The Nordic Africa Institute

Roelof (‘Pik’) Botha

National Party—Minister of Foreign Affairs Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Cape Town, 12 September 1995.

Tor Sellström: You served as a young diplomat at the South African Embassy in Stockholm from June 1956 until January 1960. How did you see the relations between South Africa and the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, in those days?

Pik Botha: For a young South African foreign service official it was a very sudden introduction into a very critical world. A very critical world. The Swedish media at the time were very critical and even hostile towards the South African government.

Tor Sellström: Already in 1956?

Pik Botha: Very much so. There was—I even remember it till the present day—a Swedish missionary in South Africa, a man called Gunnar Helander. You will find quite a number of his articles in Dagens Nyheter and Expressen. Particularly those two papers. Professor Tingsten was the editor of Dagens Nyheter and Dr. Harrie was the editor of Expressen. I even remember the names till the present moment. That was forty years ago, so you can conclude that their attitude and the Swedish media’s attitude towards South Africa must have caused a stir in my soul, a turbulence in my own thinking.
On the one hand, many reports were exaggerated and distorted. On the other, the reports did challenge the moral basis of the policies of the South African government. After several very severe editorials and articles, published by Dagens Nyheter as well as Expressen,I asked to see professor Tingsten. He received me in his office and I objected to his editorials and their non-factual basis. The factual basis of many of the articles was inadequate. Exaggerations. If they talked about infant mortality, they would double the figures. That kind of statistics. That, of course, did not detract from the fact that the policies of the government were fundamentally immoral.
I went to see him, and, as a young man, I explained to him that: ‘Yes, at the present stage there are many laws and aspects of the South African government’s policies which cannot be defended. On the other hand, how would you facilitate change? How would you, as a responsible editor, facilitate change? If you are really concerned about those matters, as you profess to be, then I want to challenge you and ask you: Do you think that you are going about it in the right way? You would be better off if you checked your facts first of all, because if facts are wrong in a newspaper report people tend to reject the impact of the article due to the factual inadequacies contained in it. You achieve more by being factual and correct.’ He then said to me: ‘Look, you whites have been the minority in South Africa since your history started.’ He had a very good grasp of our history. He had studied it, obviously.

Tor Sellström: He had visited South Africa. In 1954, just before you came to Sweden, he published a book called The Problem of South Africa.

