Pieter Willem Botha (born 1916) was inaugurated as the first executive state president of the Republic of South Africa in 1984 after serving for six years as prime minister. Botha's administration was characterized by civil unrest. His policies have been assessed as essentially opportunistic, swaying from the progressive front to the radical right wing. Botha is best known for his stubbornness, a trait which earned him the nickname of The Old Crocodile.
Pieter Willem Botha, who is widely referred to by the Afrikaans pronunciation of his first two initials— "pee-vee"—was born on January 12, 1916, at "Telegraaf" farm in the Paul Roux district of the Orange Free State. In South African parlance, he is an Afrikaner, that is, a white person who speaks Afrikaans, a derivation of the Dutch language, as mother tongue. However, he is also fluent in English.
Botha's early education was at Paul Roux. Later he attended secondary school in Bethlehem before entering the University of the Orange Free State in Bloemfontein to study law. But he left the university before completing a degree in order to begin a full-time political career, a decision made when he was only 20 years old.
The rural Orange Free State was among the most Afrikaans-speaking regions of South Africa, and for many decades it was a bastion of extreme political conservatism among whites. Thus, it was not surprising that Botha affiliated in 1936 with the right-wing, ethnically-oriented National party, though at the time this was still a minority party in South African white politics. Botha was initially appointed by the party leader D. F. Malan as a political organizer for the Nationalists in neighboring Cape Province. Later he was made responsible for national publicity during the campaign leading up to the May 1948 general election, an election which the Nationalists unexpectedly won.
In the 1948 election Botha won a seat in the House of Assembly, the lower chamber of South Africa's bicameral parliament at the time, for the George constituency in the southern Cape Province. He would hold this seat for the next 36 years, becoming the assembly's longest serving member. Also in 1948 Botha was made chief secretary of the National party in the Cape Province, a post he held for a decade. His long association with the Cape Province is said to have somewhat eroded Botha's inherited conservatism in favor of what is referred to as traditional "Cape liberalism."
In 1958 Botha was appointed deputy interior minister under Prime Minister H. F. Verwoerd. Three years later he was promoted to full minister, gaining the portfolios of community development and biracial affairs. In 1964 he was made minister of public works, and two years later defense minister. Botha held this latter position for the next 14 years and was the responsible cabinet minister at the time of the South African military's ill-fated invasion of Angola at the end of 1975. During his long tenure as defense minister, annual military expenditures increased 20-fold, and South Africa, which had been subject to an international arms embargo since 1963, became virtually self-sufficient in the manufacture of weapons. Botha also created new opportunities in the military for women and nonwhite South Africans.
Early in his years as defense minister, Botha gained a reputation for toughness, known as "kragdadigheit" in Afrikaans, as well as for efficient administration. These qualities pushed him to the fore when Prime Minister B. J. Vorster unexpectedly resigned in 1978. During this time Botha was also prominent as the Cape provincial leader of his party. Nevertheless, his elevation to the premiership on September 28, 1978, was to some degree unexpected and aided by a well-publicized scandal in the Department of Information. This fatally compromised the reputation of its minister, Connie Mulder, another serious contender for the position and then the National party's leader in the important Transvaal province. Thereafter, in a series of speeches, Botha seemed to try to direct the country into reformist paths and away from the racial "apartheid" (separation) which had been an article of faith for the National party since 1948. The new prime minister told his fellow whites that they would have to "adapt or die."
Predictably, the right wing of the National party, especially in the Transvaal, strenuously resisted this suggestion, and for some years the ensuing struggle over policy within the governing party seemed to neutralize Botha's reformist intentions. Then in 1982 elements on the right of the National party finally broke off to form the new Conservative party, shifting the political balance in favor of "reformism" among remaining Nationalists. One result of this was the new South African Constitution of 1983, which continued to exclude all South African blacks (72% of the total population) from any participation whatsoever in the central institutions of the state. But it did for the first time admit Asians and mulattos to membership in Parliament (albeit in racially segregated chambers) and the national cabinet.
