Hermann Giliomee explains how former president PW Botha's Rubicon speech increased white South Africa's isolation in 1985.
In March 1985 president PW Botha suffered a stroke caused by the rupture of a cerebral blood vessel. This was kept secret, except from the closest members of his family and a handful of top officials and doctors. Even his Cabinet colleagues were kept in the dark, although some of them eventually realised what had happened.
A symptom that frequently accompanies this condition is the suppression of some sensory stimuli, for instance, in the left visual field. This was reported in the case of Botha, who failed to notice stimuli in the peripheral visual field on his left side.
Neurosurgeon Professor JC "Kay" de Villiers and neurologist Dr Paul Cluver were asked to study Botha's brain scan. De Villiers remarked that the kind of stroke the president suffered was also often accompanied by psychological disturbances, which could include a reduced inhibition of traits such as temper outbursts.
This was widely reported in Botha's case. Robin Renwick, who took up the post of British ambassador to South Africa in 1987, noted that Botha was "prone to furious rages" and that "his ministers were terrified of him". Through these eruptions he intimidated any challenger.
De Villiers stated that, had he been asked, he would have advised the president to retire rather than continue in such a demanding and responsible post. Botha's erratic performance in the second half of his term may well have been the result of his medical condition.
Botha's aftercare was not entrusted to neurologists, but to a now deceased specialist in another field. It is speculated that this was to maintain secrecy. It is not known what medication, if any, the specialist prescribed. Colleagues agree it is likely he advised Botha to rest as much as possible and avoid emotional strain for six months. He certainly would have been counselled to avoid losing his temper.
One of the puzzles of this period is Botha's silence in the important meeting of the extended Cabinet six months later, two weeks before his ill-fated "Rubicon" speech. It could well be that Botha was simply following doctor's orders by keeping quiet rather than joining a discussion that could upset him. Addressing American and British officials shortly afterwards, Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha shared his impression that Botha's silence meant approval of the major reforms that were proposed. This was a disastrous assumption.
As planned, a meeting of the extended Cabinet took place at the Ou Sterrewag building in Pretoria on August 2 1985 to discuss constitutional reform. Exactly what happened at this meeting is shrouded in mystery. All the participants interviewed described it as a low-key meeting. The atmosphere was more that of a party caucus than a Cabinet meeting. Some even described it as a team-building exercise.
Botha's ministers knew that he disliked extended discussions in the Cabinet. As a result, ministers who had a controversial reform initiative to present often cleared it with him before a Cabinet meeting. The minister of constitutional development, Chris Heunis, had clearly followed this route and received Botha's nod.
At the Ou Sterrewag no one challenged Heunis's presentation and Botha kept quiet. His doctor's orders to avoid emotional outbursts may have been the main reason for his silence. He may also have thought his guidelines to Heunis for the limits to reform were clear and did not need restating.
The meeting took place after 11 months of violent clashes between protesters and the regime. South Africa appeared to be hurtling towards cataclysm. The toll of "political deaths" rose ominously. The uprising put the government under far greater pressure than ever before. In the eyes of many, Botha was a hated tyrant who had to be toppled at all costs.
South Africa's international isolation continued apace. On July 25 1985, France recalled its ambassador and suspended all new investments. On July 31, American bank Chase Manhattan decided that the risks of doing business with South Africa had become too high and resolved to call in all maturing loans and terminate borrowing facilities.
Although the bank would announce its decision only on August 15, just after the Rubicon speech, rumours of Chase's withdrawal reached Pretoria almost immediately. Pik Botha recalls: "I will never forget the night of July 31 when [Minister of Finance] Barend du Plessis phoned me ... [He said]: 'Pik, I must tell you that the country is facing inevitable bankruptcy ... The process has started.'"
Some ministers interpreted Botha's silence at the Ou Sterrewag meeting as a sign that he realised the gravity of the situation and was prepared not only to abandon his resistance to the unconditional freeing of Nelson Mandela, but also to accept the need for a Cabinet truly representative of all South Africans. But they were too wary of his outbursts of temper to ask.
Ahead of the August 15 speech, media speculation both in South Africa and abroad reached fever pitch. Time magazine described the upcoming speech as the "most important announcement since the Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa 300 years ago". On August 10, however, President Botha decided to deviate from the original intention to put across a strong and consistent reformist message.
He told Heunis he was not prepared to give the "Prog speech" Heunis had prepared for him ("Prog" being short for the Progressive Federal Party, then in opposition). Heunis replied that it was not a Prog speech, but a draft that reflected "decisions" taken at the Ou Sterrewag meeting.
On August 12, Botha summoned some senior Cabinet members to his office. FW de Klerk would later tell the story. First, Botha asked who had been involved in the draft speech. He then picked up the copy, threw it down on the table and declared: "I will not make that speech. I will make my own speech." He humiliated those present by forcing them to listen for nearly 45 minutes to the speech that he would give three days later. The draft speech from the department of constitutional development with the inputs from foreign affairs had been gutted.
Heunis had intended to give a speech of his own just after Botha's in Durban, but he discarded the draft after the "Rubicon" speech. The draft conveys a sense of the speech the department of constitutional affairs wrote for the president: the government would negotiate with black leaders about black participation at all levels of decision-making. The speech pledged the government to recognise black human dignity, eradicate all forms of discrimination and create equal opportunities.
"The First World component of South Africa had to be prepared to sacrifice some of their rights and vested interests and to make sacrifices in order to meet the demands of political and social justice." All the legitimate political aspirations of blacks had to be accommodated.
The speech President Botha gave on August 15 was screened live to a world audience of more than 200-million. Instead of a heroic leader renouncing apartheid, they saw "an old president's twisted, hectoring image", as Financial Times journalist Patti Waldmeir put it, making it difficult to listen to what he was saying.
"Don't push us too far," he warned at one point with a wagging finger, confirming the stereotype of the ugly, irredeemable apartheid politician. Instead of a short, well-rehearsed statement with a core message, he delivered a long, rambling harangue.
With South Africa so financially vulnerable, the Rubicon speech was an unmitigated disaster. Chase Manhattan announced it would no longer roll over loans to South Africa. Other banks quickly followed suit. With two-thirds of its foreign debt being 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 flight accelerated and markets closed. 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 the Commonwealth imposed a variety of milder sanctions.
South African whites were never more isolated. The governor of the Reserve Bank, Gerhard de Kock, remarked half in jest that the speech had cost the country billions – at a rate of a few million rand per word. Even a well-packaged, eloquent speech would not have dispelled all the serious doubts about the country's growth prospects, but Botha's speech had made the situation far worse.
This is an edited excerpt from Hermann Giliomee's new book, The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power, published by Tafelberg. Giliomee is extraordinary professor and research associate of the history department at the University of Stellenbosch