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.


Tuesday 9 October 2018

The Daylight or the Ghosts?


I’m now middle-aged, divorced, childless. My hair has
grown out again, shoulder-length, and I have a full beard.
It is 1.00 am and all I can hear outside the windows of
my backpackers’ is the sound of the surf pummelling
the shore. I am exhausted – having driven nine hours to
Graaff-Reinet and back – but wired. PW Botha died five
days ago, on Halloween, and I’m in his old neck of the
woods researching his obituary for the weekend press. The
road from Graaff-Reinet passes through some spectacular
countryside, and I’m delighted to have seen a black eagle
riding the thermals, and a pair of bat-eared foxes hunting
in the veld. The road goes through the town of Uniondale
which lies at the top of the Langkloof, the long valley at
the bottom of which rests the town of Kareedouw, then
on to the pass through the Outeniqua Mountains before
descending to the regional hub of George. As I approach
the mountains, the full moon seems to conjure from the
long and lonely road spooky tendrils of mist which spiral
off the wet tarmac. I shiver: if I am ever going to see South
Africa’s most famous ghost, the Uniondale hitchhiker,
who reputedly disappears from the passenger seat after
being given a ride, tonight will be the night. But I arrive at
the backpackers’, near the coastal settlement of Wilderness
beyond George, without incident. Letting myself in, I
power up my laptop and write the best opening lines of
my career:
‘Pieter Willem Botha lies as cold and dead on the
mortuary slab as Stephen Bantu Biko did in the back of a
police van almost 30 years ago. The Groot Krokodil, whose
vice-like bite struck fear into so many hearts, evaporated
into the night on Halloween like a wraith of mist on the
Outeniqua Pass. The nation is now at loggerheads over how
his legacy should be assessed.’
My obituary then goes on to list Botha’s predecessors
at the helm of apartheid South Africa. Breaking with
the Afrikaans convention of contracting their Christian
names to their initials, I spell the names out in full to give
the piece a serious, measured pace. First there was Daniel
François Malan, who once told parliament that National
Socialism was the wave of the future, and whose regime
rapidly outlawed communism and formalised race
classification and the geography of separate development.
Malan was followed by Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom,
whose regime removed coloureds from the voters’ roll and
unsuccessfully prosecuted liberation movement leaders
who had signed the 1955 Freedom Charter. Hendrik
Frensch Verwoerd, the acknowledged architect of grand
apartheid – its petty versions having been introduced by
the British from the time of their invasion in 1806, and
by the Dutch before them – succeeded Strijdom. Having
banned the liberation movements after the Sharpeville
massacre, Verwoerd was, in a dénouement worthy of
Shakespeare, assassinated by the ultimately sane Dimitri
Tsafendas, a quintessential South African ‘person of
mixed race’, the true common denominator that links us
across all races, in the year of my birth. Verwoerd was
followed by the descent into darkness that was Balthazar
Johannes Vorster. Also pro-Nazi, Vorster lies buried
under a large black marble slab in the remote Eastern
Cape town of Kareedouw.
In weighing up Botha against other world figures, I
decide that he was our Pinochet. Given that they were
contemporaries, and given the anti-communist position
of both regimes on the frontline of the Cold War and the
roughly equivalent death toll of their wars against their
own people, Pinochetist Chile seems the best equivalent
to apartheid South Africa that I can think of. An early
supporter of the pro-Nazi Ossewa Brandwag who later
turned to the uniquely South African fascism of Christian
Nationalism, Botha forged an already anti-democratic South
Africa into a military autocracy along Francoist lines. Botha
not only inherited apartheid’s Manichean world view but
transformed it into a Death-Star, militarising not just the
state but all of society, and giving it a baptism of fire that
arguably even Malan had not foreseen. Botha, for much
of the world, embodies the final phase of white resistance
to the ‘total onslaught’ of democracy more than any other
white Nationalist leader.
I recall that even right-wing American writer PJ
O’Rourke, in his Holidays in Hell, described the country
as ‘a place of evil and perdition’, sustaining whites who
found it normal to throw their cigarettes on the lawn
– because there would always be someone darker to
pick them up. It is hard these days to remember how
strangely grey apartheid was: how reading material was
heavily proscribed and television only introduced in
1976, when the state was certain its propaganda benefits
outweighed the risks of giving people a window on the
world; how the dead right hand of the military reached
into our schools, with proto-military cadet training being
de rigeur for many whites, while facing the assault rifles
of the cadets’ older brothers outside their schools was a
rite of passage for many blacks; and how the dead left
hand of religion rested heavily on society, with sport and
commerce outlawed on Sundays, turning the day into
a featureless wasteland between church in the morning
and listening to Squad Cars, a drama series broadcast
on state radio that lionised the police, in the evening. I
remember how to me, Botha standing stiffly at military
parades in his black Homburg hat with a red carnation
at his breast looked identical to his ideological opposite,
Erich Honecker of East Germany.
And yet Botha was also the harbinger and initiator of
the end of grand apartheid – and was deeply embittered
that the world ignored his efforts, granting the Nobel
Peace Prize and the glory to his successor, Frederik Willem
de Klerk, instead. True, Botha’s hand had been forced by
