The Rubicon revisited

Hermann Giliomee on the turning point at which white rule in SA failed to turn.


President PW Botha’s speech on 15 August 1985 to the National Party (NP) of Natal was the turning point at which white rule in South Africa failed to turn. Botha was expected to use the speech, broadcast to a huge international audience, to turn around the South African crisis that had worsened after the outbreak of uprisings in the townships in September 1984. Spurning the expectations of bold reforms, Botha projected himself as the uncompromising leader of a white minority determined to fight to the end for its survival.

The speech triggered a massive outflow of capital and intensified sanctions against South Africa. A line in Botha’s speech, “Today we have crossed the Rubicon”, promptly became the object of scorn and ridicule. Today it is still a major question why Botha refused to give a speech that the world would have considered as a true crossing of the Rubicon.

A feared leader

PW Botha was a pragmatist rather than a reformer, he saw his challenge as strengthening the Afrikaner-dominated state through a slow but steady process of deracialisation. He was determined to make Afrikaner control more broadly based rather than introduce a liberal democracy.

Within his first three years in office he had imposed his authority over the party and the government. Ambassador Renwick noted that Botha was “prone to furious rages” and that “his ministers were terrified of him.” Through eruptions of his fierce temper, he intimidated any challenger. In 1982 or 1983 Botha apparently suffered a stroke, after which his outbursts of temper became worse. He was rushed to hospital in secret following the rupture of a cerebral blood vessel. Neurologists who studied the scan after this episode remark that such a lesion is often accompanied by a lessening of the inhibition of traits such as outbursts of temper.

Yet Botha continued to do his work effectively. He came well prepared to any meeting, but did not exert power like a Hendrik Verwoerd through intellectual domination or like a John Vorster, his predecessor, who always sought consensus at the expense of bold moves. His power was more direct and personal; he was a straight talker, tough, brutal, overpowering and, at times, thuggish, vindictive and petty.

Jannie Roux, Director-General in his office and cabinet secretary, sums up Botha’s hold on power succinctly: “He was not afraid of taking decisions and he disliked long discussions in cabinet. He looked people straight in the eyes and told them just what he thought. He had no secret agenda and never pulled any punches.”

Pres. Botha was much more of a modernizing technocrat than Vorster. He appointed Chris Heunis as Minister of Constitutional Development and Planning and allowed him to appoint experts from the universities to facilitate reform.

The genesis of the speech

In September 1984 riots broke out in the black townships of the Vaal Triangle, south-east of Johannesburg. The United Democratic Front (UDF), which was closely linked to the ANC, spearheaded the protests. They quickly spread to other parts of the country and would continue unabated for the next nine months. On 20 July 1985 the government declared a state of emergency in of the 254 magisterial districts. Two days later the ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, issued a call for the masses to make South Africa ungovernable.

The noose of international censure and sanctions tightened. Credit ratings dropped sharply. Several European countries recalled their ambassadors from South Africa. Increasingly, investors and foreign governments felt that only radical reforms would stave off the crisis.

When President Botha had opened Parliament on 25 January 1985, the ex-academics in the Department of Constitutional Development and Planning wrote the passages dealing with political reform. In March 1985 Heunis and his senior officials met at Warmbad in Transvaal and formulated a package of proposals.

Heunis had reported to the president that he could not make progress in getting black leaders to participate in the constitutional forum. Botha now offered to hold a meeting of the extended cabinet to discuss ways in which the government’s position could be made more attractive. This meeting took place on 2 August in Pretoria in a building called the Old Sterrewag (Old Observatory), which served as a conference facility for Military Intelligence. The intention was that Botha would announce the decisions taken here to the congress of the Natal NP in Durban, which he was to open on 15 August.

