Change of Heart in Pretoria

  • Share
  • Read Later
Entering a new year crammed with problems such as high crime, aids, increasing unemployment, labor and trade union tension, and corruption and incompetence in the public service, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and his African National Congress need all the help they can get. Last week they got some, and it came from a most unlikely source. Roelof ("Pik") Botha, 67, a National Party stalwart, South Africa's apartheid-era Foreign Minister for 17 years and a one-time contender for the presidency, came out of retirement to declare his support for Mbeki and said he might join the A.N.C. Botha, who became Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs in the post-1994 Mandela cabinet, quit active politics two years later when Deputy President F.W. de Klerk withdrew his National Party from the government of national unity. Too much of an extrovert for many of his conservative colleagues, Botha twice came close to resigning before that event. The first was the disastrous "Rubicon" speech of 1985 in which the then President P.W. Botha (no relation) rejected Pik's draft of a statement which would have announced the release of Nelson Mandela. The second was when he was hauled over the coals by President Botha for publicly agreeing that one day South Africa might have a black President.

Indulging in one of his favorite pastimes, cooking a lunch of potjiekos--a traditional Afrikaner casserole of spiced young kudu, beef, lamb and vegetables--at his estate outside Pretoria, Botha said last week that, prompted by his high regard for Nelson Mandela, he had decided to make his voice heard as a "wake-up call to the nation." Some of his main points:

On Mandela: "A few weeks before the last (1999) election Mandela and I had a lengthy discussion in his home in Johannesburg. We talked about how a man like himself could endure 27 years in prison for political reasons and would not wish to die with the thought that it had all been in vain. He said, 'Pik, I would like to go with the feeling that I made a difference.' That impressed me. I feel the same."

On racism: "There's still another Rubicon to cross and that's the racial divide. The people who can't make that crossing, they're still the difficult ones. We don't have the luxury to let it linger on for decades, like the Americans. We have a black government in power. Racial prejudice has nothing to do with the law any more. This time it has everything to do with the mind-set, with the heart."

On Mbeki: "He's obviously motivated to do something effective about the problems, not hesitating to reprimand his own rank and file. He's doing his best to maintain fiscal discipline, and he has a minister of education running from school to school, ensuring that teachers and principals are doing their jobs. The country needs support for Mbeki and the others to maintain an effective growth rate, tackle the crime problem, aids, combat corruption and create jobs."

On the A.N.C.: "Gone are the days that the A.N.C. were saying they'd nationalize everything, that white people feared for their property, their future. We have a constitution we can be proud of. We have a market-orientated economic system. There is only one government that can handle the national priorities at least for the next 10 years, I predict. That's the A.N.C. We must strengthen their hand."

Old National Party Afrikaners and others see Botha's about-face as political opportunism. But he is adamant that he is only reacting to challenges put before the nation by President Mbeki himself. At the A.N.C.'s 88th birthday this month Mbeki railed against incompetence and corruption in the civil service and warned that headmasters and teachers whose schools failed their examinations would be fired.

Analysts believe that Mbeki's state-of-the-nation address at the opening of the South African Parliament next month will include a "big-bang" range of investor-friendly measures that will include a new national strategy against crime, cost-cutting retrenchments in the civil service, further privatization of state firms and the easing of labor laws. Many civil servants are uneasy with such initiatives. The A.N.C.'s political alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, are particularly upset. Industrial stability is under threat by "the boys in blue from the Ministry of Finance," said cosatu's general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.

"They don't realize it's a national crisis," says Botha. "Unless we throw genuine support behind the government none of us will want to live in this country in another five or 10 years." After lunch he received a call from Nelson Mandela, who praised him for his support of Mbeki and the A.N.C. and promised to meet with him on his return. Perhaps the maverick master of the potjiekos is cooking up a comeback.