Why Heunis quit

Constitution Minister Chris Heunis’ surprise announcement of his retirement last night, only a week after he presented the government’s ”vision of the future” to parliament, is the dearest indication yet of the problems besetting the National Party. Heunis will definitely not be standing in the upcoming elections: in a statement in Cape Town late yesterday day he served notice that be would resign from the cabinet on July 1, and invited the Cape National Party to appoint a new leader to spearhead the party’s election campaign. His decision comes after a week of dramatic developments in government – none of them good for the NP. 

During the past week: Natal NP leader and Minister of Home Affairs Stoffel Botha announced that he was bowing out of politics Finance Minister Barend du Plessis unveiled a deeply unpopular economic austerity package for South Africa Reserve Bank Governor Gerhard de Kock warned that South Africa’s worsening economic problems could only be addressed through political means  – foreign capital would only come back in response to “appropriate” reforms, and Heunis himself launched a political manifesto for the future based on limited African participation in central government. These fissures follow the recent resignations of cabinet ministers Pietie du Plessis and Greyling Wentzel.  

In his statement last night, Heunis, 62, gave no indication of his plans after resigning. He said he had consulted State President PW Botha and NP leader FW de Klerk before announcing his decision. Heunis added that he hoped that the NP would continue undeterred on the path of renewal and adaptation. “It is my wish that the party will go from strength to strength and all Nationalists will bind themselves in loyalty to the party and its leaders,” he said. Stellenbosch University economics professor and senior adviser to the Democratic Party, Sampie Terreblanche, said the news would “shake the country. “We have long had reason to believe that the tensions between the PW Botha/Heunis camp in the NP, and the FW camp, are really extreme,” he said. 

He believed this was a major factor in the resignation announcement. It has been widely speculated that Heunis was instrumental in attempts to return Botha to power after his stroke in January. He is reported to have flown to Botha’s holiday home in Wilderness on March 12, on the eve of Botha’s unscheduled television interview in which he indicated a strong wish to continue in power. This is thought to have seriously strained relations between Heunis and De Klerk- already tense because of De Klerk’s victory in the battle for party leadership. There was even speculation in parliamentary circles that once he assumed the presidency, De Klerk might strip Heunis of his portfolio, and “move him sideways” to head up the president’s council. 

Terreblanche told the Weekly Mail he considered these tensions, as well as the “all-out Conservative Party at­ tack” on the government since the announcement of the latest constitution­ al “vision”, to have been crucial in Heunis’ decision to resign. “It is extraordinary that the grand constitutional aircraft he launched last week should crash so soon, taking the pilot down with it. “It shows how badly it was constructed – it simply couldn’t fly,” he said. Terreblanche speculated that De Klerk had not given Heunis’ package the full support he expected as minister of constitutional development and planning, and this pushed him further along the resignation road. “It is likely that FW was just not prepared to explain the Heunis pack­ age (to the right-wing) … One won­ders whether he even had a part in drawing it up.” 

Heunis had himself showed sig of “backpeddling” in the last few days, said Terreblanche. “It is clear that his relationship with FW – never mind PW – is bad, very bad … there are different groupings all over the place, and the NP has real problems of morale … as in­ credible as it seems, things are starting to fall apart for them.” It is too early to tell whether the de­parture of Heunis -and the certain retirement of PW Botha- signals a final victory of the De Klerk “camp” in the battle for the soul of the NP. 

Heunis has had a rough political ride since the general election of May 1987, when he defeated the Independent Party’s Dr Denis Worrall by a meagre 39 votes. But the prospect of another knife­ edge electoral struggle seems not to have played a part in Heunis’ deci­sion. It is generally accepted that Worrall will contest a Natal seat in the September election, and no other DP candidate could have matched his threat to Heunis. 

Heunis qualified as a lawyer at the University of Stellenbosch in 1948, and practised as an attorney during the 1950s. His political involvement had started while at university and he soon became NP leader and town councillor in George. In 1959 he represented George on the Cape provincial council, and in the 1960s served on a variety of government-appointed committees. He became member of parliament for False Bay (now Helderberg) in 1970, and was given a ministerial portfolio by 1974. In February 1982 he became chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee into the Constitution and in August was appointed Minister of Constitutional Development and Planning. 

Heunis, always a close confidant of PW Botha, spearheaded the creation of separate political structures for South Africa’s “race groups”. He announced the abolition of Provincial Councils and the birth of Regional Services’ Councils in 1986. He succeeded Botha as Cape party leader in the same year, in a development which observers thought marked him as the “crown prince”.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Shaun Johnson
Guest Author

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