What happened at the Sterrewag on 2 August is still shrouded in mystery. Those interviewed for this article agree that it was a low-key meeting with little participation from the floor. It was clearly more a party political meeting than a cabinet meeting. Some even described it as a team-building exercise. Since it was well known that Pres. Botha disliked extended discussions in cabinet, ministers who had to present a controversial reform initiative often cleared it with him before a cabinet meeting. Heunis clearly had followed this route and had received Botha’s nod. With the package having been cleared beforehand, none of the members challenged Heunis’s presentation. Pres. Botha said little.

According to an interview with Chris Heunis, conducted by his son twenty years after the event, the main decision was to include blacks in the cabinet, in anticipation of the outcome of negotiations over the constitutional accommodation of blacks. Asked whether that meant the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Mandela, he replied: “Not at that stage, but it would inevitably lead to that. Once you admit that they have to be included in cabinet, you also admit they are part of the South African citizenry and have the right to be part of government”.

According to F.W. De Klerk the meeting took certain decisions to enable Heunis to embark on a new initiative in negotiations with blacks. De Klerk describes the Sterrewag decisions as the end of the whole ideology of grand apartheid and as an initiative that had the potential of persuading the world that real change was underway.

A report in the Sunday Times of 11 August, clearly based on an informed source, stated that the following was decided: South Africa would become a single constitutional unit again, the cabinet would be expanded to include black leaders, who initially would be the homeland leaders, negotiations would be take place with the true leaders, and influx control would be abolished.

Pik Botha’s salesmanship

There was good reason for reformists like Heunis and Foreign Minister Pik Botha to be very satisfied with outcome of the Sterrewag meeting. Dave Steward, a senior Foreign Affairs official who would accompany his minister on the trip to Europe a week later, recounts that after the meeting there was great excitement. There was a general feeling that at last the government had managed to extricate itself from the political deadlock in which it was caught.

Carl von Hirschberg, Deputy Director-General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, recounts: “When I met Pik in his office after the Sterrewag meeting, he was bursting with enthusiasm. He could hardly contain himself. It was his account of the policy changes agreed to at the meeting that I used in the draft I prepared as an input for PW Botha’s Durban speech. It is my clear impression that PW had agreed to these changes, so I was not particularly concerned that he might reject them.”

To inform the leaders of South Africa’s main trading partners of the imminent new policy direction that the president would announce, Pik Botha flew to Europe. On 8 and 9 August he met separately with emissaries of the British, US and German leaders. He made it clear in a subsequent report to Pres. Botha that, while he had mentioned the Sterrewag recommendations, he also emphasised that the President was still considering them.

At a meeting in Vienna he met with Robert MacFarlane of the US National Security Council, Chester Crocker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and Herman Nickel, who would soon become US Ambassador to South Africa. He stated that the recommendations included “the political involvement of blacks at the highest level, citizenship for all South Africans and the concept of a single territory for the whole of South Africa.”

In Vienna Botha also met Ewan Ferguson, a senior official from the Foreign Office and special representative of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Here he spoke of proposals for “co-responsibility for decisions on the highest level that affect the entire country, one citizenship, and one undivided South African territory.” He added that because of “sensitivities in South Africa” terms like “power-sharing or a unitary state” had to be avoided. There would be no constitutional blueprint in Botha’s speech, only guidelines that had to be worked out further by leaders. After the Vienna meetings Botha travelled to Frankfurt to meet the representatives of Chancellor Kohl.

Dave Steward, a senior Foreign Affairs official who accompanied Botha on the visit, recounts that while Botha spoke of “big plans”, he did not go beyond presenting them as “strong recommendations” He stressed that the final decision was the President’s prerogative. Werner Scholtz, a South African diplomat who attended the briefings, recounts: “Pik Botha spoke with great enthusiasm and several times said: Gentleman, we are crossing the rubicon”. Pik Botha presented the proposals as virtually the final draft of the president’s speech. The representatives of the Western powers believed Pik Botha because they thought he spoke with his president’s full blessing and had cleared everything. It simply was inconceivable that he would try to sell reform proposals that were still half-baked recommendations as important policy shifts.”

