About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Botha, P(ieter) W(illem)

Botha, P(ieter) W(illem) (1916- ), South African politician, Prime Minister (1978-1984) and President (1984-1989) of South Africa. Botha was born in Paul Roux, Orange Free State (now Free State). Educated at the University of the Orange Free State, he became involved in politics as a student and left university in 1936 before graduating in order to pursue a career as the organizer for the Cape National Party of Daniel François Malan. At the second congress of the party in 1937, he was already warning of the Communist menace in South Africa, a concern which became a lifelong preoccupation.

After fighting his way up through the organizational ranks of the Cape National Party, Botha became a member of its Central Committee in 1946. First elected to the South African parliament in 1948 for the George constituency, Botha represented it for the next 36 years. In 1958 he became Deputy Minister of the Interior, and achieved full Cabinet rank in 1961, as Minister of Coloured Affairs and of Community Development and Housing. As Minister of Defence between 1966 and 1978, he built up a personal power base among the military, and began to formulate his notion of "total strategy", in response to what he saw as the "total onslaught" against South Africa by the forces of international Communism and black nationalism. His policies as Defence Minister led to South Africa's military intervention in Angola from 1974 onwards, an escalation of conflict, and the involvement of Cuban troops in the region. "Total strategy" also led to South Africa backing terrorism against the elected government in Mozambique and covert destabilization in Zimbabwe.

In 1978 Botha unexpectedly succeeded Balthazar Johannes Vorster as National Party leader and Prime Minister. During the 1970s and 1980s he was deeply involved in South Africa's attempt to hold on to Namibia in defiance of the UN and a guerrilla insurgency. In 1983 Botha pushed through a reform bill that extended representation in parliament to Coloureds and Asians but not to the black majority. In 1984 constitutional changes gave him extensive powers as President. During his rule Botha attempted internal reform, even initiating talks with Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress (ANC). He also recognized black trade unions, abolished the pass laws in 1986, and established a tricameral parliament that enfranchised Coloureds and Asians, but not the African majority. However, he coupled these reforms with increased military control of government bureaucracy, crackdowns on internal dissent, and a policy of destabilization against South Africa's neighbours. Botha's internal reforms were perceived by blacks as simply a more sophisticated attempt to entrench white supremacy, and in the mid-1980s growing resistance made him declare two States of Emergency. When Botha failed to respond to increased international demand for real change, sanctions against South Africa were sharpened.

In 1989 Botha suffered a serious stroke, and was forced to resign first his party leadership and then the presidency. In disagreement with his successor Frederik Willem De Klerk, he retired to George. At the end of 1996, evidence from former police officers implicated Botha in bombing and assassination campaigns carried out by South African security forces against anti-apartheid activists during the 1980s, when he presided over the State Security Council. Widely believed to have backed covert right-wing elements in the security forces in these actions, he was called to give evidence before the new government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997. In August 1998 he was fined and given a suspended jail sentence for refusing to appear before the Commission.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.