suicide, he ruminated : “This is what the Afrikaner should do – resist until suicide.” It seems his romantic projection for the embattled Afrikaners is ominous and can partially be blamed on his policies.

He personally wrote the speech challenging the world at large towards the end of the National Party reign, to be addressed to the UN: “Do your damnedest!” read by the underwhelming Leslie Manley.

In 1985, he summoned heads of mission to Pretoria for a debriefing. His part in this debriefing was astonishing. At the government guest house he stormed in, stood on the landing and thundered at us: “You have been sent abroad to promote this country – you must do it aggressively. You must confront governments that oppose us even if you’re declared persona non grata. I won’t tolerate inactivity. I expect you to go out and show strength of will. If you are not prepared to, you can ask to be recalled or I’ll recall you.”

He stormed out again.

This implied that, as cheerleader, he had nothing more to cheer about and no-one to lead. The policy had unravelled. The rasieleier showed that cheerleader was all he was and that the intervarsity was coming to a whimpering end.

Venture into the Interior

At an early stage (1961), with enough self-confidence, South Africa could have taken a pro-active approach on the Congo where the half-mad Irishman, UN rep’s Conor Cruise O’Brien, as an Irish Unionist opposed to separatism, used troops to kibosh Tshombe’s party, COTAKAT, which wanted Katanga to secede from the Congo.

South Africa, which was the route for Katanga exports needed forcefully to insist the results of the Katanga election legitimised Tshombe – but our role remained passive and we even withdrew our Consul from Leopoldville.

Leaving the Commonwealth hampered a true Africa policy and by the time Pik became Minister in 1978, it had become an axiom that Africa, the cause of isolation, was irredeemably fixed in enmity.

But was it? The SADF and National Intelligence had a much more pragmatic conception of Africa.

In 1963, when the Organisation of African Unity came into existence, early resolutions were firstly, that frontiers of the Berlin Conference (1885) should be sacrosanct, thereby seeking to eliminate separatist movements in Katanga and Biafra, and secondly, that South Africa should be excluded and sanctions imposed.

Both were fateful decisions. One was a recipe for wars that continue to plague the continent. The effect of the second was that SAA had to fly around the bulge, South Africans could not get visas, ports were closed to South African ships and goods were boycotted.

These resolutions were not unanimously accepted. One opposing the sanctions was Ivory Coast, whose president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the “sage” of Africa, regarded it as folly to exclude the powerhouse of Africa and politically stupid not to dialogue with the white Africans. Mauritius ignored it. Some countries that took independence after 1963, like Malawi, did not buy into this ideology. Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana, locked into the Southern African Customs Union, were unable to.

By the time Pik became Minister, many African states had buyer’s regret and a growing number put out feelers on multiple levels. We started a ranch in Gabon and co-operated with its mining company, COMILOG, in marketing manganese, the Defence Force helped Mobutu against the Simba rebels, PW Botha as Defence Minister had good relations with King Hassan of Morocco, we started farms in Equatorial Guinea and the Comores and placed DFA personnel on the ground, our planes landed in Cape Verde, National Intelligence had outposts including Togo, the Deputy President of Somalia, Ali Samatar, visited South Africa and official delegations visited Mogadishu. The President of the Comoros, where the SADF had a listening post made an official visit. Jonas Savimbi even said to Jean-Yves Ollivier that the Afrikaners were “les vrais sauvages d’Afrique”, (the true savages of Africa) meant in the most complimentary way.

At Pik’s appointment, the time was ripe for a recalibration of our Africa policy. This was strongly resisted by the Washington mafia – at the management meeting in which I set out planned relations with Equatorial Guinea, Herbert Beukes scoffed heavily.

They found delectation in the hotels of Europe and America while Bula Nyati (Zaire PM), Idi Nadhoim (Comoros VP), Ali Samatar (Somalia VP) and Hervé Duval (Foreign Minister, Mauritius) were content to lodge in my house in Kensington, Johannesburg.

Where South Africa had been openly welcomed in African countries this was not exploited. The Central African Republic under President Jean-Bédel Bokassa had contracted Anglo-American’s LTA to build a hotel in Bangui guaranteed by the Credit Guarantee Corporation.

After Bokassa’s overthrow in 1979, President Joseph Kolingba’s successor government approached South Africa to complete the hotel. Pik’s reaction was: “For me, that hotel can stand like a piece of Meccano in the middle of Africa.”

Pik an Africanist?

Africa was always an also-ran for Pik. In contrast to his public pronouncements on Africa, he gave the Washington mafia full rein for the use of resources and personnel to convince Western influentials to oppose sanctions.