Neil van Heerden, a senior Foreign Affairs official who briefed regional African leaders in advance, sums it up as follows: “Pik Botha would definitely try to extract the maximum political and diplomatic advantage from the Sterrewag recommendations, but he would certainly not lie or deliberately mislead.” But Pres. Botha’s speech was such a communications disaster that the US officials felt that they had been misled.

De Klerk mentions that it is not clear what angered Pres. Botha most: the fervid media speculation after the Sterrewag meeting or “too much enthusiasm” from Pik Botha in selling the decisions abroad. Botha had received permission from his President to inform representatives of Western leaders in Vienna and Frankfurt of the important speech they could expect. By then the President already had received the Foreign Affairs input for his speech, which spoke of common decision-making on all levels in a single constitutional unit and a formula for bringing about Mandela’s release.

The Foreign Minister was clearly hopeful (but not certain) that these points would be included in the President’s speech. The emissaries of the Western leaders whom Pik Botha met in Europe in all probability interpreted his 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.

When Pik Botha flew out to Europe, he did not know whether his President had accepted the input from his department into to the speech that he was to give at the Natal congress. He was undoubtedly encouraged by the fact that the President had kept quiet at Sterrewag and was prepared to consider the far-reaching recommendations made to him. He had reason to be confident that Western governments would give strong backing to these policy initiatives if he presented the decisions and recommendations as part of a single package.

Why did Pik Botha put such a positive spin on a speech that his President had not yet made? An important reason could be that the Foreign Minister felt that urgent steps were needed to prevent an imminent escalation of sanctions.

There is also another possibility. Pik Botha knew that the President had not yet made up his mind and that there was still a strong body of conservatives who would have hesitated to speak up at the Sterrewag meeting. They would rather mobilize opposition to the recommendations in private meetings with, or messages to, the President before the Natal congress. According this perspective, the foreign minister used his meetings on 8 and 9 August in Europe not only to stave off further sanctions, but also to put pressure on the President to accept the recommendations as he interpreted them.

PW digs in his heels

After the Sterrewag meeting Pres. Botha requested Chris Heunis, Pik Botha and Barend du Plessis to submit inputs for his speech on behalf of their respective departments. For Constitutional Development and Planning it was particularly important that a picture be conveyed of a government that had abandoned old-style white arrogance and that it was intent on searching for solutions through negotiations in good faith with recognised black leaders. Its input committed the government to restore the citizenship of all blacks, including those living in the independent homelands. It would negotiate with black leaders about black participation at all levels of decision making, including the highest level, where their interests were affected. It pledged government to recognise black human dignity, eradicate all forms of discrimination, find democratic solutions and create equal opportunities.

Pik Botha, together with of his two senior officials, Carl von Hirschberg and Marc Burger, worked on the input from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Written with a rhetorical flair rare in official documents, the input tried to assuage white fears, meet black demands and satisfy foreign expectations.

This draft ends with a ringing declaration: “The implementation of the principles I have stated can have far-reaching effects on us all. I believe that we are today crossing the Rubicon. There can be no turning back. We now have a manifesto for the future of our country.”

Von Hirschberg recollects that after he took the Foreign Affairs input for the President’s to the airport where he met the Minister of Foreign Affairs on his return from his trip to Europe. Here Pik Botha phoned the President and then inserted the Rubicon phrase in the speech.

Between the meeting in Vienna and the speech on 15 August media speculation both in South Africa and abroad reached a frenzy. Time magazine 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.”

Even Die Burger, which rarely deviated from the Botha line, wrote of major changes that were likely to be announced until it received word of Botha’s furious state of mind. It promptly published a cartoon depicting “anti- South African forces” pumping up expectations.

On 10 August Pres. Botha decided to deviate from the original intention to put across a strong and consistent reformist message. In retirement, PW Botha told a journalist that Pik Botha had deliberately inflated international expectations in order to embarrass him. “That was his game, that’s why he does not come here.” But there is no evidence for this.