Pik Botha: Yes. Then he said to me: ‘Mr Botha, what is your vision? What is your view? You are a minority, but what about the future? Can you give me your view? If I am wrong in my basic presumptions, how do you see your future?’ I explained to him that nothing in life was static and that I foresaw changes, saying: ‘Yes, we cannot continue by denying blacks political rights.’ That is when he said: ‘What do you mean? Are you going to give them political rights?’ I said: ‘There are various ways to do so.’ He said: ‘Please explain that to me.’
I then said to him: ‘Look, South Africa is a large country. If you look at the whole of Southern Africa, once upon a time the whole region was known as British South Africa, with Botswana, Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Swaziland, Lesotho, all of it. Britain wanted to govern it with individual administrations and governors, but it was one country. Already there was this pattern of Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, Malawi—which was known as Nyasaland—having proceeded on what you could call at least a separate statehood.’ He then said to me: ‘In other words, you say that you could do the same in South Africa?’ I said yes. And he said ‘Do you mean that the Zulus then would become completely independent?’ I said yes. He said: ‘The Tswana people?’ I said yes. ‘And the Xhosas?’ I said yes. And he said: ‘Mr Botha, if you tell me today that that is the official policy of your country, I will write an editorial tomorrow to support it.’
This was in 1957 and at that stage it was not government policy. It only became government policy long after that, in the 1960s, when Dr. Verwoerd pronounced it. But then it was too late. It was too late, because the immoral aspects of apartheid overwhelmed any merit that there might have been in the concept of complete independence for the various communities. That killed it. If it was not for that you could have had a development similar to the one in Swaziland, Lesotho or Botswana. There was no apartheid there. It did therefore not bear that stigma. It had credibility. Our plan lacked credibility and legitimacy because of apartheid. That wrecked it. It is interesting, looking back today, that Tingsten was prepared to defend it, because to him that would have provided a moral basis: statehood, full independence, a black prime minister in Zululand with a black cabinet, black judges, equality before the law, all that he stood for. One person, one vote, full democracy. And in what would remain of South Africa also: full democracy, even if the whites were in a majority. But, of course, he had me in a corner, because it was not government policy. I said: ‘No, I am afraid that I cannot say that this is the government’s policy, because it is not. But one day it will become the government’s policy.’ And it did, but too late. The positive elements were discounted. This was the problem.
I think that this summarizes to me—looking back at my whole career—the development of my own concepts over the years. In other words, looking back at my tenure of service in Sweden there was, on the one hand, harsh, certainly acrimonious and hostile, publicity on the South African government’s policies. Partly exaggerated and distorted. On the other hand—and quite apart from the inaccuracies of what was published—I had to account to myself for the moral basis of the policies. I think that I must be fair and say that that early experience in my life, exposing me to this harsh environment of criticism, woke me up to the realities of the situation. Both the moral and economic implications of laws like the pass laws, the Immorality Act and so forth.
If you serve in a country like Sweden and the headlines come out one day about a Norwegian or Danish sailor who has been arrested in Durban because he spent the night with a black woman, well... In my time, an incident occurred which I never will forget. There came from South Africa a group of coloured entertainers, musicians. They had a mixed repertoire of dancing, singing, a band playing etc. Very joyful people as they are known to be here in the Cape. They were called The Golden City Dixies. One of them developed appendicitis and had to go to a Swedish hospital. After the operation he was visited by a Swedish doctor who showed him a Swedish newspaper which had as its headline some riots in Durban. I think that it was mainly between Zulus and Indians. It was with a racial connotation and described the police action against the rioters. The Swedish doctor told this South African coloured musician: ‘Look here, you say that you come from South Africa. The country is going down the drain. It is finished.’ This coloured person could not understand Swedish and the doctor gave him an interpretation which bordered on the perception that a civil war had started in South Africa.
The man got frightened and eventually asked for asylum in Sweden, which brought about a split in the group. Up to that point they had been very happy. They had had a very good first performance. They did well in Britain, where they had been before. With all respect, I think that the mere fact that here was a group of coloured persons who sang, who were joyful, who travelled with South African passports, to a large extent repudiated the exaggerations which appeared in the Swedish media. And I think that some of our friends in the Swedish media could not stomach this and had a hand in fomenting trouble. I had to fly to Gothenburg, where they were stranded. After the negative reporting of the Swedish media, the group attracted no more audiences. The show was killed by the media. They had hired a huge circus type of tent which would have provided, I think, for five or six thousand people. All the costs went up and they were left as stranded South African citizens. I addressed them in the tent and advised them to return to their country. At first they were hesitant and wanted an assurance from me that things were calm and that they could return with safety, which I gave them.
Years later, I returned to South Africa. They gave a performance one evening, either in Pretoria or Johannesburg. They invited me and treated me as a special guest. I am mentioning this to indicate how loaded the atmosphere was in Sweden. Strangely, with our Swedish neighbours, that was never the case.

Tor Sellström: With Norway, Finland and Denmark?

Pik Botha: No, I mean where I lived in Stockholm. I naturally had Swedish neighbours and friends. When I visited Stockholm in 1993 with Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk for the Nobel Prize, I took an hour or two off. It was in December. I went to the place where we stayed. One of my daughters was born there, in Stockholm.

Tor Sellström: In what area of Stockholm did you live?

