President PW Botha's enforced absence from office for the past six weeks has produced a National Party form of limited glasnost in which ministers and the party caucus have grabbed the opportunity to push ahead with their idea of reform. However, all of this was put into doubt last night when President PW Botha announced that he would definitely be returning to office after the Easter weekend, at the end of March. He said this in a statement after visiting Tuynhuis and meeting acting state president Chris Heunis, party leader FW de Klerk, Minister of Finance Barend du Plessis, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha.
In the last few weeks, moves which at the beginning of the year seemed impossible to contemplate – such a Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok negotiating with the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Allan Boesak about detainees and Consitutional Development Minister Chris Heunis talking about the kwaZulu/ Natal lndaba – have been taking place. The new "openness", characterised by the less authoritarian approach of the NP's new leader, FW de Klerk, has had a noticeable effect on the style and approach of government. The first threat to this was suddenly threatened by the front-page announcements last week in the NP's most loyal newspapers, Die Burger and Beeld, that PW Botha would definitely return to office after his convalesence. There was a great deal of uncertainty, as was reflected in the Nationalist press, about who was actually leading the government and who was making decisions – for instance, about the date of the next election.
It had been generally assumed that PW Botha would return to office for a brief period, then retire gracefully. That belief – perhaps hope – was shattered by last week's announcement in the loyal National Party press. The glasnost atmosphere was at first checked, and then there was growing anger that Botha would not relinquish power and let De Klerk take over fully. This was reflected in open support for De Klerk across the floor of the house when the National Democratic Movement MP for Durban Central Peter Gatrow, taunted the Nationalist benches about who their real leader was, an unusually critical editorial of President Botha in Beeld, and the, statement by former Nationalist minister, Hendrik Schoeman, that Botha should make way for a younger man.
With the government appearing divided and confused, Botha's status and hold has begun to fade. But still he appears to be determined to resume office and active control over government through the powerful executive presidency which he himself created. It is conceivable that PW Botha will bow down to the growing pressure on him, both from within the NP and in opposition circles, to quit, but this would be out of keeping with his political character.
Botha has never stood back from a political fight. So he could well ignore the pressure, resume power and attempt to re-establish his dominance and control over government. However, the mood in government circles is that even if Botha does try to restore the presidency to the power it was, they will increasingly ignore him as far as this is possible and look to De Klerk for leadership. In this way, Botha's return could dent the glasnost spirit but not kill it.
This article originally appeared in the weekly Mail.