The death of Roelof Frederik “Pik” Botha, South Africa’s apartheid era foreign minister from 1977 to 1994, has produced a range of appraisals of his life.

The general tone of the commentaries – including the governing African National Congress (ANC’s) - has been sympathetic. Many have been prepared to give Botha the benefit of the doubt, viewing him as an essentially reasonable man whose decent political instincts were consistently frustrated at home and abroad by forces beyond his control. An old quote from a Western diplomat was excavated claiming that Botha was a good man working for a bad government, one of the first National Party leaders who saw that democracy was inevitable. South Africa could have avoided years of bloodshed and turmoil if the NP had taken his advice.

This take on Botha as a man of peace and a frustrated democrat is a travesty. It displays a cavalier attitude towards recent southern African history. True, he will never rank among the most brutish defenders of apartheid: he lacked the crude racism of erstwhile apartheid prime minister Johannes G. Strijdom, and the ideological fanaticism of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd. He also didn’t have the thuggery of John Vorster, and authoritarianism of a PW Botha, their respective successors. But Pik Botha certainly helped enable apartheid.

At the heart of the system

Botha defended apartheid internationally and was firmly committed to the system – however “reformist” his version of it. He served successive apartheid regimes that ultimately rested on violence and hugely disproportionate levels of white privilege and power.

Botha also endorsed the policy of aggression towards neighbouring states in the 1980s. Known as “destabilisation”, the policy caused catastrophic damage to their economies and societies. He also served on the State Security Council during the turmoil of the middle to late 1980s, when it was issuing orders for activists to be “permanently removed from society” and “eliminated”. He would subsequently argue before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 that they had not meant kill. This allowed security force operatives to twist in the wind while the political leadership abdicated responsibility.

It’s a measure of the horrors and of the malign individuals spawned by apartheid that Botha emerges as relatively liberal or, in the jargon of the era, “enlightened” by comparison. But, the key word, is “relatively”. Being an improvement on grotesque figures like Strijdom, Verwoerd and Vorster is hardly enough to be considered a democrat.

An impediment to change

In fact, Botha helped delay the process to democratise South Africa, not facilitate it.

He was a passionate opponent of the economic sanctions that ultimately helped bring down apartheid, and worked closely with foreign leaders against them. Fortunately for him, the governments of then US President Ronald Reagan, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were extremely sympathetic to the white South African cause.

Botha was also an architect of illicit trade deals and military sanctions-busting arrangements designed to protect the apartheid regime. This enabled it to resist change or strengthen its capacity to change only on its own terms. The constructive engagement approach favoured by Thatcher and Reagan emboldened apartheid South Africa and encouraged its excesses at home and abroad.

Yet fundamental change finally did come to southern Africa: the destabilisation of neighbouring states stopped, Namibia got its independence in 1990, and FW de Klerk made his historic speech of February 2, 1990 announcing the unbanning of liberation movements and release of political prisoners.

Botha’s liberalism amounted, first, to a defence of apartheid. Then, as the cracks in that system began to open in the period following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, he embraced “reform”. This was an ultimately disastrous attempt to secure the modernisation of white domination which, in triggering a range of unintended consequences, hastened the demise of the system.

Even in the period following the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and the beginning of negotiations to end apartheid, Botha, like his party leader De Klerk, supported a convoluted system of power-sharing with a built-in minority veto. This was designed to emasculate an incoming majority-based government and prevent it from tackling the awesome socioeconomic legacies of apartheid.

Finally, Botha’s role in the carnage wrought by apartheid South Africa’s regional destabilisation policy belies the image of the peacemaking diplomat seeking to rein in more hawkish and militaristic elements. A narrative emerged claiming that destabilisation was a South African Defence Force project imposed against the wishes of a Department of Foreign Affairs, led by Botha, which was more interested in diplomatic dialogue and peace deals with neighbouring states.

This was a false dichotomy.

Degrees of hawkishness

As Foreign Minister, Botha appreciated the benefits of a policy of military coercion. This softened up neighbouring states and made them more inclined to sign peace deals and non-aggression pacts on South African terms. Any differences that emerged were over tactics rather than strategy. This included how much military pressure should be applied and at what point it should be reduced.

At no point did Botha oppose military pressure. In fact, he was quite explicit on this point in the South African parliament in May 1984 when discussing the process by which the country had secured the March 1984 Nkomati Accord with Mozambique. Then Marxist Mozambique, humiliated and its economy broken by South African attacks, was compelled to sign a non-aggression treaty with the apartheid regime. Botha rejected any idea this was a source of bureaucratic conflict with the military, stating that he was in “absolute agreement with the decisions taken”. He added that the Nkomati Accord was achieved “by way of the military action we took, as well as by way of diplomatic action”.


He may be remembered as a man who operated at the more liberal end of a thoroughly illiberal regime, and one who came to read the writing on the wall. This is an achievement of sorts, but he should not be remembered as making a decisive – or even significant - contribution to the demise of apartheid. The credit for that lies elsewhere.

Most of his life’s work was dedicated to the protection and entrenchment of that system, which the United Nations declared a crime against humanity, not its dismantling. And, in the 1980s he was an important cog at the heart of the machinery of repression, the State Security Council. That is a more accurate if unpleasant epitaph for Roelof Frederik Botha.