Pieter Willem (P.W.) Botha

(January 12, 1916 - October 31, 2006)

National Party (NP) leader and Apartheid State President .

Pieter Willem Botha was born on 12 January 1916 on the farm Telegraaf in the Paul Roux district of the Orange Free State. He was the only son of Pieter Willem senior, a widower with four children, and Hendrina Prinsloo, nee De Wet, a widow with five children. He became an excellent horseman and enjoyed hunting at a very young age. Horses and weapons remained major passions in later life. He attended the Paul Roux School and matriculated at the Voortrekker Secondary School, Bethlehem.

In 1934 Botha began his law studies at Grey University College, Bloemfontein, where his political career began. Initially he helped organize the National Party (NP) during by-election campaigns and also became campus branch chairman. He was also a part-time reporter for Die Volksblad and a member of the Afrikaanse Nasionale Studentebond (National Afrikaans Student Association). At the age of twenty he delivered an address to Prime Minister Malan on his visit to the campus. Malan was impressed and Botha was offered a post as party organizer in the Cape. He dropped his studies and went to the Cape in 1936.

In 1939 Botha, along with T. E. Dönges and J. B. Vorster, helped to form the Cape Town branch of the Ossewabrandwag (Ox-wagon torch guard), where he served as a leader of the organisation. He was nearly interned by the military at one point, because of his pro-German stance. He became disillusioned with the Ossewabrandwag as a result of an internal split and, in August 1941, wrote a scathing letter to Die Burger attacking the organisation. He said that national socialism was 'volksvreemd', meaning unknown, dangerous and contrary to the Christian nationalism of Afrikaners, and charged the Ossewabrandwag with 'interference' in national politics. He was expelled from the organisation four days later. Soon afterwards D. F. Malan ordered all members of the (NP) to withdraw from the Ossewabrandwag.

His political career bloomed and in 1946 he was promoted to Union Information Officer for the NP. One of his duties was to prepare circulars about NP policy and to spread propaganda and other information that might be favourably used against political opponents. Aptly dubbed 'Skietgoed' or ammunition, his often ruthlessly effective journalism was used to snipe at political opponents. A favourite target was J. H. Hofmeyr who was expected to succeed Jan Smuts as Premier and whose support of racial equality was seen as foolish and a threat to White South Africans.

Botha became an MP after the 1948 general elections, where he won the seat for George. Botha's relationship with the Coloured people of South Africa was ambivalent. As Assistant and Acting Secretary of the Cape National Party's special Committee of Inquiry into Coloured Affairs, he was party to the recommendations accepted by the 1945 NP Congress, which included advice to establish a Coloured Representatives Council. Despite this, he was at the forefront of those who ended Coloured representation in Parliament in 1956.

In October 1958 Dr H. F. Verwoerd appointed Botha as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, an office he held for three years. South Africa became a republic on 31 May 1961. In August of that year Prime Minister Verwoerd offered Botha a position in his Cabinet as Minister of Community Development and Coloured Affairs. Verwoerd drew B. J. Vorster into the same cabinet as Minister of Justice. Both men were known to have formidable strongman qualities, mastery of the National Party (NP) machine, and the determination to pursue Verwoerd's segregationist policy of apartheid without compromise.

Botha was the Minister responsible for the removal of Coloureds from District Six and he presided over other forced removal activities under the Group Areas Act. It is difficult to assess what he really thought of these events, but it is known that he argued with Cabinet colleagues over certain issues. As a true party man who almost fanatically believed in loyalty and discipline, he nevertheless implemented their measures. This characteristic surfaced later in his disapproval of the airing of party disagreements in public, which caused him to censure leading Afrikaners like Piet Cillie, Schalk Pienaar, and Piet Marais for publicly suggesting it was time for reform. Later he adopted the idea, if not the practice, of a new dispensation.

During 1964, Botha became Minister of Public Works. In 1966, he was unanimously elected leader of the NP in the Cape Province and appointed as a member of the Board of Directors of Nasionale Pers Ltd. Botha was Leader of the House of Assembly from 1976 until 1978. He was appointed Minister of Defence on 5 April 1966, a position he was to hold until 7 October 1980. This was a decisive experience that provided him with a militarist power base and worldview. At this time the emergence of the Soviet-backed Marxist MPLA in Angola was a causing of concern to the Ford administration in the United States as well as to the Pretoria government. The Americans invited South Africa to take part in a clandestine initiative to install a pro-Western government at Luanda. The Americans, Prime Minister John Vorster and his security chief, Hendrik van den Bergh, favoured a limited, covert operation but Botha and Chief of the Army, Magnus Malan, were convinced of Soviet designs on Africa. Believing that South Africa was the real Russian objective, Botha advocated a total invasion that would drive the MPLA from Luanda. They were overruled and in August 1975, South African troops entered southern Angola to supposedly protect the Kunene River Hydroelectric Scheme. The civil war that broke out escalated to include Cubans, South Africans, Russians, East Germans, Americans, and others who wished to secure the strategic and mineral-rich territory.

The United States government was halted when Congress vetoed its request for funds to be given to the anti-MPLA troops. On 19 December 1975, the United States government suddenly withdrew its support. By this stage, the South African forces had advanced to the outskirts of the capital, Luanda. The South Africans, particularly Botha and Malan, were bitter about the humiliation of being obliged to withdraw from Angola. They believed that they had not been given enough time to prepare for the war, had been drawn into it by American (false) promises, and left without allies on the eve of victory. Meanwhile, with the South Africans withdrawn, Cubans and the MPLA moved up to the South West African (SWA, later Namibian) border where they shielded bands of armed SWAPO guerrillas, who were able to infiltrate and make raids on northern SWA.

