PW stuns the Nats

When the 130 National Party MPs filed into their routine pre-session caucus meeting yesterday, they had no idea that they would have to elect a new leader. State President PW Botha delivered his letter of resignation as party leader to Jurie Mentz, the chairman of the NP caucus, only 10 minutes before the gathering. Almost simultaneously, in what appears to have been a diversionary move, Botha's office issued an up­beat statement on his health. Some observers believe he did this to avoid the intrigue, lobbying and jockeying that usually accompanies such elections.

One source said Botha may have tipped off his favoured candidate, Barend du Plessis, and this would account for the minister of finance' s unexpectedly strong showing in the voting. Either way, Botha's surprise move left observers at odds over what the crucial next few months will bring. Botha has now made it clear that he does not intend to resign as state president. 

This creates the unprecedented situation where power is split between Botha as state president, Chris Heunis as acting state president, and De Klerk as party leader. Previously, the party leader has always automatically been prime minister or state president. Heunis, who has been acting state president since Botha's recent stroke, is stilt due to deliver the key opening of parliament speech today.

Now De Klerk is senior to Botha in the party structure; Botha and Heunis are both more senior in state structures, but will have to take policy directives from De Klerk. No one is sure what Botha intends.However, parliamentary observers outline at least three scenarios:

  • Botha resigns as state president within  the  next  few  days,  having cleared the way for a smooth handover to De Klerk;
  • Phased retirement": Botha stay in power until after this year's probable election or the end of his current term on September 3 in order to oversee a gradual  transfer  of  power.  NP official Con Botha was reported as saying yesterday that it  was extremely unlikely that the state president would  seek re-election  … when his term of office expires."
  • Botha cultivates De Klerk forth post  of  prime  minister  which  he hopes to create during  the coming parliamentary session; this would allow him to leave party politics and other  administrative  tasks  to  De Klerk, making the presidency what Botha calls "a binding force in our country".

This scenario is strengthened by the fact that Botha last year said he was going to involve himself directly in the negotiating process. And last night the SABC said De Klerk was now a "de facto" prime minister. Yesterday's ballot makes De Klerk the strongest contendor for any of these posts. However, the narrow margin of his victory -only eight out of 130 votes -means his position is fragile.

Although De Klerk scored 59 votes in the first round of votes and Du Plessis only 30, the swing in the last of the  three  ballots  saw  31 more swing to Du Plessis, while De Klerk gained only 10. Pik Botha was knocked out in the first round with only 16 votes; Heunis survived into the second round with 25 in his favour. The final result means that four votes could have swung the result the other way. Since  there are already three vacant National Party seats (East London, Hillbrow and Lydenberg), Du Plessis' hold on power is tenuous. As heir-not-quite-apparent, De Klerk faces a number of political difficulties. 

This, according to Stellenbosch professor and former NP grandee Sampie Terreblanche, makes him "an instant lame-duck." The waters are so muddied that in many ways he is "politically paralysed," says Terreblanche. "He won't have the chance to establish his own authority, to show he's his own man. "He'll be working under the shadow of PW – and of Du Plessis, widely thought to be 'his man'." Terreblanche says the lack of clarity is not only a "sorry state of affairs" for De Klerk, but for reform initiatives in South Africa. "Today's announcement means we will inhabit a political twilight world for probably about six months," he says. From the official reactions of other political leaders and groupings, it's clear they're unsure of the direction of the convalescing NP supremo's tactics.

Andries  Treurnicht,  leader  of  the white opposition Conservative Party, said the "election of a new state president could take place very soon," and argued that the margin of De Klerk' s victory "indicated the governing party was in a state of turmoil". National Democratic  Movement leader Wynand Malan agreed that Botha had "come to the end of more than 50 years  with the NP", and made an urgent call for "clearness on the issue (of final succession) as soon as possible."

In a statement from Lusaka, the African National Congress de­ emphasized the importance of Botha's announcement: "We are seeing a change of one personality to another. What they have been doing as a government will continue. "Our people must be prepared to fight on against oppression." – Anton Harber & Shaun Johnson



  • Pik Botha: 16
  • Chris Heunis: 25
  • Barend du Plessis: 30
  • FW De Klerk: 59


  • Barend du Plessis: 61
  • FW De Klerk: 69

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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