‘Don’t push us too far’
President of South Africa, P.W.Botha
Government spin doctors had been spreading the word for at least a fortnight that South Africa’s President P.W. Botha was to deliver a speech of such significance to the Natal congress of the ruling National Party on 15th August 1985, signalling a major change of direction, that it was akin to crossing the Rubicon, which 2000 years previously had been the event that led to Julius Caesar becoming emperor of the Roman Empire.
I was working for a daily financial newspaper, Business Day, in Johannesburg at the time. Naturally, we were completely tuned into the expectations created ahead of Botha’s early evening speech. The newsroom was abuzz as we watched the television, fully anticipating a message of hope for the beleaguered country. There’s nothing like a major news event to excite a room full of reporters.
We knew that Foreign Minister Pik Botha, no relation to the president, had in the previous week met emissaries of Western leaders in Vienna who had - mostly - interpreted his enthusiastic briefing as a clear sign that the South African government was poised to announce the end of apartheid and to set the stage for all-party negotiations. This optimism was tempered somewhat by a report in the US magazine Newsweek that one skeptical American official had said: ‘From bitter experience we know that South African officials will talk about their plans, then return home and back away at the last moment because of second thoughts or fear’. Perhaps we in the newsroom had fallen prey to wishful thinking.
Between the Foreign Minister’s briefings and the President’s mid-August speech supposedly well-informed media speculation both in South Africa and abroad reached a frenzy. Time described it as the ‘most important announcement since the Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa 300 years ago’. Newsweek wrote that ‘promised reforms may be the best, if not the last, chance for eventual harmony among the races of South Africa’. In London, The Times quoted South African government education minister Gerrit Viljoen as having said that the country should brace itself for ‘radical changes’.
Even the local Afrikaans press, often seen as a mouthpiece for the government, was braced for a major change of direction. They did not know their own President.
In a packed Durban City Hall, before a hoard of local and international press, instead of a heroic leader renouncing apartheid and reaching out to the country’s disenfranchised black people, the delegates and the millions watching on television, saw ‘an old president’s twisted, hectoring image’, making it difficult to listen to what he said. ‘Don’t push us too far’, he warned at one point with a wagging finger, confirming the stereotype of the ugly, irredeemable Afrikaner.
We in the newsroom, along with the rest of the world, were bitterly disappointed. What we got was a surly, bullying speech that shattered hopes of sincere moves to bring the country together. Although it must be said the African National Congress seemed to be pleased that stereotypes had been confirmed. The President’s apparent hardline stance would ensure continued unity of purpose amid black nationalist ranks.
What happened? Did Botha backflip? And why had the Foreign Minister and the government spin doctors been out and about signalling a major change? To raise expectations and then see them dashed looked like rank incompetence at best.
A senior civil servant, Carl von Hirschberg, deputy director general in the Department of Foreign Affairs said twenty-three years later: ‘With the benefit of hindsight, it is a great pity that the proposed changes were so sensationalised before the Durban speech. PW Botha was an enigma if ever there was one. He was indeed a reformer - [there were] positive elements hidden in his four speeches [to the national party regional conferences around the country]; and his acceptance of the drafts we sent to him in reply to the letters from Heads of Government. They all contained some extension of Government policy.’
Yet there is no consensus, even now, with the benefit of several after-the-event biographies and academic investigation. It is clear that the Cabinet was considering a major change of direction; it is not clear how much Botha bought into it. It has been argued by some of those close to power at the time that Botha wanted to spread his announcement about changes over several speeches, and just got the tone wrong in Natal.
Dave Steward, who would become a senior spin doctor to Botha’s successor as president, FW de Klerk, told a researcher:
PW Botha showed an absolute lack of understanding of modern political communication. Instead of addressing his real audience of hundreds of millions of TV viewers in the West, he addressed the N[ational] P[arty] faithful. Instead of language that his real audience could understand, he used the rough and tumble idiom of South African political meetings. Instead of a short, well rehearsed statement containing the message he wanted to convey, he delivered a long, rambling speech.
There were two particularly disastrous parts that played badly in the West. One was the rejection of the plea for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. He denounced Mandela and his comrades in arms who had defied the state in the early 1960s and made it appear as if they were solely motivated by communist convictions. There was no reference to legitimate grievances and he presented no evidence that Mandela was indeed a communist.
The other negative element was the rejection of a statement of intent, which Kwazulu Chief Minister Gatsha Buthelezi, the only major internal black leader not imprisoned, insisted on as a prerequisite for negotiations. He demanded an assurance that the negotiations would be about power-sharing and not about structures where blacks would merely be consulted. Instead, Botha linked the demand to what he termed a ‘wish to destroy orderly government’. Refusing to free Mandela unconditionally or to make a statement of intent, Botha drove Buthelezi and the ANC leaders into each other’s arms in rejecting negotiations.
There were severe problems before Rubicon, putting pressure on the minority government to seek a formula other than the discredited apartheid for a harmonious future.
A wave of political violence began in 1984 and gathered pace into 1985 in spite, or perhaps because of the government's attempts at squashing it. In mid 1985 the government intensified the clamp down to try and bring the disorder under control, and declared a State of Emergency on July 21, 1985.