Concurrent with these changes, Botha's own role was restructured with his elevation through an indirect election of the new tricameral parliament to the post of executive state president (as distinct from the previous ceremonial position of the same name). The earlier position of prime minister had been abolished. Until the middle of 1985, however, there was little to suggest that Botha's constitutional or other reforms had lessened unrest within the country's black population, unrest that had in fact continued in one form or another for nearly a decade from the time of the Soweto uprisings of 1976-1977.
Over the course of time, Botha's liberalism was increasingly perceived as political opportunism. His lack of a firm resolve caused his policies to be received with question. He moved successfully for the repeal of the oppressive passbook system which precluded free mobility within the region by blacks, but the passbooks were replaced by a racially biased ID card requirement for all citizens (black and white). Scores of political prisoners were released, and the squatting practices of blacks were legitimized, but promises to invest all blacks and mulattos with full citizenship rights remained unfulfilled. The country was wracked by heavy rioting and was further plagued by outside sanctions imposed by the international community. This dubious relationship with the country's black population was further scarred by Botha's handling of an ongoing situation with the prisoner Nelson Mandela. In May of 1986 the government backed a series of commando attacks in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa. The attacks initiated new rioting, which left dozens of people dead and tens of thousands homeless and caused an escalation of racial tensions. By June 12 a national state of emergency was declared by the government in Pretoria. Botha's government was condemned abroad for these activities. Existing international sanctions were augmented, including new sanctions from Zimbabwe and Zambia. Nonetheless, Botha and the National party held strong. The sanctions proved only mildly effective as the price of gold, South Africa's chief export, rose sharply. Botha's transient loyalties had migrated further to the right by the time of the Parliamentary elections in March of 1988. He banned many antiapartheid organizations and sanctioned the arrest of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
By August of 1988, however, Botha had shifted his strategy once again. He relaxed his foreign policies toward Angola, Namibia, and other African states, although his intentions were regarded with suspicion, especially by Mozambique. Anti-squatting laws were re-introduced with a vengeance.
On January 18, 1989, Botha suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He refused to resign and was subsequently ousted from office by members of his own party. Despite the party's actions, he tenaciously retained the presidency amid persistent rumors of his resignation. On July 5, 1989, an historic meeting took place between Botha and Mandela. Mandela's release was not effected at that time, but the meeting was hailed as a coup and a breakthrough between the white ruling party and the black majority. Botha officially resigned from the presidency on August 14, 1989. On May 6, 1990, he resigned from the National party.
Botha has persistently refused to apologize for his role in the establishment of the apartheid system which was eventually abolished under the administration of Frederik W. deKlerk, Botha's successor. Seven years later, in 1996 and 1997, Botha was implicated in a series of bombings which had taken place in the 1980s against the African National Congress.
Regarding South Africa's international relations, Botha's leadership brought several notable breaches in the country's long standing isolation in world affairs, although he simultaneously warned of an externally based "total onslaught" against the republic. He met with President Kaunda of Zambia in 1982, and in March 1984 he signed the "Nkomati Accord" with President Samora Machel of Mozambique. This agreement sought the pacification of the two countries' long common border. Later in the same year Botha officially visited seven Western European capitals, the first South African head of government to be so received in many decades.
Botha was married to Elsie Rossouw on March 13, 1943. They have two sons and three daughters. Botha received two honorary doctor's degrees, including a degree in military science from the University of Stellenbosch in 1976.
Further Reading on Pieter Willem Botha
There is no standard biography of P. W. Botha in English. On South African politics in general, see Leonard Thompson and Andrew Prior, South African Politics (1982). For a perspective on Afrikaner politics, see Heribert Adam and Hermann Giliomee, Ethnic Power Mobilized: Can South Africa Change? (1979). A journalist's account of P. W. Botha's June 1984 trip through Europe is found in John Scott's Venture to the Exterior (Port Elizabeth, 1984).
Additional Biography Sources
The Economist, September 17, 1988; October 1, 1988; August 19, 1989.
Maclean's, January 30, 1989; November 4, 1996.
Time, May 5, 1986; June 2, 1986; August 18, 1986; October 51987; July 24, 1989.