Memories of Christmas Eve with Pik Botha

Fredo woke up this morning to learn of the passing of Pik Botha. As journalist Fredo followed the career of this colourful man very closely and also had some interviews with him.

Pik Botha, as South African Foreign Minister, made a name as an energetic and convincing debater, and shrewd negotiator. He lasted throughout the 70’s, the very difficult 1980’s and into the early 90’s when South Africa moved to a new democracy. Then he was Minister of Energy Affairs in President Mandela’s first the unity government. He left the cabinet in 1996 when FW de Klerk’s National Party withdrew from the unity government and became opposition to the ANC government. Pik Botha, in 2000, did the almost unthinkable by becoming a member of the ANC. In general terms he is remembered as highly popular South African who had friends in all political parties and who remained passionate about the need to build a strong democracy.

He suffered at the hands of PW Botha, who in the 1980’s would make one promise after the other to move towards a negotiated settlement, just to abandon these plans at the last moment. At that stage Pik had been told what was to come and the moderate section of the government, with Botha’s consent, had asked him to inform foreign countries and create the environment for progress in the country. Pik’s reputation and international contacts would be seriously hurt by Botha’s actions and he would then have to embark on yet another round of international travel and diplomacy to heal the damaged relationships. He endured long after Botha was gone and made a huge contribution to bring about peace and independence in Namibia and assist with the establishment of the South African constitution which was adopted in 1996.

In the late 1970’s Pik had to deal with the fall-out of world opinion in the aftermath of the 1976 student riots and the mayhem that followed afterwards all over South Africa. He also had to preside over the difficult negotiations to end the Bush War in Namibia, where South African forces battled Cuban and Swapo forces in what was then Northern South West Africa, as well as in Southern Angola.

One felt sorry for him. The more he promised the world that the South African government was moving forward to initiate change, the more PW Botha would pull the rug from underneath him. It is therefore not surprising that Pik Botha was an enthusiastic participant when FW de Klerk finally ousted PW and started with the reforms that would see the unbanning of the ANC, the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the establishment of the new democracy.

In Fredo’s Book – A Citizen of Africa – he recalls a special meeting with Pik Botha on one Christmas Eve in 1979. During the last three years of his media career Fredo often covered TV News when the regular teams were on holiday or off-duty. In December the team would gather stories to last during what was called the ‘cucumber’ holiday season when news was normally scarce, but one still had to feed the hungry tv and radio monsters with information and programmes. We recorded the programmes and they were broadcasted when there was space.

I was asked to interview Pik Botha late afternoon on Christmas Eve on progress with the Namibian negotiations which would lead to Namibian independence. The encounter lasted some hours, interrupted by telephone calls but which ended with a special time with Pik after the interview, over one of his best bottles of red wine straight from the stock at his official residence – when he was relaxed and ready to leave on his Christmas holiday. The stories which emerged were memorable and we were sitting in the company of this warm and human character who probably never had much time to speak in this way with journalists. The stories remained there – the moment was too special to repeat the stories later.

One thing we can reveal though. The enduring memory was when Pik got dressed out of his safari suit into a nice crispy white shirt, tie and suite jacket, but was still wearing his sandals and safari shorts when he presented himself for the interview. He instructed Robbie Klarenbeek, cameraman, to film him from the waste upwards. Soon afterwards he disappeared upstairs to remove the offending jacket, tie and shirt. He settled down with us and then the real encounter started. The full story is in the book.

We, along with Evita Bezuidenhout, who also had a special relationship with Pik and who once recalled their bushveld braais with great humour, will miss this special person. In his time he was one of the greatest sons of this country – whether you agreed with his political orientation or not. He lived life to the full and if he had a chance he would somewhere now be chatting with Madiba – who will no doudt greet him with: “Ah Pik, its so nice to see you again.”


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