During the first few days of the State of Emergency the world was shocked at the images from South Africa. It seemed as if Botha's special security measures were sowing the seeds of cataclysm. Newsweek reported the first week of the emergency under the headline ‘South Africa's state of siege - police impose a tense calm over black townships, but the iron fist will not prevent more violence’, accompanied by graphic photos of black-on-black violence, heavily armed white security men patrolling dusty townships and huge emotional mass funerals. Newsweek argued: ‘Once again, the crackdown demonstrated that in the battle for power in South Africa, the whites have the force of arms and formidable system of repression on their side. But the recent unrest has also shown that blacks are growing increasingly impatient … many will not flinch at armed struggle to win their freedom’. The world was both outraged and speechless by what looked like violent chaos in the apartheid state.
South Africa was in deep financial trouble too. The country was always highly dependent on foreign investment for growth. But a decline in investor confidence in gold and growing political uncertainty led to a serious weakening of confidence. Between 1980 and 1985 foreign investment in South Africa halved, while the amount foreigners invested in the local stock market fell by a third.
By contrast, the share of short-term loans in total inflow of foreign capital surged from 18 per cent to 39 per cent. The local correspondent for the London-based Financial Times Patty Waldmeir noted that the perception of foreign investors was that ‘South Africa was unstable, and small, unstable countries, unlike large ones, do not borrow money’. It was because South Africa had become so vulnerable that the Rubicon speech was such an unmitigated disaster, at least in the short term.
The Western reaction was swift and severe. Chase Manhattan bank, one of South Africa’s main short-term lenders, had already decided on 31 July to stop rolling over loans to the country’s borrowers, but did not announce it. It was, as an executive of Chase later said, not the bank’s intention to facilitate change in South Africa. ‘We felt that the risk attached to political unrest and economic stability had become too high for our investors.’ After the Rubicon speech Chase made its decision public, and other banks quickly followed suit. The universal rule among bankers is said to be that if there is to be a panic, make sure you’re among the first to do so. With two thirds of its foreign debt short term, South Africa was forced to default and declare a unilateral moratorium on its repayment. These debts were later rescheduled, but South Africa’s ability to raise foreign loans had received a mortal blow and its financial reputation was in tatters.
The rand fell sharply, capital fled the country and markets were forced to close. South Africa faced an escalation of sanctions. In late August 1985 the United States’ Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act, which banned new investment and loans, withdrew landing rights and severely curbed imports of coal, uranium, iron and steel. The European Community and Commonwealth also imposed a variety of milder sanctions. South African whites were never more isolated. Gerhard de Kock, Governor of the Reserve Bank, would remark half in jest that the Rubicon speech cost the country billions of rands – at a rate of few million rand per word. Yet even a well-packaged, eloquent speech in its stead would not have dispelled the serious doubts about the country’s growth prospects.
Although the reforms announced in the National Party’s four provincial congresses amounted to a major policy shift, the government’s political authority had received a fatal blow in Durban. The British Ambassador, Robin Renwick, described it as a turning point. The Rubicon speech signals the day when the Botha government unmistakably lost both the initiative and its credibility. In terms of security it could still hold the ring, but politically, economically and diplomatically it would not recover.
Apartheid was already in deep trouble by the time of Rubicon, Botha tried to keep his finger in the dyke for a while longer. But both his own days and those of the oppressive regime were numbered.
In a supreme example of missed opportunity, Nelson Mandela did not get on well with Botha’s successor F.W. de Klerk; they had a frosty, testy relationship. Despite acrimoniously negotiating the end of apartheid with de Klerk, he preferred Botha.
In July 1989 a meeting between Botha and Mandela took place in the president’s office. Botha clearly wanted to signal to his cabinet that he was still in charge. In his autobiography Mandela wrote of the meeting: ‘He completely disarmed me. He was unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly’. He told Hermann Giliomee, an academic historian in an interview in 1992, that a stranger would not have been able to tell who the prisoner and who the president was. ‘We met as equals’, Mandela said.
Mandela told him, along with several other people, that one of the greatest disappointments in his life was having to negotiate with De Klerk rather than Botha.
After 1994 Mandela continued to speak highly of Botha while frequently criticising De Klerk, sometimes unfairly. Clearly Mandela and De Klerk were competitors for electoral support and the international limelight, while by then Botha was history.
There is one other intriguing side light to Rubicon. Botha had a stroke five months before the Rubicon speech, which he kept quiet. By all accounts he was no longer the same man as before. It is said it changed his character somewhat, made him quicker to anger and affected his visual perception. Did this play a role in his about face?
In any event in the fullness of time it may be that the Rubicon fiasco has made little difference to the political direction of South Africa. From one perspective, it symbolised a last desperate stand against the forces of decolonisation. The Wind of Change was by now howling, and those who would not bend would be snapped.
Botha suffered another stroke and resigned in August 1989, four years after Rubicon. He was replaced by de Klerk, hitherto seen as a conservative enforcer of apartheid. But he steadily unwound the disgraced policy, releasing Mandela, paving the way for fully democratic elections that led to the Mandela presidency and ANC ascendancy. He delivered none of the safeguards for minorities that he had promised his followers.
It was, after all, a surprisingly peaceful and sudden transition. Though there was violence, it was contained and fell well short of may well have been a nasty, bloody, prolonged civil war.
But we had already bailed out. The despair and anxiety we as a family felt after Rubicon caused us to seek pastures anew. Out of Africa.