Piet Koornhof, a man of contradictions

Piet Koornhof, who died in a Stellenbosch frail care centre on Monday at the age of 82, following a stroke, was a man of contradictions.

Seen as a “verligte” in successive apartheid-era Cabinets, the posts he accepted carried responsibility for some of apartheid’s most bizarre and inhumane policies.

In his youth, as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he authored a doctoral thesis that fully accepted the inevitability of black urbanisation.

Yet he became a member of a government that stamped its authority through the dompas, and sought to dump hundreds of thousands of black South Africans in the bantustans through forced removals.

Having dedicated his life to the National Party and its policies—which included the hated Immorality Act—as democracy dawned, he moved in with a coloured woman and joined the African National Congress.

Koornhof was born in Leeudoringstad in what was then the Western Transvaal.

He enrolled at Stellenbosch University and had almost completed a degree in theology when he was awarded the Rhodes scholarship.

On his return to South Africa in the early sixties he worked as a researcher for Hendrik Verwoerd, then became director of “cultural information” for the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurverenigings.

At the same time, he served as chief secretary for the secret Afrikaner organisation the Broederbond.

Sports policy

Koornhof was elected to Parliament for the Primrose constituency, and went on hold the Cabinet portfolios of mines, sport, and co-operation and development—the portfolio formerly known as “Bantu affairs”.

It fell to his lot as minister of sport in 1973 to announce the National Party government’s new “multinational sports policy” to a bemused world.

“We will have a representative Zulu team and a South African representative Xhosa team, Coloured team, Indian team ... etc,” he explained.

But at the same time, he turned a very deliberate blind eye to moves to play integrated sport at club level, and as early as 1973 had a vision of a national cricket team selected on merit.

It was Koornhof who declared to an audience in Washington in 1979, as PW Botha was settling into power, that “apartheid as you know it is dead”.

Some reforms did indeed follow, including the scrapping of the Immorality Act and the pass laws, and the creation of the tricameral Parliament.

However for critics of apartheid they fell far short of the one-man-one-vote that would be realised in 1994.

Koornhof acquired the nickname “Piet Promises” for his optimistic assurances.

He went on to become South Africa’s ambassador to the United States before retiring from politics.


Reflecting on his father’s life, his younger son Johan told the South African Press Association on Tuesday that Koornhof had “reached out” to all races, in the spirit of

his strong commitment to Christianity.

But at the same time he had a burning desire to serve his people, his “volk”.

“I think it was a duality throughout his life,” Johan said.

“It landed him in big trouble ...
I think really in his deepest soul he wanted to make a difference, and be good to people, but he was confined to the system. Maybe it’s just something about the nature of being a politician.”

Koornhof shocked the Afrikaner establishment when in 1992 he separated from his wife and childhood sweetheart Lulu and moved in with a coloured woman, Marcelle Adams, who was 44 years younger than him.

“My relationship with Marcelle is really the answer to apartheid, an answer by deed,” he said at the time.

Adams, who gave birth to several children while they were together, eventually left him for another lover, and Koornhof, now ailing, returned to Lulu in Stellenbosch.

The ANC, which counts Koornhof’s other son, Gerhard, as one of its MPS, said in a statement on Tuesday that it offered its heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

“What distinguished him from other leaders of the apartheid regime was his honesty in publicly acknowledging the mistakes he committed as a Cabinet minister,” it said.

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said of Koornhof: “Among his peers, he was one of the first public proponents of change in South Africa; and in the end that change became a reality for all South Africans.”

Professor Pierre Theron, chairman of the Afrikanerbond, the successor to the Broederbond, said Koornhof had done much to promote the cause of the Afrikaner and the Afrikaans-speaking community.

The Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader Sandra Botha said her party had learned “with sadness” of Koornhof’s death. - Sapa

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