Pik Botha – poetry and waves of politspeak

Pik Botha appeared on BBC’s Question Time last month. He looked as irrelevant as the solitary man sitting at the end of the bar. But it was not always so.

Many years ago I interviewed the then South African Foreign Minister, Pik Botha. This is what I wrote:

Often running, frequently jumping and rarely standing still, Foreign Minister Pik Botha’s name snags newspaper headlines internationally and daily. After a quarter of a century – make that half a century – in the killing fields of détente, his gungho tyle of dueling has his detractors groaning. But there are those that smile on the showman as Elgar would on the young Menuhin.

Minister Pik Botha tells me he has a passion for Greek philosophers.pik1

Especially “That guy who used to have his castle next to the river in Athens. He would receive his guests with tremendous hospitality. And charm. But his particular fun was that when night came he would put them into a bed. If their bodies were too lengthy for the bed he would chop them off until they fitted the bed. If they were too short, he would stretch them until they fitted easily.”

“And that is South Africa!” he says triumphantly.

I have no idea what he is talking about.

Tell me about stamina, since you have the franchise, I suggest.

“Very interesting question. Sociologists, psychologists, criminologists have not yet succeeded in determining how much the individual inherits and how much is induced by the environment. We’ve travelled to the moon and into space….Genetics…..very interesting.”

There is a short silence followed by a long silence.

“In the life of every human being there will be a number of determining factors which shape your motives, objectives, your style, that which you think is the meaning of life and the brevity of it.”

“Everything else is less important than the individual’s concept not only of his life, but in terms of the lives of those around him. The desire of the individual to explain things scientifically, capture in terms of visual perception what others cannot see….”

“People perceive events in such a way that colours and affects their minds and their decisions. And it can be totally false throughout human history. This is exactly our dilemma politically inside this country. It is a perception among the Conservative Party members, for instance, that we are selling the country down the drain. It’s perception! There’s no other way I can explain it. On what is perception based?”

The good ship Bothatanic is thusly launched. Waves of gleaming, meaningless polit-speak wash over me.

Death by drowning or being an old maid is quite a pleasant sensation when you give up the struggle.

“What is the effect, would you say, on one’s mind, of the fact that our earth and sun, our solar system is now half way through its life? Over the next three billion years our sun as a star will slowly die. Our sun. As a star. At first burning everything to a crisp within its vicinity. Certainly Mercurius (sic), Venus, Earth, Mars and further afield. Becoming a light ball in stellar space for ever….gone…finished.”

It’s at least as good as Carl Sagan. Whirling and whirling through endless space….

“Whatever one’s political persuasions this is going to happen. This is a fact. What intrigues is what effect does that have on an individual’s mind? This simple, elementary exposition on my part of the dilemma of human life illustrates how relative everything is.”

“Ten hairs on your head may be quite a few, but in your soup, ten years are quite a lot.”

There’s an explanation that involves phrases like mutual gravitational pull, cycles of turbulence, internal thermonuclear fired, inevitability, fathomless pits – accompanied by the visual aids of a heavy crystal ashtray and a sugar basin.

“Against that background – I’m telling a story here – against that background how should we handle negotiations between countries within a brief space of time? There’s such a thing as the locomotive of history which exists in the willpower, the determination, the inventiveness, imagination, creative capability, capacity to understand, accumulate knowledge, use is, apply it, seeking the interconnection of all things thinkable that is here…solely here.”

He jabs his temple. His voice drops.

“THAT is a very powerful force.”

As a child of four he contracted meningitis in Lorenco Marques. His parents took him to a small hospital in Barberton. His mother made a promise to God that if her son survived he would one day become a church minister.

This pledge later caused him inner turmoil. In his first year at varsity he had a discussion with a theologian who told him “No, it doesn’t work that way. God would not expect him to keep that kind of promise. He would rather see the young man devote his life to any career that endeavoured to uphold Christian principles.”

So he became a politician.

His school career reads like a testimonial for an American Field Scholarship student. Or foreign diplomat. Top of the class, chairman of the debating society, captain of the first rugby team, officer in the school cadets.

Acquiring knowledge was an insatiable appetite. The wider the knowledge the greater the swimming pool in which you can swim.

His father was principal at the Paul Kruger Primary School which he attended. It is between Rustenburg and Swartruggens; Herman Charles Bosman heartland.

“Those hills…when I was a child people absolutely believed that the greatest concentration of ghosts in the whole of the Transvaal was found there.”

“I think its attributable to the fact that a large number of skeletons were found as a result of Mzilikazi’s murders of the Tswana. He devastated the whole environment. Historians reckon that he killed up to two million. Putting them in kraals. Burning them to death. It was faster than spearing them. As the farmers ploughed up came the skeletons.”

He is curiously unaffected by the gruesome image he has conjured.

“Tell me about hunting,” I say.

The well-kept grave face illuminates.

“Lady! Now you’re talking sense. Nothing better than to get out of this place. Go out by myself. Take a few oranges. Toilet paper to mark the trees. Then you walk. Walk. Walk. You sit under a tree which, when you start inspecting it, is a metropolis. You are sitting there on your backside against that trunk amongst a whole universe of its own.”

“Its not the killing of animals. It’s to be next to a charcoal fire.”

“And light your cigarette from the embers?” I suggest.

“Yes! Exactly! Thank you! And smell the smoke. The acoustics! You can blindfold me and I’ll tell you exactly where I am. The first shot you fire. You can hear it over a distance of ten to twenty kilometres.”

Foreign correspondents who have accompanied him abroad tell tales of revels that include drinking grappa from a human skull.

He shows me a framed poem by Eugène Marais.

‘’n Druppel gal in die soetste wyn…’

It’s relentlessly sentimental.

Finally, everything can be brought down to a Latin phrase engraved on the lawn in the State Guest House.

“Pereunt et imputatur. The hours that I have measured have not been in vain” he translates.

Hosannah today. Tomorrow you may be crucified.


This column originally appeared in the Sunday Times.