BJ Vorster (Balthazar Johannes Vorster) was born 13 December 1915 and attended school in Uitenhage in the Cape Province. He was the fifteenth son of a sheep rancher. He studied law at Stellenbosch University and graduated in 1938. He became registrar to the judge president of the Cape Division of the Supreme Court and shortly thereafter entered practice as an attorney in Port Elizabeth and subsequently in Brakpan.
The Second World War saw Vorster become active in the Ossewabrandwag, a movement that was responsible for various acts of sabotage designed to hinder South Africa’s aid to the Allied Forces. Vorster rose to the rank of general. In September 1942 he was interned in a detention camp until February 1944 when he was released under restrictions. The experience of internment served to increase his anti-British attitude.
Vorster’s first attempt to run for parliament in 1948 failed by a narrow margin, but in 1953 he won the constituency of Nigel for the National Party and took his seat in parliament. He became known for his prowess in debate and rose to deputy minister. In 1961 he became a full minister, responsible for justice, social welfare and pensions. Following the Sharpeville Massacre of the previous year and faced with further underground activities of extra-parliamentary opposition, Vorster developed a formidable security police force supported by harsh legislation that gave wide powers to the police such as detention without trial. His activities as minister of justice bestowed a ‘strong-man’ image on Vorster and after the assassination of HF Verwoerd in September 1966, Vorster was unanimously elected leader of the National party and became prime minister.
As Prime Minister, BJ Vorster tried to project a conciliatory image, endeavouring to mollify English-speaking whites. His attempts to befriend African states had little effect other than to anger the right wing of his own National Party, which broke away in 1970 to form the Hestigte (Reconstituted) National Party (HNP). In a snap election called shortly after the split, the HNP was thoroughly beaten at the polls. Vorster remained a strong proponent of apartheid under its sanitised name of ‘separate development’.
BJ Vorster retired as Prime Minister in 1978 and was given the honorary ceremonial position of President. An investigation into the establishment of an English language newspaper by the government during Vorster’s tenure as Prime Minister concluded that he was implicated in the use of a government slush fund for the purpose. Vorster resigned in disgrace and died on 10 September 1983.