several broad socio-political changes into adapting what he
once called a mere corollary of ‘good neighbourliness’ to the
new reality. Yes, the nationwide insurgency and sanctions
had put South Africa in an untenable situation, but the
collapse of the bipolar Cold War order presented him with a
fantastic opportunity to both break out of isolation and take
the fire out of the resistance. And the least recognised factor
driving the reforms that he initiated was that the colour
bar had to come to an end for purely economic reasons: the
deliberate underskilling of black labour, a policy that lay at
the heart of apartheid, meant that the country would never
advance beyond the primary extractive industrial sector to
modernise and build secondary manufacturing and tertiary
services sectors; the economy would languish, bypassed by,
and forever merely a provider of raw materials to, a more
sophisticated world. The black workforce, once deliberately
kept dumb as mere ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood’
would have to be dramatically educated and upskilled, or
the entire economy would remain at that primitive level.
And if blacks were to become skilled, then they would have
to be paid well enough to buy their own products in order
to create a domestic market; apartheid was always as much
a capitalist scheme as a racist one.
In my article I note that a cynic would say the white
nationalists only surrendered power to the black
nationalists once the physical barriers that ensured
that privilege would remain secure in its laager were
unassailable. The continuity of separate development
in towns such as Kareedouw under ANC rule points to
validity of this claim. Is the same true of George, Botha’s
former stamping ground, the place where he built his
reputation as a thug who broke up United Party meetings
– in much the same way as a young Nelson Mandela
engaged in punch-ups with the Communist Party? His
former constituency, where he represented the National
Party as a belligerent young MP, is a weird mixture of
retired old-school English-speaking CEOs, backpacking
neo-hippies, bulky young Afrikaans-speaking aluminium
siding salesmen, and inbred backwoods folk straight out of
Dalene Matthee’s Kringe in ’n Bos (Circles in a Forest). Here
you will encounter both cheerful and helpful coloured
municipal staff and will o’ the wisp rumours of shadowy
groups in nearby Sedgefield who continue to celebrate
Adolf Hitler’s birthday each April 20. Despite the new
roads and new licks of paint evident in the black township
of Thembelihle and the coloured township of Pacaltsdorp
– from whence a former girlfriend of mine hailed – they
remain racially distinct ‘locations’, separated from each
other by a deep ravine and from mostly white George by
the N2 highway.
These divisions are an entrenched feature of the South
African landscape, despite all the hubris about national
unity. The journalist and writer Rian Malan, in his seminal
book My Traitor’s Heart dealing with his own family’s
tangled interaction with apartheid – the Malans were key
figures in the Afrikaner saga, from the Great Trek to the
total onslaught – tellingly explains how the ultra-austere
Nederduitse Gereformeerde (Dutch Reformed) Dopper
sect took its name from the dop, the tin cap that in
Voortrekker times was used to put out a candle, a
deliberate metaphor for the Doppers’ reflex to extinguish
the illumination of the Enlightenment, plunging the world
into darkness again.
If former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok’s
statements to the Mail & Guardian this year are true, Botha
issued personal, private orders to chosen individuals
from within the State Security Council. This suggests
that beyond his obvious responsibility for the nuclear
weapons programme and numerous cross-border raids into
neighbouring countries, Botha was personally responsible,
like his Chilean counterpart, for the ‘disappearance’ of
perhaps hundreds of anti-apartheid activists in South
Africa and abroad, among them the estimated 200 Swapo
detainees dumped, Chilean fashion, from an aircraft into
the cold ocean.
The man nicknamed Pieter Wapen (Pieter Weapon)
remained, like Pinochet, beyond the reach of the law he so
regularly flouted. Gerald L’Ange, in his continental study
The White Africans, describes Botha as someone who did
not see himself as others did, ‘a vain bully whose sense
of self-importance ballooned in the thin air of the highest
office’. Yet L’Ange concedes that for all his steeliness, Botha
had a capacity for seeing immediate issues realistically, and
he attempted – though seldom with much finesse – to deal
with them pragmatically. Despite his rearguard initiation of
limited reforms like the scrapping of petty apartheid, driven,
it seems, as much by a strangely sentimental attachment to
the coloured people as by his kragdadigheid, his readiness to
use force, it is for his single-mindedness and aggression that
he will probably be best remembered.
Yet Botha was unceremoniously unseated by FW de
Klerk in 1989 after having suffered a stroke. Until the end,
he was deeply bitter that his vision of ending apartheid – on
his terms and with a permanent sunset clause for whites –
lay in tatters. Botha in retirement seemed toothless, less of a
crocodile and more like the vanishing Knysna elephant he
apparently once saw, looming large over the landscape for
a moment, then disappearing into the scenery as if never
It is now 2.00 am and I type up the concluding lines to
my obit:
‘With national flags flying at half-mast, it is hard to
guess whether this week, Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki will
come to George to bury Botha or to praise him. With race
classification still legal and the geographical bulwarks of
apartheid barely eroded, as mourners sing Botha to his
rest amid the reek of polished piety in the Nederduitse
Gereformeerde mother-church, it will be far from clear
which will prevail: the daylight or the ghosts.’


