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Pik Botha: conflicted man, conflicting legacy

Editorial by Roi Simpson (As heard on “the Lunchtime News Wrap” 12 October 2018)


Pik Botha has died, and it’s difficult to work out what to say about him.


Bantu Holomisa has focused on the role Pik Botha played in pushing the Apartheid government back over the Rubicon and into a democratic dispensation.

Botha was given a seat on Mandela’s first cabinet – Minister of Minerals and Energy, – and while that was a Government of National Unity, it was made up of people willing to be part of that unification process.

Botha was always seen as a “verligte” – a liberal – and was known to use his international perspective as Foreign Minister to try to curb some of the wilder excesses of the Apartheid regime.

So he was a good guy. That at least is going to be what we’ll hear a lot as people euolgise him.

But that narrative is as deeply flawed as the man himself was.


For 17 years – from 1977, when BJ Vorster was still prime Minister – Pik Botha was the global smiling face of a murderous, racist-fascist regime.

It was he that – and this was his catch-phrase – categorically denied many things about the Apartheid regime, including that its army was in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique – destabilising the region, specifically by militarily opposing popular movements.


He was likeable, affable, very intelligent, and actually a bit ahead of most of his international peers when it came to spin doctoring.

I was told once that – in addition to his natural talent for global diplomacy – there was a very pragmatic reason to keep him in that post for that length of time. I’m not certain of the fact: but apparently, diplomatic protocol is that at diplomatic dinners, the longest-serving diplomats are seated closest to the host.

So as PW Botha’s regime became darker and more depraved, Pik Botha literally had the ear of the world’s leaders. And he used his charm, wit, and intelligence to bend their attacks on the Apartheid regime away from absolute isolation.


And in that respect, I think the lesson we should take from Pik Botha’s life is quite different from what you’ll hear from politicians during the course of today.

Using his talents and intelligence to defend an indefensible government, he was at best amoral – more likely immoral.

He seemed to hold the government, and his cabinet colleagues in contempt – and yet he was willing to be part of it to benefit himself and have a place at the plexus points of world power.

And it was all quite profitable as well – don’t forget the vast networks of corruption that existed under apartheid.

As an individual career: a fantastic achievement.

But as a human being, what a loathsome, selfish, unedifying life – what a poor legacy.


If we are to focus on him, let us say that Pik Botha is the antithesis of what we need in Government.

What we need is principle, not self-interst. What we need is public service, not careerism.

While President Ramaphosa (who served quietly under Jacob Zuma) and former military coup leader, Bantu holomisa – people who deal with things as they ARE, and try to build from there – may laud the positive contributions he made, if you personally can’t find the same magnanimity: it’s okay. In fact, in that case, you’re probably like me, and just suffering an over-dose of idealism.


He was a conflicted man: a conflicted legacy is inevitable.

I believe that for THIS South Africa; for the future we want and deserve – Pik Botha should serve as a prime example of what NOT to do with your life and your talents.