Pik Botha: It was Äppelvägen 25 in Stocksund. I had great difficulties finding it because of the snow. Unfortunately, I did not find the way I used to drive. It was Ringvägen, a round string, but we took the wrong one and had to do it two or three times. Then I suddenly saw the house. It is still there. I knocked on the door. A man opened and the Swedish security person who was with me explained who I was. The man said: ‘Yes, all right, but you must give me a little time to get dressed.’ It was early in the morning on a Sunday. Next door was our neighbour, Stig Nelin and his wife Margit. We knocked on the door and a lady opened the window. Suddenly I saw her face. It was Margit. I recognized her and she recognized me and said that I must just allow her to put on a dress or something. She then invited me in.
Stig was a captain. He was transferred to the north of Sweden in connection with military training or something for a year or two. At that time, we lived in their house. That same house. There we were again. I had pictures taken with her and me standing together at the place where I had lived. Then she said to me that there were two Ström brothers, twins, living across the street. One of them was now very old, not very well any more, and he would love to see me. I walked over to the Ströms’, knocked on his door and before he opened he looked through the door. He immediately saw me and we embraced each other. This, I think, indicates to you what the personal relationship was with my family, myself and our Swedish friends, Swedish business people. They were in the major companies then, LM Ericsson, SKF and others, and we had good relations with them all along. In many respects, we placed handsome orders for Swedish products at the time. We exported oranges to Sweden and red wine, which sold very well.

Tor Sellström: Did you also cover the other Nordic countries from Sweden?

Pik Botha: No, only Sweden. Finland to some extent.

Tor Sellström: When you mention Helander, Tingsten and Harrie, you are talking of people who came from the church or a liberal, non-socialist, political background. Tingsten was prominent opponent of the Social Democratic Party.

Pik Botha: Yes, he was. I know.

Tor Sellström: They were very instrumental in the formation of the anti-apartheid opinion in Sweden. How did you later explain the fact that Sweden and the Nordic countries supported liberation movements that were assisted by the East bloc?

Pik Botha: Looking back, I personally believe that it always was an obsession for the government of Sweden and elements like Tingsten and others. However, not to side with the Soviet Union. No, definitely not. They were offering equally harsh, if not worse, criticism of Soviet policies.

Tor Sellström: This was after the invasion of Hungary?

Pik Botha: Exactly. Ironically, I took into my home a Hungarian family that had fled from Hungary. A man called Ralf Teleki. He was a very well known portrait painter, an artist. We took him and his wife and daughter into our home in Stockholm. The Swedish government had relief programme. They also requested foreign embassies and missions, or made it possible for them, to take families. Which we did. He later started to sell enough works to be able to hire his own place. I think it was in Lidingö, where Millesgården is. I wanted nothing from him, but he insisted on painting me. I still have the painting, which was painted in Stig Nelin’s home.

Tor Sellström: How could the Swedish opinion become so aligned with Soviet-backed policies in Southern Africa?

Pik Botha: No, it never was. The Swedish opinion was not aligned with anything that happened in the Soviet Union. Definitely not. But they coincided, because Sweden and the other Nordic countries—to a lesser extent Norway, Denmark and Finland; Sweden was really in the vanguard, I would say—had this obsession not to have racism ever again, knowing what it had caused the world. Secondly, I think that a basic philosophy of justice and fairness prevailed. Racial discrimination, allocation of rights and duties, responsibilities, on the basis of membership in a group, class, race or religion was anathema. It was not only race, I repeat, but allocation of rights and privileges on the basis of group membership. Already then Sweden was in the vanguard of freedom for women.

Tor Sellström: How could it be explained? Was it because of a Germanic, egalitarian spirit?

Pik Botha: It was there. Any preference in governmental laws and actions based on visions concerning membership in a religious, racial or sexual group, was anathema. Concerned media and others always saw this as a crusade, as something that they had to fight. Irrespective of where it occurred, they were against it. They therefore sided with the organizations that were on the ground, opposed to it, and professed that they were representing the majority of the people who were seeking freedom. I think that that was what was behind it. It was a very strong and emotional, yet intellectual, assault. I remember colleagues from Spain and Portugal—particularly the Mediterranean and South American countries, even Egypt—who very often found this typical Swedish position offensive when it came to their own countries. Franco was still there. Salazar was still there and Italy was recovering. Regarding France— it was just before de Gaulle rose to power—I praised myself that I as a young diplomat wrote a report to my government predicting that de Gaulle would take over one day as the President of France and reform it. Later on, it did happen. Years later, I returned and perused some of the files of those days. I saw my own reports and smiled. A senior official at the Department had written on them: ‘Rubbish! A lot of rubbish!’ But it was accurate! At the time I also made a study of the Lapps. Some of them even came to see me. They brought facts and figures on their treatment, which I found unacceptable.