Botha inherited this state of affairs in 1978. The military wasted no time in launching a series of aggressive cross-border incursions into Angola on SWAPO and Angolan forces, slowing down SWAPO raids into Namibia. These experiences, and the arms embargo South Africa was facing, spurred Botha into making South Africa self-sufficient in armament supplies. South Africa was soon ranked as the eleventh largest arms industry in the world with an annual turnover of R3 billion.

He was successful in forging the traditionally conservative military into a powerful multiracial national armed force with a social and humanitarian support group to work among the black population, which had become a major target of the border war. This did not affect the local population's support of SWAPO as a political party, but it did keep them relatively passive. During this time Botha not only played a leading role in South African decision-making about the Angolan War, but also took part in the negotiations with western powers over the future of SWA /Namibia.

In September 1978 Vorster resigned the premiership and was raised to the largely ceremonial office of State President. Botha assumed the office of Prime Minister just as Judge A. Mostert revealed the secret and scandalous activities of the Department of Information under Vorster’s premiership. The first Erasmus Commission report exonerated Vorster and cleared Botha of any guilt in the Information Scandal, but the second Erasmus report found that Vorster had been aware of some aspects of the affair, and he was obliged to resign. Botha retained the post of Minister of Defence and, together with the post of Prime Minister, handled the portfolio of National Intelligence.

Botha's aims were the creation of a clean administration, law and order, constitutional reforms to include Coloureds and Indians (if only on paper), a gathering of South African states, and industrial decentralisation to improve the economic lot of the homelands. Linked with these aims was the thorny issue of how to concede some black political participation in order to address the international criticism of Apartheid and rising resistance from the black population and economic instability in part due to sanctions. Although he did not admit that apartheid was inhumane, he did see that it was costly and unproductive. The desire to locate black people far away from the industrial centres went against his ambitions for the country's development. The principle of government by consensus was put forward as a practical way to introduce a programme of social and political restructuring, which would set the economy free and return it to sustained economic growth. It is doubtful whether Botha envisaged all the dramatic social and political adaptations that were to happen during his period in office. What is certain is that his idea of 'healthy power?sharing' meant he would cling to 'group rights' as a means of maintaining white control, which he claimed was still in the best interests of South Africa.

When Botha turned his considerable energies to the task of reordering South African society, he confronted more daunting challenges than any of his National Party predecessors. He found himself handicapped by drought, a fall in the gold price, a depression, rising demands on the defence budget, the accelerating campaign of terrorism and sabotage by the ANC, and growing internal opposition to apartheid. South Africa's defensive strategy involved cross-border activities and covert support for right wing leaning resistance movements. Consequently, relations with its neighbours were strained. Moreover, deep divisions that had long afflicted South African society intensified the internal situation. To counteract the 'total onslaught' against South Africa the Prime Minister developed the concept of 'total strategy' to cover many aspects of political, economic, military and security issues. He confronted South Africans with their first lesson in the process of radical re-education at Upington in 1979, and warned them that it was a case of 'adapt or die'.

Botha swiftly moved to restrict the power of bureaucrats who might short-circuit the process of change, but his promise to reduce over-government was only partially successful. Although the public service was reduced to twenty-two departments in April 1980, the changing social order demanded that there be more public servants, not less, and constitutional development inevitably resulted in an increase of functionaries.

Botha attempted to modify the apartheid tenets of Afrikaner Nationalist ideology to introduce reforms, appearing to offer a better deal to the population. But he was contemplating the impossible: trying to find a way of sharing power without the White minority losing control. He set in motion the dismantling of some apartheid legislation, thereby irreversibly dividing National Party support. Further he did not award Coloured and Indian moderates with real partnership in the new Tricameral Parliament. Nonetheless, his social, labour, and economic reforms were a significant development, and a gradual evolution toward non-racialism began to take place. A changing and increasingly volatile South African society led to the civil insurrection of 1984 and its repercussions around the country. Botha’s response was the repression of activists and liberation movements under a state of emergency. The reform policy stagnated. Apartheid's policies drew increasing condemnation from the outside world, giving Botha little room to manoeuvre and less freedom to compromise. Apparently abandoning the idea of consensus, he took more and more power to himself in a style of government that came to be termed 'imperial'.

Early in 1989, before he could set out the expected programme for reform or forecast the forthcoming election issues, Botha, then 73, suffered a mild stroke. He then astonished everyone by resigning the NP leadership but not the State Presidency. This presented practical problems when F W de Klerk became the new Prime Minister and Botha tried to regain power when he had recovered but failed to garner support from the National Party.

Botha was known by all as PW, and by some as Piet Wapen (Peter Weapon), the Axe Man or ‘Die Ou Krokodil’. He was feared for his abrasive personality, but his most vehement opponents respected his political nerve. He gained a powerful reputation as tough, an outstanding administrator, and hard working, whose management style demanded much of his ministers. His anger, when provoked, was legendary. He was essentially a private person who seldom made comments about himself or his motivation. He kept aloof from all except his family and his personal staff. His unwillingness to be publicly expansive, and his hectoring media image clouded any real understanding of the man and his vision. It fell to him to face and manage (many would argue, mismanage) the process of change in this most challenging period of South Africa's history.

In 1998 he refused to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding apartheid crimes and was held in contempt by the Commission. The Appeals Court subsequently overturned the charge.

In 1943 Botha married Anna Elizabeth Rossouw (Elize), daughter of Dr S. H. Roussouw, a pastor from Senekal. He was reputed to be a family man who was extremely close to his wife who seldom left his side. They had three daughters and two sons. In his old age, his wife Elize died and amid controversy, he married a much younger woman.


Howcroft, P. (undated). “South Africa Encyclopaedia: Prehistory to the year 2000”, unpublished papers with SA History Online.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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