PW Botha – a summary of the Apartheid president

Anthony Holmes summarises the life of PW Botha (Pieter Willem), president of South Africa during the apartheid era, from 1984 to 1989.

PW Botha’s father had fought against the British in the Second Anglo-Boer War and his mother had been interned in a British concentration camp. Botha attended school and university in the Orange Free State where he read law, dropping out before graduation to pursue a political career.

National Party

PW BothaIn 1939 South Africa entered the Second World War. Anti-British factions coalesced to form the Herenigde (Re-united) National Party which became the National Party (NP). In that year Botha became the leader of the Cape Town branch of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag but was expelled for accusing the newspaper ‘Die Burger’ of interference in national politics. The expulsion was fortunate for Botha who thereby avoided internment. (Pictured – P W Botha in 1962).

Botha helped the NP win the general election of 1948 and he gained a parliamentary seat. With HF Verwoerd elected prime minister in 1958, Botha was appointed deputy minister and in 1961, the Minister of Community Development and Coloured Affairs. He was responsible for the forced removal of coloured people under the Group Areas Act. In 1966 Botha was made Minister of Defence, a post he held for fourteen years.

Operation Savannah

During the Cold War, President Gerald Ford sought to forestall the growth of communism in Africa by inviting South Africa to assist in installing a pro-West government in Angola. In 1975 as Minister of Defence, PW Botha sanctioned ‘Operation Savannah’ in which South African troops invaded Angola. The Angolan civil war intensified, with Russians, Cubans, East Germans, South Africans and Americans acting as ‘military advisers’ in the country. In December 1975, the US abruptly terminated its support and South Africa was left to withdraw its troops. The Peoples liberation Movement of Angola, (the MPLA), moved troops to the border with South West Africa where they assisted the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) in a guerrilla war against South Africa.

Prime Minister Botha

When BJ Vorster retired in 1978 Botha became Prime Minister and retained the Ministry of Defence which included control of National Intelligence. Botha adopted a two-pronged policy in which he called on white South Africans to ‘adapt or die’.

Internally he engaged in constitutional juggling, continuing the policy of apartheid while appearing to implement reform. Defence capability was enhanced and the arms manufacturing industry was enlarged.

Externally he implemented a policy of destabilisation of the country’s neighbours, including cross border raids supposedly in the pursuit of guerrillas.

State President Botha

In 1984 the constitution was modified and Botha became executive State President. A year later when commentators expected him to announce positive reforms including the release of Nelson Mandela, Botha delivered a defiant speech warning the world ‘not to push him too far’ stating he would not take ‘white South Africans and other minority groups on a road to abdication and suicide.’

Botha did repeal laws around ‘petty’ apartheid, such as the prohibition of mixed marriages, pass books and segregation amenities. He created a tri-cameral parliament, giving Coloureds and Indians separate houses of representation. The Group Areas act and ‘homelands’ policy remained. The South Africa economy faltered under international sanctions. Global condemnation of apartheid reached a crescendo.

In January 1989 PW Botha had a mild stroke. He resigned as leader of the National Party but refused to give up the presidency. FW de Klerk took over party leadership, and at a National Party caucus meeting Botha was asked to resign. De Klerk became acting state president the following day.

Botha refused to testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998 preferring to take the knowledge of the atrocities committed during his tenure to his grave. In 2006 he died at the age of 90 peacefully at his home.

Anthony Holmes
Read more in South Africa: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.

See also articles on Nelson MandelaDesmond Tutu, Walter Sisulu and PW Botha.