Wednesday 31 October 2018

Pik Botha: Our Troll Grandfather

The first time I met Roelof Frederik "Pik" Botha, apartheid South Africa's longest-serving foreign minister, he hauled out his cock in front of me. No, I wasn't one of the "Boys of Bird Island", those unfortunates allegedly sexually molested by apartheid kingpins; I was just a cynical Army conscript standing fire picket on a cold night and Pik was dead drunk - well before the party he was attending. In my book Drinking with Ghosts: the Aftermath of Apartheid's Dirty War, I was a little more polite in my recollections:

In 2002, preparing my obituary of Jonas Savimbi, I call
former South African foreign minister Roelof ‘Pik’ Botha for
comment on Savimbi’s death. I’ve actually only encountered
Pik in person once before, in the winter of 1985 when, as
a young soldier at 97 Ammunition Depot, I was put on
fire engine duty for his arrival in a Lear jet at our derelict
landing strip one evening, where he would attend a lamb
spit-braai with Depot O/C Commander Moolman of the
Navy. Botha climbed out of the plane into the biting winter
wind which made orange streaks of the landing flares,
and, apparently already drunk (he had a reputation as a
prodigious drinker), shambled his long, large frame over to
the side of the runway for a leak. At that stage, this was the
closest I had come to apartheid authority and I was taken
aback at his crude informality. Today, however, he is sober
and sharp, and in his trademark slow-grinding nasal drawl
recounts for me how arrangements were made in 1992 for
Savimbi to finally meet face-to-face with MPLA leader José
Eduardo dos Santos in Luanda. Savimbi was paranoid that
it was a trap and that he’d be shot by a sniper as he exited
the aircraft at Luanda, so Botha assured him that ‘I would
climb the aircraft steps to the top before the door opened, so
if they started shooting, the two of us would go together.’
This, for Botha, was the apogee of his relationship with the
guerrilla who, when they had first met, had told him that
after Luanda fell, the apartheid regime would be next. But
Botha’s assurance did not cure Savimbi’s cold feet, and he
stood up Botha and his welcoming committee, letting them
wilt on the blazing hot tarmac; Botha’s friendship with
Savimbi soured thereafter.

Now that Pik is dead (on 12 October at the age of 86) and now that today, Halloween, is the anniversary of the death of his bullfrog of a boss, PW Botha, I thought I'd just sketch a few little incidental bits and pieces that perhaps the major obituaries neglected to mention. Dan van der Vat, writing for The Guardian in the UK, claims: "His nickname, Pik, an abbreviation of pikkewyn, Afrikaans for penguin, derived from his juvenile pride in his first dark suit and reflected his lifelong fondness for donning a dinner jacket and going to a party." I have it differently: he earned the nickname at Stellenbosch University as a womanising student and it stood quite explicitly for Poessie Is Koning (Pussy Is King); which, if true, makes his later feting by Cold War world leaders all the more hilarious. Also funny was a National Party rally in Durban back in the late1980s at which Pik spoke. With his slow diction, he attempted to build towards a climax on the theme of "what every white South African wants is..." only to have a heckler, on the third recitation of this phrase, complete if for him by yelling from the back of the hall "a black lover!"

Van der Vat is, however, accurate in stating that his appointment in 1977 as foreign minister was akin to "promotion to first officer on the Titanic." Still, Pik ploughed ahead, damning the icebergs. And some of those icebergs were pretty alarming: among them were the Latin American military juntas of Videla (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile), Bordaberry (Uruguay) and others including the world's second-longest ruling dictator, Generalissimo Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay. The Latinos, alongside Israel and Taiwan constituted apartheid's firmest polecat pals. I am currently reading John Gimlette's wonderful travelogue-cum-analysis on Paraguay, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. Pik was still on the rise to foreign minister in April 1974 when Stroessner paid a state visit to apartheid South Africa, a trip reciprocated by prime minister BJ Vorster the following August to Paraguay. The landlocked state was a part of the web of apartheid arms dealing. Vorster fell from grace in the quagmire of the Info Scandal in 1978, but Pik survived to see the installation of a black president, Nelson Mandela, in 1994 - an eventuality that he had predicted in 1986, saying, to the scandal of Nationalist conservatives, that he would be prepared to serve under such a person. 

And yet, as Shannon Ebrahim correctly wrote for Independent Online, "Pik Botha was, above all else, the smiling face of the apartheid regime, from the time he was appointed foreign minister in 1977, the year in which Steve Biko was beaten to death." In other words, he was the increasingly brutal racist regime's leading apologist. He was, she stresses, a key component of sanctions-busting, arms dealing and of the securocrat apparatus and was personally implicated by the Truth commission testimony of Security Branch General Johan Coetzee in signing the de facto death-warrants of twelve people including a six-year-old boy by authorising a cross-border raid on Gaberone, Botswana. But Pik wielded charm as he swilled his hard-tack; expansively and with aplomb. He was photographed in unlikely situations, memorably in Lawrence of Arabia garb astride a camel during talks in anti-apartheid Egypt. 

He was even suspected of being a communist agent by his verkrampte colleagues. Most remarkably, at the very time I met his drunken bulk for the first time back in 1985, he was preparing for PW Botha to make a dramatic early announcement of the end of apartheid. The statement would read: "The government is… abolishing discrimination based on colour and race and is promoting constitutional development with a view to meeting the needs and aspirations of all our communities."  As I wrote: "Had PW agreed to give the speech and pursue the strategy it entailed, all political prisoners and detainees would have been released. Instead, Botha appears to have suffered a minor stroke, after which he regressed and gave his notorious hardline Rubicon speech; by mid-1985 the apartheid authorities had declared a state of emergency in many districts of the country." Wreathed in the smoke of burning tyres, apartheid would fight a bitter rearguard action for another half decade before PW was taken out of the picture and Pik's anticipated reforms could begin. PW may have been "our Pinochet" as I argued in Drinking with Ghosts, but Pik, too grotesque and cunning to be a good fairy godmother, was rather our tricky troll grandfather.