Where’s that brandy, folks, let us drink!
In January 1995, I produced an item for Diogenes, the foreign affairs program of the Dutch VPRO television station. Lord Carrington had previously been portrayed in a series about people who had played a significant role in historical periods. This English politician had mediated in the Yugoslavian conflict. Now it was Botha’s turn, the former foreign minister of South Africa. The editor-in-chief called me in a bright state of excitement, his cut-out folder (which you still had then) aroused no doubt about his choice. I objected that Botha had played no significant role in South Africa's complex transition to democracy. In South Africa he was considered by many to be an opportunist who looked along from the side-lines to see which direction the wind would blow. Then he would turn around.
My defence was heard politely but did not produce any effect. What did I know about it? I just lived there.
More than a week before the crew of Diogenes would arrive, Joe Slovo, once one of the commanders of the armed wing of the ANC and leader of the Communist Party, died. After the first democratic elections, Mandela appointed him Minister of Housing. Less than a year later, Slovo succumbed to cancer.
Because Botha, as Minister for Energy also a member of Mandela's Government of National Unity, would be present at the funeral, the VPRO guys thought that this could be a memorable opening scene of the item. Under a viaduct on the highway from Pretoria to Soweto we met Botha and drove to the funeral. The film crew changed car. I drove with Botha's driver behind the minister and the television crew. As usual, the memorial service in the stadium lasted almost a day. It yielded beautiful images of the minister moved to tears standing next to the coffin of his once sworn enemy. Approximately seven times the white minority regime had tried to kill Slovo with an assassination attempt. Eventually he had died a natural death.
Back in the hotel we gathered in the room of the director/cameraman. He let out a deep sigh while he was sitting cross-legged on the double. "What a third-rate actor", he said. "We have to come up with another topic". The rest of the evening was spent with making phone calls, including to a friend of mine who worked at an organization that supported small miners. A day later, the crew travelled to the Northern Cape and filmed a beautiful report which, due to the theme - mining – was distantly related to Pik Botha, but in which in the end he hardly played any significant role. On seeing the item, I could only suppress a slight feeling of triumph.
I was strapped in a corset of left-radical anti-apartheid thinking
Now that, shortly after his death, in the media we are looking back extensively on the life and work of Pik Botha, it is time for a sincere mea culpa. I did not understand it at the time. Strapped in a corset of left-radical anti-apartheid thinking I completely missed the unimaginably large contribution that Pik Botha made to the struggle for freedom and democracy, for human rights and equality. Probably much more than Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster and the entire Ossewa Brandwag together.
Hennie van Vuuren's book Apartheid, Guns and Money reminds Botha of his meeting with Margaret Thatcher.
"I am the only foreign dignitary to have a private one-to-one meeting with her without any of her staff present. My friends would joke, now what would the two of you do? It's a strange thing. She had very beautiful breasts. She could not sit still for a minute, the one leg over the other leg. I will never forget this day in London, she had a great dinner with you, I am telling you. She was dressed up in a beautiful dress and her collar and her head was like a flower emerging out of it. I said: ‘Excuse me, would you let me tell you how charming you looked last night? I would have anything to be your partner.’ Hell, blushed for the first time. We remained very good friends despite the difficult times. She was the one that was never in favour of sanctions."
Pik Botha the womens-man. Charming, decisive, the hands neatly kept at home (maybe not always, but certainly in Downing Street 10 and the rest is fake news). That is a bit different from what fellow ministers on Bird Island, just off the coast of Port Elisabeth, were doing with minor coloured boys. According to a recent publication, defence minister Magnus Malan even fired a shot of hail in one boys’ anus. Pik would never do that.
Pik had someone else do it. In the mid-eighties, after being located by the head of the death squads concluding a days-long search in a wildlife sanctuary, he carefully put his signature under the command to blow up an ANC community in neighbouring Botswana. Eleven people died, including the artist Thami Mnyele, after whom an artist residence in Amsterdam is named. Botha understood that the chopping needed to be executed according to the rules. So there had to be a signature under the command. "Where is that brandy, folks, let us drink!", Pik exclaimed after he had signed, the death squadron testified to the Truth Commission. Brilliant!
Because drink he could. Like a man. Once in a state of liquor induced laughter he chased his wife on the piano to strip. She fell off and became paralyzed. (According to another reading, he slapped her because she refused to strip). What matters is that Pik bought her a wheelchair. Which man would do that? Pik was a human person.
Pik was a great actor, the Kevin Spacey of South Africa
The predicate of the third-rate actor that the VPRO director stuck to the minister after only a day, must be rejected by force. Pik was a great actor, the Kevin Spacey of South Africa. Apartheid troops in Angola and Namibia? Pik denied it with a steel face. Reports by Cuban troops in the Angolan Cuito Cuanavale? Nonsense, Pik had drunk them under the table. Death squads, kidnappings, carbonized freedom fighters on Vlakplaas? Propaganda from the sleeve of international communism. Personal mafia connections? His friendship with Vito Palazzolo, which he made Ambassador Plenipotentiary in Ciskei? This friendship was only aimed at the well-being of this poverty-stricken homeland.
For a long time, they believed him in Washington and London and pretty often in The Hague as well. And they recognized it in the circles around Stroessner, Pinochet, Mobutu and Videla. They did this sort of thing themselves, and they denied it just as hard. The difference: Pik was trusted. Kevin Spacey fell from his pedestal earlier. Need I say more?
Sometimes someone has to die before his unselfish gifts contribution are valued by everyone. Pik was a friends-man. He shook hands just as easily with General Viljoen as with Winnie Mandela or Archbishop Tutu. In the latter’s garden, Pik's friends at the Special Branch once hung a dead monkey foetus but that was a joke. 'A great intellectual', tweeted ANC minister Hanekom who was allowed to sit next to His Holiness in Mandela's cabinet for two years. 'A figurehead of the anti-apartheid struggle', according to the black Sunday newspaper City Press in a tweet, which was incomprehensibly withdrawn the day after.
If Diogenes only still existed. One extra broadcast, nothing more.