A budget of millions was established for this. Fortunes went through Herbert Beukes’ embassy in Washington to improbably named lobbyists like Shipley, Smoak, Henry and Holdgreiwe. As media groupie, Pik derived immense pleasure from being photographed in the company of Franz-Josef Strauss of Bavaria, with whom he went shooting, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and these photos adorned the walls of his office (no Africans though); but when President Abdallah of the Comores came on an official visit he did not attend the banquet.

He was frivolous and dismissive of Africa efforts. After more than a year of hard work and negotiation, we had managed to get President Siad Barre (Somalia) to allow SAA overflights to (of all places) Israel. The delegation I put together consisted of the head of the SA Reserve Bank, Simon Brand, SAA’s head, Gert van der Veer, SADF brasshats, National Intelligence and Pik.

Pik saw this as a way to reward Albert Vermaas, on whose game farm he hunted, by hiring Vermaas’ private planeto get to Mogadishu. Then, while staying at the OAU village waiting for President Barre, Pik thought it a source of amusement to go with his sheath knife and electric razor to the bazaar to barter them for amber.

Always surrounded by Somali security personnel, this frivolity could only have got to the ears of President Barre, who, at our meeting, did a U-turn saying the South Africans were not offering enough in exchange for the overflights. Albert Vermaas’ plane and the others flew back with their tails between their legs.

In the Comores, he was more interested in seeing Derek Auret ride the 100-year-old tortoise at the presidential palace than seriously engaging with President Abdallah on relations with Muslim Africa. When I took him to the farm we were financing and managing where, mirabile dictu, our Agricultural Technical Services were growing mealies in a 2 metres rainfall zone to show him our money was not being wasted, he irritably aked: “Why do you bring me here? I’ve seen a farm before in my life.”

I was able to induce Abdouldaye Wade, who was to become Senegal’s President, to visit South Africa. I had great expectations of this visit because Abdouldaye, whom I had befriended in Paris, laid out a scheme for full relations between Senegal, and the powerhouse of Africa and for communal processes of African co-operation in defining internal South African policies with the government. This I set out in a memorandum to Pik. I interpreted from French in the hour-long meeting during which Abdouldaye laid out his intention, on becoming president, to break the mould and to take advantage of our expertise.

Pik listened impatiently. After an hour stood up saying: “You obviously know a lot about Africa”, and dismissed us. Perplexed, I went back into Pik’s office to determine what help would be given to make this man president. But there was Pik with his heels on his desk talking on the phone to Reeva Foreman about crossword clues.

The opportunities from 1986 for an advance into Africa were growing incrementally. Barriers lay in the Bloomsbury group favourites, Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) but even here, the Department and Pik did nothing to seek rapprochement. It was National Intelligence (Mauritz Spaarwater) and Anglo-American that arranged for me to meet Kenneth Kaunda in Lusaka more than once.

Kaunda let me know that, as in 1978, when he met John Vorster, he was open to an approach from South Africa. Both he and Nyerere were reaching the end of their shelf-life. To expect a follow-up from Pik and the Washington mafia was a chimera even as the more intransigent anglophone countries were showing more flexibility.

Half of Africa speaks French and francophone countries presented the greatest chance of expansion into Africa, but, because of Pik’s and the Washington mafia’s inability to speak French, that half was ignored. We had an ally in the French Presidency, Jacques Foccart – France’s “Mr Africa”. His powerful influence in Africa had already been used in our relations with President Omar El-Hajj Bongo of Gabon.

He would have put his services at our disposal for any initiative we took which would have aided France’s relations in Africa: most of our military imports came from France. Even the later Mr Africa, François Mitterrand’s son, Jean-Christophe, expressed his willingness to collaborate with Francophone states and South Africa.

The Washington mafia continued the hollow policy in the US, whose Ronald Reagan was seen as a knight in shining armour and in Thatcher’s UK, demonstrating its defensiveness. We even made large donations to the election campaign of France’s Jacques Chirac.

Africa conference at the Reserve Bank

In 1988, the Africa Division, under the astute aegis of the Branch’s secretary, André Pelser, arranged a two-day Africa conference attended by ESKOM, the railways, CSIR, banks and the Reserve Bank, the WWF and environmental bodies, trade and industry, mining houses, agricultural bodies, SADF and National Intelligence and any institution involved in Africa.

It attracted 250 delegates and from this, interlinking interests in the continent were exposed as never before – the wide-ranging penetration into the economy and administration of Africa opened eyes and disabused everyone of the impenetrability of Africa. The Director-General, van Heerden, sniffily appeared on the last day and, notwithstanding the evidence of this progress in expansion into Africa, it had no impact on the unwavering Western bias of our international relations.

One practical thing emerged from the conference – the launching of transnational parks promoted by Anthony Hall-Martin of National Parks. The report by André Pelser went unread by the élites.

