Lawyer, politician, administrator and negotiator during the transition to democracy in SA
Kobie Coetsee was born on 19 April 1931 in Ladybrand in the Orange Free State. His father, Johannes, was a printer, and had only one child with is wife, Josephine, nee van Zyl. He went to the local primary school and matriculated from Ladybrand School in 1948 as Dux scholar and prefect.
Following his high school career Coetsee attended the University of the Orange Free State where he completed his BA and LLB in Law, with a major in Latin, in 1954. He was already politically active during this time and sat on the students’ council for extra-mural studies and was elected chairman of the youth branch of the National Party (NP). On 6 October 1956 he married Helena Elizabeth Malan with whom he had 3 daughters and 2 sons. While qualifying as an attorney he lectured Law part-time, practising at the Side Bar for 17 years. From 1962 to 1968 Coetsee volunteered himself for military service in the President Steyn Regiment’s armoured car section, even though he had not been selected to do so.
Coetsee came from a politically aware family with both parents active in the local NP. His grandfather had been the NP chairman of Ladybrand while C. R. Swart had served as the town’s Member of Parliament (MP), and taught his grandson politics. Both his grandfathers had also fought in the Second Anglo-Boer War, making Afrikaner liberty an important factor in Coetsee’s upbringing.
In 1968 Coetsee was elected as MP for Bloemfontein West and served on the Head Committee for the NP in the Orange Free State, where he was chairman from 1979 to 1985. He was also admitted to the bar and became an advocate in Bloemfontein in 1972. He rose through the NP ranks and on 22 June 1985 was appointed as leader of the Orange Free State NP. This was at the height of the debate regarding the legislation that would not allow Indian people to live or enter the province. During his time as MP he only had to fight for 2 elections, as he was otherwise unopposed.
Coetsee was an active member of various parliamentary committees during his period as a MP. He served on the ‘Schlebusch Commission of Inquiry into Certain Organisations’ from 1974 to 1976, the Commission for Cooperation and Development from 1976 to 1978 and the Select Committee on the Constitution in 1983.
On 12 October 1978 Coetsee became Deputy Minister of Defence and National Security. He reorganised National Intelligence after the Information Scandal and adjusted the national service to make sure that people would not suffer financial loss or travel unnecessarily while doing their military service. Coetsee was appointed as Minister of Justice on 7 October 1980. He changed the legal system by introducing the small claims court and pioneering the Matrimonial Property Act in 1984. This act had an important effect on the status of married women and introduced the accrual system of sharing property between spouses. Coetsee also contributed to the process that made community service an alternative option to being jailed and did away with racially specific commissioners’ courts. He was serious about legal reform and in April1986 he asked for a legal commission to look into the role of the courts in protecting group and individual rights, after which a report on human and group rights had to be drawn up. He also walked the Indemnity Act through parliament, ensuring that those who took part in political negotiations after the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) would receive temporary immunity.
In August 1987 State President Botha asked Coetsee to look into the possible release of Govan Mbeki after which he was released, followed by more releases of political prisoners in 1989. He also held talks with former president Nelson Mandela in October 1989. After the ANC was unbanned and Mandela’s release in February 1990 Coetsee was a member of the government’s delegation that held talks with the liberation organisation in May at Groote Schuur in Cape Town, from which the famous Groote Schuur Minute was produced.
Coetsee changed the Internal Security Act in July 1991, removing clauses that prohibited publications from publishing the aims of communism or banned organisations, restricted the registration of newspapers and movements of people on a consolidated government list, and the keeping of such lists. There was now also a period of 10 days specified for detaining a person without trial after which a judge would decide how long the person should be detained further. He played a very important part in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) meetings in December 1991 and May 1992, where his group dealt with the creation of an environment where people could take part in politics freely and South Africa’s role in the international community.
Coetsee’s portfolio also covered prisons until 1992 and he developed a new management system that allowed for maximum delegation of responsibilities with monitoring and reports. After his election as President in 1994, Nelson Mandela implied that he would have wanted to include Coetsee in the Government of National Unity, but the NP’s poor performance during the elections prevented him. Instead he became president of the Senate, which remained under the interim constitution, in 1994.
• Joyce, P. (1999). A Concise Dictionary of South African Biography, Cape Town: Francolin.