Monday 1 October 2018

Sparkly vampires need not apply

Below is an extract from the Introduction to my magnum opus, In the Shadow of a Hurricane: Global Anarchist Ideological and Organisational Lineages, which weighs in at 515,000 words, and which, after 18 years in research in 14 languages and covering 15 decades since anarchism's emergence in the trade unions of the First International, is the most comprehensive anarchist movement history attempted since Max Nettlau's more than 80 years ago, and which as a result for the first time tells the world-spanning story of what happened to the anarchists after revolutionary Barcelona fell in 1939:

... despite its size, and though I have attempted to be as detailed, where relevant, as possible, this work offers a mere overview of the historical movement. I am told my writing style is dry, lacking in the sort of flair and colour which many anarchists so enjoy; I apologise for that in advance, but my intention is not a social study but rather an ideological, structural and organisational analysis. For a sense of that colour, I would direct the reader to many of the excellent autobiographies and biographies of anarchism’s leading lights. The problem with much of anarchism today is that anarchists themselves prefer their anarchism pale, romantic and doomed… sparkly vampires, really. This book is not for them. It restores to anarchism its true historical weight and contemporary significance for autonomous struggles against dominance, its penetrating global reach, centred on the Latin world and not the North Atlantic, its pro-organisational majority stance, its universal adaptability to local and transnational conditions, and its numerous pragmatic attempts to dismantle vertical power via popular, horizontal counter-power. This work’s ultimate intention is to excite the imagination of activists and scholars to use my illustrations of continuities and challenges as launching-points for further historical, ideological and practical explorations of their own. There is still so much work to be done, for example, on revealing the anarchism and syndicalism of North Africa, Central America and the Caribbean, and South and South-East Asia, let alone on the many borderlands and maritime littorals where anarchism had a transient yet persistent presence – and I hope that is a torch that future generations will take up.