Instead of taking our competence, industry, innovation, and African idealism into the continent, Pik’s policy put up weak and futile blockades against the African diseases of corruption, nepotism, incompetence and - the real killer – a lack of shame, leaking into South Africa’s reality and putting us in the pretty pass we’re in now.

We had needed to go boldly into Africa – and, as emerged clearly from André Pelser’s Africa Conference – many had already.

As quid pro quo for the ranch we had started in Equatorial Guinea, President Obiang Nguema had given me two signed concessions for oil exploration in two blocks to the South and South West. That was an exciting prospect and I took the documents, including seismic studies to Pik.

Here, I said, is an excellent opportunity to expose our mining, exploration and mineral expertise. Obiang set no restrictions on us and had not hidden our ranch from the world. By placing ourselves physically in the centre of Africa and displaying what we could offer could only help convince Africa of the folly of isolating our economy.

Pik was half-hearted. He directed me distractedly to take the concession offer to the oil industry. I approached Brian Gilbertson at Gencor, David Day at Mossgas, de Villiers at Sasol, Vorster at the Strategic Fuel Fund and the Director General of Mineral and Energy Affairs. All were surprised and interested but wanted to get their own data and samples as they doubted the seismic reports, and official and financial support had to underpin taking advantage of the concessions.

I took this to Pik with the strong recommendation of Cabinet approval, but, like so many opportunities offered out of Africa, it landed in his file 13. Recently, Exxon has revealed that these two blocks are the richest oilfields in the world.

So distant were we from Africa, that when I recommended that we approach the Red Cross and the French government to intervene with the Madagascar President, Didier Ratsiraka, to free two South Africans, pilot John Whyte and diamond dealer, David Marais, illegally interned in Antananarivo, Pik was blunt in writing back to me that Ratsiraka had stated he would free them only against the liberation of Nelson Mandela and I should no longer meddle in this matter to avoid government wrath.

Even a humanitarian effort could not be essayed in Africa. This was true fatalism (and cruelty): Whyte and Marais stayed behind bars for seven years.

The military dimension

If South Africa had taken its courage in its hands, it would have taken into the continent what had made South Africa respected. The critic will say that South Africa could never have been accepted but there’s enough evidence to show how the wheels had turned.

What struck Africa was the inventiveness and strength of the country. South Africa had competence and Africa looked on with bemusement as it itself fell into kleptocracy and corruption as Western aid allowed their élites to spend on their armies and ill-conceived programmes .

Our armed forces were alternatively feared and admired and any bold foreign policy would have necessitated defence force co-operation . Every African country wanted military co-operation, supply and tactical support. Pik would hardly work with the military and the military establishment had little respect (more like contempt) for him.

The SADF had experts on the ground – Col. Neels van Tonder spoke excellent French and Admiral Koos Louw was Portuguese-speaking so that, to this day, Angolans, Mozambicans, Guineans and Cape Verdeans seek him out. The SADF had better intelligence and often remarkable penetration into the inner circle of African governments.

Pik had so rudely castigated Renamo’s Afonso Dhlakama at a meeting at the Observatory in Pretoria arranged by the SADF that it almost jeopardised the talks in which I was involved in Rome for the Renamo and Frelimo Peace Protocol .

When I phoned Derek Auret from Rome about what offers we could make to satisfy Dhlakama he said feebly: “Maybe farm implements.” The SADF knew exactly what security guarantees he needed – they knew how Unita’s representatives in Luanda had been assassinated. Pik’s aversion to the military was paranoid. The Defence Minister, Magnus Malan, was no match for Pik’s bullying.

Neighbouring countries

Pik stated to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies: “It had been clear to the DFA that the burden of Namibia had to be removed – like Rhodesia before it – to enable us to tackle the problems in this country.”

“Burden”? “Had to be removed...”? What sort of language is that? Draw up the drawbridge? Put up the stockade and tidy up the fort? It was in no way clear to “the DFA” that South Africa needed to get “rid of” of neighbourly problems.

Courage was even more essential to face up to the dilemmas of neighbouring countries – the problems Pik said had to be “got rid of”. I have no record of Pik ever meeting Mugabe except for rubbing shoulders at the Angola peace protocol in Rome.

If a pro-active role had been launched instead of adopting the fatalistic “Godswater oor Godsakker”, Zimbabwe, the food basket of Africa, would not have suffered its cruel fate.

Pik boasted he convinced the Cabinet (from the UN Permanent Resident office) not to give any further aid to Ian Smith whom he hated and whom he often tried to get to resign. (Smith’s autobiography, Bitter Harvest, depicts Pik’s crude methods in lurid detail.) All very well, but Pik had no plan “B”.