Prinsloo’s biography of Botha states that a report by a senior journalist, Tos Wentzel, in the Weekend Argus of 10 August provided “the catalyst” for Botha to discard most of their initial inputs. The journalist later revealed that his anonymous source was an academic who had just left Heunis’s department to take up a university post. Wentzel wrote that the President would announce far-reaching changes in his speech and speculated that “the government was trying to find a power-sharing formula with blacks without stating this too openly for fear of a right-wing revolt.” (He subsequently told Prinsloo that he protected his source by referring to the Foreign Minister’s “over-selling” in Vienna.)

The orthodoxy today among NP insiders today is that the president abruptly changed his mind when news reached him that Pik Botha “over-promised” in briefing emissaries of the main Western leaders. Ters Ehlers, his private secretary and aide-de-camp, who worked closely with him during these days, disputes this. He is adamant that the president did not once mention his foreign minister in giving the reasons for deciding to make his own speech, as he called it. According to Ehlers, the president said to him: “I am not going to let people like Chet Crocker prescribe to me the kind of speech I must make.”

In the late afternoon of Saturday the 10th Botha told Heunis that he was not prepared to give the “Prog speech” that he had prepared for him. Heunis replied that it was not a Prog speech, but a draft that reflected the decisions taken at Sterrewag. On 14 August Botha summoned some cabinet members to a meeting. De Klerk would state later:

“That morning PW Botha demanded to know who was involved in providing inputs for the speech. He picked up all the inputs and threw them on the table.”

He then said:

“I will not make that speech. I shall make my own speech.”

The President then read a speech that was compiled by Daan Prinsloo, an official in his office. It drew on some of the material in the inputs submitted by Pik Botha, Heunis and Barend du Plessis, and added some introductory comments about the danger of expectations that had been raised too high.

The cabinet was stunned, according to every ex-cabinet minister interviewed for this article. A devastated Heunis felt that his department’s proposal had been gutted. To cap it all, he felt humiliated by being forced to listen to the amended speech. He later told his son: “We sat there like a bunch of little children, listening to him reading his speech to us. No one protested, in fact everyone nodded in agreement.”

The speech Botha gave on 15 August was screened live to a world audience of more than two hundred million. Instead of a heroic leader renouncing apartheid and reaching out to blacks, they 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, irredeeemable Afrikaner.

Dave Steward, who would become Pres. FW de Klerk’s main communications adviser, sums it up well: “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 NP 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.”

The aftermath

Pik Botha was forced to pick up the pieces. He called it “a speech with which I definitely could live” and told a press conference that Pres. Botha considered it as “one of the most historical occasions”, adding: “I agree”. Years later he remembered the press conference as “one of the most difficult tasks of his life”, staying that “I tried to persuade the media that the [reformist] elements on which we all waited were hidden under all the aggression and kragdadigheid (forcefulness).” The foreign press immediately fingered him as the man who created false expectations.

Even before Rubicon South Africa was in deep financial trouble. The country was always strongly dependent on foreign investment for growth. But a decline in investor confidence in gold and growing political uncertainty resulted in a serious weakening of confidence.

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 South African lenders, but did not announce this. After the speech the bank announced its decision, and other banks quickly followed suit. With two thirds of its foreign debt short term, South Africa was forced to default and declare a unilateral moratorium on foreign debt. These debts were later rescheduled, but South Africa’s ability to raise foreign loans had received a mortal blow.

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 US 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 speech cost the country billions of rands – at a rate of few million rand per word. Although the reforms announced in the NP’s four provincial congresses that year amounted to a major policy shift, the government’s political credibility had received an almost 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 unmistakeably 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.

This is an edited extract from a journal article by Hermann Giliomee, “Great expectations: Pres. PW Botha’s Rubicon speech of 1985”, New Contree. A Journal of Historical and Human Sciences for Southern Africa, no 55, May 2008, pp. 1-40.


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