Tor Sellström: I think that the South African government raised this question in the United Nations?

Pik Botha: Yes, we did.

Tor Sellström: Sweden had a close relationship with the liberation movements that are now governments in Southern Africa. In retrospect, do you think that what you term as an emotional and intellectual stand had any influence on these movements?

Pik Botha: That is very difficult for me to judge. There are no angels this side of the grave, but I cannot escape from either the suspicion or the assumption that the Nordic governments despite the basis on which they gave aid—that it should not be of a military nature—knew that some of it did go for military purposes.

Tor Sellström: Napoleon said that armies march with their stomachs?

Pik Botha: Correct. Secondly, I do feel that because of the emotional side insufficient control was exercised over the destiny of the money and the funds. The major question for the Nordic countries now will be: What now? Will they retain the same standards that they applied vis-à-vis the apartheid regime? Will they keep on applying them? That is going to be a major challenge to the Nordic countries.

Tor Sellström: Do you think that there was a hidden agenda behind the support, in the sense of fomenting economic interests in a majority ruled Southern Africa?

Pik Botha: Not in my opinion. I am not aware of any evidence to that effect. As we say, the proof is in the eating of the pudding. I am not aware of any undue pressure after the 1994 election—or even before—from any of the Nordic countries, coming here saying: ‘Look, we helped you. Now we want certain favours for our industry or for our exports.’ No, I am not aware of that.

Tor Sellström: It was, of course, difficult for you to have direct contacts with the Nordic countries. However, did you see the potential of the Nordic countries as brokers for a negotiated settlement?

Pik Botha: Well, Martti Ahtisaari is a Finn. I would say that he played a decisively important role. There is no question about it. I hope that history will accord him the credit that is due to him. I think of the years and years that he was waiting for a movement on the Namibia issue and how things went wrong, time and time again. But he displayed a reasonable and balanced attitude. The two of us eventually got on very well together. We developed a personal relationship, which again proved to me—as so many other events in my life—what can be achieved if we move away from stern agendas and minutes, preconceived judgements and ideas, and just retain an open mind towards one another. It was mainly as a result of that informal, yes, trust in each other’s personal integrity. That is of great importance, even if you differ. It sometimes enabled him to telephone me on the most sensitive matters, which I would then take to my government and cabinet and push through, because I believed what he told me. Even if what he told me was unacceptable to some of my colleagues. This was very important.
I believe that Southern Africa owes that man a debt, because you must not forget that it was the fact that we eventually succeeded in concluding the agreements—in the end of 1988— in the terms of which the Cuban troops would be withdrawn, that opened the way for Namibia’s independence. He himself saw what no other observers—including the Swedes, with all respect—had not yet analyzed properly, namely the impact and the influence that it would have on events here. That was the forerunner. I accompanied Mr. de Klerk, who had then just become President of the country, to Namibia’s independence celebrations, where he made a speech which was applauded as much as that of Mr. Sam Nujoma. There we met for the first time the Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, who is now President of Georgia. We became good friends. The Swedish Foreign Minister, Sten Andersson, was there too.

Tor Sellström: You met him there for the first time?

