/ 5 January 2007

Former state president Marais Viljoen passes away

Former state president Marais Viljoen died in the Muelmed Hospital in Pretoria on Thursday, his daughter said on Friday.

Elna Meyer said her father was taken to hospital over a week ago and died due to heart failure.

Known as a relatively moderate member of the National Party (which instituted the apartheid regime), Viljoen was the last non-executive state president of South Africa. The 1983 South African Constitution changed the status of the president to one exercising executive power.

He was president between June 4 1979 and September 3 1984 before PW Botha took over the post. Viljoen also served a two-month stint (succeeding Nicolaas Johannes Diederichs) as state president before BJ Vorster between August and October of 1978.

Born on a farm near Robertson in the Cape on December 2 1915, he was the youngest of six children. He had a difficult childhood and was orphaned at the age of four. Due to a lack of money he was forced to leave school before matriculating, but later finished his matric through private study.

He worked in a post office as a telegraphist and thereafter at the newspaper, Die Transvaler, which was edited by HF Verwoerd, the man who later gave him his first Cabinet position.

In 1953 he was elected to Parliament and in 1958 became the deputy minister of labour and mines.

He later became the minister of labour. He also held positions as minister of mines, public works and post and telecommunications.

Viljoen was president of the Senate from 1976 until he was elected as state president.

He was married on 20 April 1940 to Dorothea Maria (Marietjie) Brink, who died in 2005 after a short illness. Elna Meyers was his only daughter from his marriage, and she in turn had one son.

“My father was devastated by her death and his health deteriorated since,” Meyers told the South African Press Association on Friday.

Although actively supporting the National Party’s policy of apartheid, he was seen as a moderate within the party.

“My father was not as combative as others; he was more diplomatic and tried to build relationships,” Meyers said.

She said that although her father retired from politics in 1984 when PW Botha became state president, he was always fascinated by politics up to his death. He also enjoyed reading.

Viljoen was the oldest living former president of South Africa and lived quietly in Pretoria until his death.

Hoërskool Marais Viljoen, an Afrikaans high school in Alberton, South of Johannesburg, was named after the him. Viljoen was an MP for Alberton. The school was opened officially by him on September 1 1961.