Rhodesia had a lesser chance of withstanding nationalistic incursions and sanctions, but, without ensuring its stability and good governance post-Smith, a similar fate awaited us. Instead, the African diseases were fatalistically allowed to flourish. As Zimbabwe’s major trading partner, with thousands of South African farmers, industries and mining houses in the country, railways running through it, electricity supplied by Eskom, a firm policy and engagement were needed to prevent what happened and that implied the threat of force. As Stalin said about the Catholics: “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Plan “B” would have prevented the Matabele massacres and helped alternative power bases to resist Mugabe’s one-man rule. Instead, Pik allowed Henry Kissinger to determine Rhodesia’s future, just as Pik and the Washington mafia allowed Chester Crocker to move negotiations with the Angolans and Cubans from Brazzaville to Cairo, Geneva and New York. In the interview with the Commonwealth Institute Pik said: “The Americans were very important in facilitating a final settlement. Chester Crocker knew Reagan quite well, and he himself saw achieving a peaceful settlement as a challenge.” How feeble can you get?

The same aversion to dealing with Africa directly pertained in Angola. At the briefing before the troop withdrawal talks, I opined to the delegation that agreement implied de jure recognition of the Angolan government and renunciation of Unita. Pik shouted me down: “We’ve already recognised the Angolan government in our talks in Lusaka ...” As a result, Unita hovered like a gloomy omnipresence in the sky over the negotiations and the civil war continued for more than a decade afterwards. Manfully facing the alternative power bases would have made honest men of us.

Involving Africa in South Africa’s internal politics

Africa envied South Africa’s expertise. Not all African governments were convinced about the ANC, or its representivity.

As things went their inevitable way in the Western-driven policy, the government received several African delegations whose specific aim was to convince the Nationalists not to hand over South Africa’s nuclear weapons to the ANC.

Africa’s imvolvementt would have implied a fundamental change in internal politics in South Africa – and Verwoerd and Eric Louw had made peace with this possibility in discussions with Hammarskjold.

Discussion directly with the African detractors would have brought them into the loop to make them part of the solution which could have been of any nature imaginable: federal, confederal, Yugoslav separation, incorporating homelands into Botswana (Bophutatswana), Lesotho (QwaQwa), Swaziland (KwaNdebele), group rights, language policies – an African CODESA.

The overwhelming number of African countries has similar problems to us – and the one-man-one-vote principle had been a failure in almost all African states.

Pik was regarded as a liberal, but to the end he acquiesced in the homeland policy. At an Africa branch meeting, I asked the ambassadors to Transkei, Bophutatswana, Venda and Ciskei to make an honest assessment of the opinion of the citizens of these countries about their independence. The ambassadors, who were all deployees of the National Party, reported this to Pik who hauled me over the coals for white-anting government policy.

The policy failure approached its predestined end. We had arranged for visits by PW Botha to Mozambique, Malawi, Ivory Coast and Zaïre. PW Botha wanted their governments to buy into the reforms that he imagined would satisfy Africa.

President Banda was his lively self and counted himself as one of those who had contributed to the changes for having danced with Tienie Vorster. President Chissano was cautious and hoped that the powerlines from Cahora Bassa could supply electricity to South Africa. President Houphouët-Boigny repeated that real Africa did not have prisons and it was time to let Mandela out.

The most telling was President Mobutu who listened impatiently to PW Botha and, behind his unsmiling face, you could see that he was thinking to himself: “You surrender monkey! After all these years of propping me up, you leave me in the lurch!”

The visits merely underlined that we had missed our opportunity of corralling Africa into solving Afropessimism, not only throughout the continent but now also in this country representing 80% of Southern Africa’s GDP.

Pik’s influence in cabinet

In Parliament, Pik was brusque and rude to parliamentarians. They did not like him. This contrasted with the general public’s favourable attitude towards him. He monopolised the foreign affairs debate in the Cabinet due to his knowledge of the workings of the UN and acquaintance with the politics of Western countries. None of his colleagues dared to oppose his cocksuredness about the its direction. He boasted of being the world’slongest-serving Foreign Minister and bore the title till 1994. His thespian ability kept him in position under both BJ Vorster and PW Botha.

So hot were his tears (actual tears) when FW de Klerk left him out of the Government of National Unity that FW relented and made him Mineral Affairs Minister in 1994.

FW de Klerk was not a fan of his and is quoted as saying at the leadership vote: “I was convinced that he did not have the characteristics – including emotional stability – to lead the country”.

Beware people who do not have friends. Pik had acolytes, disciples, followers and sycophants but only one real friend, his wife, Helena.

For others, he remained rasieleier – no wonder Lord Carrington refused point-blank to write the Preface to Theresa Papenfus’ biography, Pik Botha and his Times. Afrikaners should not only be angry with Pik but also with a blinkered government that could have made South Africa a leader in the continent and not another victim of the Africa diseases - and having no shame.