Childhood & Early Life
Pieter Willem Botha was born on January 12, 1916, on a farm named Telegraaf in the district of Paul Roux in Orange Free State (presently Free State Province).
Botha was the only son of his parents, Pieter Willem Botha Sr. and Hendrina Christina Botha (née de Wet). Pieter was a widower with four children, while Hendrina was a widow with five children. They were Afrikaner (South African community with Dutch origins).
His father was a commando who fought against the British in the Second Boer War. Botha’s mother had interned at a British concentration camp during the war.
Botha went to the ‘Paul Roux School’ initially. He then matriculated from the ‘Voortrekker Secondary School,’ located in Bethlehem, South Africa.
He joined the ‘Grey University College’ (presently the University of the Free State) in Bloemfontein, in the early 1930s. He wished to study law there but quit studies at 20, to join politics.
Even at the campus, he was the ‘National Party’s branch chairman. He also worked as a part-time reporter for ‘Die Volksblad’ and was a member of the ‘National Afrikaans Student Association.’ He impressed Prime Minister Malan with an address when he visited the campus.
He joined the ‘National Party’ as a political organizer in the Cape Province and became its branch chairman. Botha then joined the right nationalist Africaner group named ‘Ossewabrandwag,’ which supported the German ‘Nazi Party.’ However, following the German attack on the USSR, Botha criticized the ‘Ossewabrandwag’ and turned to Christian nationalism.
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In 1946, he was made the union information officer for the ‘National Party.’ His job was to prepare circulars and spread propaganda. His journalism came to be known as "Skietgoed," or “ammunition.” He often targeted J. H. Hofmeyr, whose support of racial equality was perceived as a threat to white South Africans.
Botha was elected to the parliament in 1948. By 1958, he had become the deputy minister of internal affairs.
From 1961 to 1980, he headed departments such as commercial development, “Coloured” affairs, public works (1964), and defense (April 1966 to October 1980). Botha was responsible for the ouster of the “Coloureds” from District Six.
In 1966, he was elected the leader of the ‘National Party’ in the Cape Province. He also became a member of the board of directors of ‘Nasionale Pers Ltd.’
From 1976 to 1978, Botha served as the leader of the ‘House of Assembly.’ During his tenure as a defense minister, Soviet-backed Marxist ‘MPLA’ made its presence felt in Angola.
The Americans invited South Africa to form a pro-Western government in Luanda. However, Botha and Magnus Malan (the chief of the army), believed Soviets should be eradicated from Africa. Botha thus suggested a complete invasion that would ouster the ‘MPLA’ from Luanda.
In August 1975, South African forces invaded southern Angola to protect the ‘Kunene River Hydroelectric Scheme.’ A civil war began and later involved Cubans, South Africans, East Germans, Russians, and Americans.
On December 19, 1975, the U.S. government withdrew its support. By then, the South African army had marched into the outskirts of Luanda. Botha and Malan felt insulted when they had to withdraw from Angola.
Following this, the ‘MPLA’ and the Cubans moved to the South West African border, where they protected ‘South West African People’s Organization’ (‘SWAPO’) guerrillas and raided northern SWA.
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Botha’s forces launched aggressive cross-border invasions into Angola, thus disrupting ‘SWAPO’ raids in Namibia. Botha made South Africa self-reliant in terms of armament supplies.
Botha transformed his army into a multiracial group that worked with the black population of the region. This did not affect people’s support of ‘SWAPO’ but made them passive. Botha made crucial decisions about the Angolan War and also negotiated with western powers over the future course of action in SWA /Namibia.
He succeeded B.J. Vorster as the prime minister on September 28, 1978. Botha’s government went through a lot of difficulties, such as drought, a fall in the price of gold, a depression, a demanding defense budget, the campaign of terrorism sabotage by the ‘African National Congress’ (ANC), and rising internal resistance to apartheid.
The black governments in Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe came to power, which reenergized the South African nationalists and the ‘SWAPO.’
There was a lot of labor and student unrest in South Africa, primarily in 1980. Botha introduced frequent South African raids along with his support for anti-government groups in the border areas. He thus sought to weaken the Mozambican, Angolan, and Zimbabwean governments. Botha did not withdraw from Namibia, although he continued his negotiations on the issue.
He introduced a number of reforms at home. He granted independence to many black homelands. He worked toward industrial decentralization to revive the economy of the homelands.
He did not perceive the apartheid as inhumane but only thought it was expensive and unproductive. If black people were relocated away from the industrial hubs, it could have affected his plans for the country's progress. He thus worked toward political and social restructuring.
He was of the view that the whites must "adapt or die.” However, he did not provide “Coloured” and Indian people true partnership in the new ‘Tricameral Parliament.’
He formed a new constitution, which gave limited powers to the “Coloured” people and Asians but made no such regulations for the black majority. His reforms did not disrupt white supremacy. However, the right wing of the ‘National Party’ decided to create the ‘Conservative Party’ in 1982.
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Botha still managed to get the constitution approved in 1983. He then got elected as the state president in 1984, by an electoral college chosen from the white-dominated parliament.
While in office, Botha wished to strike a balance between the apartheid supporters and the militant non-white population. Although his efforts in resolving racial issues were appreciated, he eventually realized consensus was not possible and thus became more “imperial.”
In February 1989, Botha suffered a stroke and thus resigned as the party leader. After facing opposition from the ‘National Party’ and his own cabinet, he resigned from his position of the president. Following this, F.W. de Klerk became the new president and introduced policies that ended the apartheid. In 1994, the country’s first multiracial elections were held.
A ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ was formed in South Africa in 1995. The commission was to scrutinize the atrocities during the apartheid. The commission summoned Botha in 1997, but he refused to participate. Botha was thus fined. He also received a suspended sentence, which was overturned later.
Family, Personal Life, & Death
Botha was popularly known as “PW” and as “Piet Wapen” (“Peter Weapon”). He was also known as “the Axe Man,” or “Die Ou Krokodil.”
In 1943, Botha married Anna Elizabeth Rossouw (also known as Elize). They had three daughters and two sons.
Following Elize's death in 1997, Botha married a British lady named Barbara Robertso.
He breathed his last on October 31, 2006, at his home, 'Die Anker,’ at 90. The following day, Rev. Frank Chikane visited his family and offered a state funeral. His wife, however, stated that Botha had not wished for a state funeral.
His memorial service was opened to the public, but he received a private burial on November 8, 2006, in Hoekwil, near Wilderness.