Pik Botha: Yes, for the first time. Tall, rather typically Swedish. We had a very open, fruitful and useful discussion with him, pushing from our side. We said: ‘Look, things have changed irrevocably.’ It was not that he was doubtful, but he explained to us that what they would do would depend on how irrevocable or irreversible the change was in South Africa. Mandela had just been released. He said: ‘Yes, the world is now prepared to look at you with new eyes. But we will be waiting for the element of irreversibility.’ We tried to convince him and said: ‘Look, if the government of the day should now endeavour to turn back, it is finished. Our own supporters would ditch us’. He then said: ‘Look, for so many years the public opinion has been almost petrified against you. It will take some time’, indicating that he would assist as far as possible in bringing about that change. But he urged us to produce more evidence of irreversibility.
It is interesting that we eventually, in the referendum held here—albeit amongst whites, who were then our voters—asked the white electorate to agree to the irreversibility of what we were doing. That, I think, was really the final break for the whole world on the question of acceptance. They accepted our integrity and credibility on the issue of irreversibility of change.
In Namibia we also met the Nigerian president, Babangida, who later invited us to Nigeria. We met the President of Egypt, Mubarak. We met a host of statesmen. The reception given on our side that evening was attended by 40 per cent more guests than we invited. They just stormed in. It was overwhelming!
Historically speaking, that lowered tensions throughout Southern Africa. But I still had to defend the agreements against the white Conservative Party. They thought that I had signed away the future of South Africa and that Cuban troops would fight on the Orange River. But I did not mind. It was not the first time in my life that I had to stand alone for what I believed in and I knew that it was the right thing. I knew that we had to get rid of Namibia in order to resolve the problem here. Just as I knew that we had to get rid of the situation in Rhodesia if we were to make headway on Namibia. Those were my priorities: Rhodesia, Namibia, South Africa. You could not do it the other way around. I managed the Rhodesian situation and the Namibian situation without incurring sanctions. We never got sanctions on Namibia and/or Rhodesia. We got them on apartheid in South Africa, which was not my function. My function was Namibia and Rhodesia.
I mention this not to underestimate the importance of the whole Namibian independence situation—as well as the withdrawal of the Cuban troops—on events in this country. It made it easier for persons in my position and, I think, for Mr. de Klerk to move faster, to release the political prisoners, to remove acts and laws which were in existence and still formed the pillars of apartheid, like the Group Areas Act and acts of that nature, and to open the way for negotiations. The Namibian events played in my opinion a major role in paving the way for what later happened here. Ahtisaari played a pivotal role in that situation, for which I respect him. I do not think that the world has yet awarded him the respect and the gratitude that he deserves. It is a pity.

Tor Sellström: But if you read books like the one by Chester Crocker, High Noon in Southern Africa, you find the whole process described as an American exercise?

Pik Botha: Yes. Except if you read Cyrus Vance’s book Hard Choices. He gave more credit to me in some of his remarks. And there are some other books from a European perspective. But Chester Crocker really tried to steal the show. A very American approach. But his facts are also not at all accurate, which surprised me. You would expect a man like that to have archives and notes that he could consult. I hope that God will give me the time and strength to write my own book, because then I would certainly reveal what really happened in the negotiations.

Tor Sellström: Looking back, how do you in general terms view your three years in Sweden?

Pik Botha: Having lived in Sweden I think that I came to know the Swedish psyche quite well. Also the problems experienced by the Nordic countries historically, with Norway and Denmark invaded in the war and Finland devastated by the Soviet Union. I had as a young man the privilege and advantage of long discussions with one or two Finnish generals, who really went through that war and who told me what happened on the ground, how their people and soldiers died, and of the devastation. I detected that there was still a measure of slight antagonism between Finland and Sweden.

Tor Sellström: Yes, of course. Sweden colonized Finland.

Pik Botha: Yes, but also from the Norwegian and Danish sides I at times detected some hard feelings, because of the perception that Sweden stayed neutral in the war to make economic and financial gain out of it. At the same time I had Swedish friends who could give their side of the picture, believing—as they explained to me—that if Sweden had also been invaded, the hardship might have been quantifiably greater for everybody concerned, which is a concept I personally understand. It is easy to jump to conclusions for emotional reasons. It is a different matter to sit back and judge a situation, clinically, in its overall implications.
At Uppsala you have the mounds of the Vikings. I was always there, very interested in Swedish history. Very much so. For me, coming from Africa to the snow and seeing the northern lights was just an experience out of the world. In those years, you also had the beginning of the European group, which started, I think, with just six countries. I knew of the very serious debate in Sweden as to the future of Europe, seeing a possible threat to its own economic situation. How it would connect with this new thing that was arising. It was a university for me to be exposed to these debates. I owe a lot to the very intelligent analyses that appeared in Swedish magazines, newspapers and conferences on these issues. It was from that point of view a very rewarding period in my life. It equipped me, I believe, to make judgements and assessments on the basis of a clinical analysis of facts and realities. This I owe to Sweden. There is no question in my mind about it. It was just the Swedish attitude towards South Africa... I was a young man. It was my first posting abroad. I was not a member of any political party.

