Roelof “Pik” Botha, South Africa’s foreign minister under apartheid, who has died at the age of 86, was a man of contradictions.
He could, for example, be charming. But, though a long-serving diplomat, he was often very undiplomatic, full of bluster and theatrics. He long defended apartheid and South Africa’s refusal to withdraw from occupied Namibia. Yet he was also a reformer who helped both to end apartheid and to secure Namibian independence.
Some examples from his long involvement with Namibia throw light on such contradictions.
In the early 1960s he was an ardent defender of South Africa’s right to continue ruling what it called South West Africa and to apply its laws there. As a prominent member of the South African team in the long-drawn out case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he argued forcefully against the view that South Africa had violated the League of Nations mandate allowing it to rule South West Africa. The court case was brought to force South Africa to withdraw from the territory it had occupied since 1915.
After Botha became South Africa’s foreign minister in 1977, he played a central role in the intricate negotiation process by the so-called Western Contact Group. This eventually led to the passage in 1978 of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435. This laid out a series of steps leading to Namibian independence.
It was Botha who then challenged the UN on the way it planned to implement the resolution. His resistance to pressures by the international community to get South Africa to implement the resolution between 1978 and 1981 helped ensure it was not implemented. Like others in his government, he was adamant at that time that SWAPO, which was seen as a Soviet proxy, should never come to power in Namibia.
From 1981 he supported the insistence by the Reagan administration that the independence of Namibia must be linked to the total withdrawal of the Cuban forces from Angola. For many years it seemed unlikely that such a withdrawal could be achieved. So South African occupation continued, with power increasingly devolved to an internal administration.
In 1984 the South African-appointed administrator-general of Namibia was authorised to meet the SWAPO leadership in Zambia. But Botha himself refused to contemplate any engagement with that leadership, which he continued to see as pro-Soviet and as likely to bring ruin to Namibia if it ever come to power.
Namibia moves to independence
Nevertheless in 1988 negotiations began on a Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola alongside Namibian independence. This came as the Cold War began to wind down, and as South Africa suffered a major military setback in southern Angola.
Botha played a particularly important role at a key meeting in Cairo in June that year with his Angolan and Cuban counterparts, under US mediation. He was later to claim, wrongly, that it was then that he came up with the idea that a deal could be reached in which all could claim victory.
With the negotiations successfully concluded, Botha represented South Africa at the signing of the agreements at the UN headquarters in New York. These provided for the withdrawal of Cuban forces and the implementation of Resolution 435. But, once again, he couldn’t resist making a highly partisan and aggressive speech.
On the day that the implementation of Resolution 435 finally began – 1 April 1989 – Botha persuaded Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who happened to be in the Namibian capital Windhoek, and Martti Ahtisaari, the UN Special Representative in Namibia, to allow South African forces to attack SWAPO guerrillas in northern Namibia. Over 300 were killed. And on the eve of Namibia’s first democratic election in November, Botha went public with the claim, soon shown to be false, that more SWAPO fighters were invading northern Namibia.
On the one hand Botha often tried to restrain the South African Defence Force, recognising that a negotiated settlement was necessary to solve the Namibian issue. He was largely responsible for persuading the then South African President, PW Botha in 1988 to accept that the implementation of UN Resolution 435 should go ahead.
Yet he had helped delay that implementation for a decade. During this period South African occupation of Namibia became more brutal and militarised. He never engaged with SWAPO to try to achieve a settlement. In 1989 he was behind the grant of R100 million in secret funds by the South African government to the anti-SWAPO parties for their election campaigns, in violation of the transition agreement..
Some details of Botha’s involvement in the Namibian story remain unclear, despite the thousand-page biography written about him, and the interviews he gave Sue Onslow of the University of London and others.
Will the material he removed from the Department of Foreign Affairs archives, supposedly to help him write his own memoir, never completed, now become accessible? Whether it does or not, there is no doubt that he played a key, but deeply ambiguous, role in the long saga of Namibia’s path to independence. Whether he could have acted differently, given the circumstances in which he had to work, is likely to remain a source of contention.
Chris Saunders does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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