Tor Sellström: It was much later that you entered politics?

Pik Botha: I only joined the National Party in 1970, after I had resigned from my position in Foreign Affairs. I had then been a member of the Department for eighteen years and I got 4,000 Rand in pension. That was at the time when the split occurred in the National Party. The constituency where I stood, north of Pretoria, was one of the strongholds of the then HNP of Mr. Marais. People said: ‘You have been in Foreign Affairs. You know about international matters, diplomats and black children attending white schools. You must come now’. That is how I actually entered politics. I had by then already been appointed ambassador to the United Nations. Four years later, I was again appointed ambassador. It was a political appointment. Dr. Bouteflika from Algeria was the President of the General Assembly and they rejected my credentials. They gave me three minutes to address the General Assembly. That was in 1974, and that was the last time a South African representative addressed the General Assembly for twenty years, until 1994. It was a long walk up that aisle to the rostrum. A long walk.

Tor Sellström: On balance, did the Nordic countries play a constructive role for change in South Africa?

Pik Botha: I think that Sweden and the Nordic countries have played a quiet role in bringing about change in South Africa. It will require research to point out and to put on record what it entails. But it was never really in an aggressive style. That is why I say that there is, from my point of view, this important question: What now? I was privileged to accompany Mr. de Klerk to the Nobel Prize ceremonies at the end of 1993. I think that the Peace Prize was one of the most prophetic decisions ever taken, because it came at a critical moment during the negotiations here. That day I happened to be in Maputo, where also the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was mediating between President Chissano on the one hand and Dhlakama, the leader of RENAMO, on the other. During a press conference, one of my staff members in Maputo brought me a note which said that they had received a signal from Pretoria that Norway had decided that the two of them would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tor Sellström: Did it impact on the FRELIMO-RENAMO talks?

Pik Botha: Yes! President Chissano immediately congratulated me and also Dhlakama. It was a prophetic decision. It came at a critical time. It almost conveyed to both these leaders and to their followers that the world will reward you if you follow a certain line. It was not put that way, but that was the deep, more profound implication. I discussed it with Norwegian and Swedish friends when I went there, and they did not contradict me. I said to them that this must have been a very difficult decision, because they did not know how things would turn out here. The negotiations went up and down, bouncing on the road. Inkatha withdrew and then ANC withdrew. There were suspicions. Massacres occurring. Those were very difficult circumstances, with suspicion ripe and one party accusing the other of bad faith through acrimonious exchanges in public. As a matter of fact, the media reported that they did not expect much to come out of it. The doom prophets predicted that South Africa might be plunged into a blood bath. It was only after the elections that we eventually received acclaim. From the whole world for that matter.
What impressed me from Sweden and the Nordic countries was the way in which they eventually also reacted to the elections. Not singling out just one party, but sort of praising, supporting and expressing their appreciation also to Mr. de Klerk. Not holding the past against anyone, saying: ‘That is now gone.
There is a new future for you, and we would like to nurture that and assist you in walking that road.’ I am very much aware of that important role.
To summarize: the impact of the Namibian situation together with the impact of the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize stand out in my memory as the two major events which certainly and decisively had an important influence in this country and held at bay, in my opinion, the radicals. It held at bay those who would say: ‘To hell with de Klerk! We are going on our own now.’ There was a world that said: ‘No, despite the past here is a leader who did it. We can support that.’ That made an indelible impression.