PW Botha

If you have a problem, if no-one else can help…


In The Unauthorised History of South Africa, I reveal how the apartheid government resisted letting television into the country because it believed TV was ‘a colonoscopy straight up Satan’s poephol’. But once the demonic machine arrived, there was no stopping it…


Slowly, the nation’s television-watching public became more sophisticated and more demanding. No longer were people content to watch the SABC test pattern from noon until 4 p.m.

They wanted action, drama, romance, intrigue and danger, and so the SABC debuted Police File, a show which combined true-life crime with grade two Remedial Art. Every night the white population tuned in to see badly drawn identikits of black people accused of crimes including murder,robbery, failing to scoop the leaves off the pool, forgetting to take the Chihuahua for its walk and thereby causing it to wee on the kitchen floor, and so on. And every night they enjoyed a secret sexual frisson as Colin touched his eyebrow and said, ‘And remember: keep ‘em peeled!’ Had Colin been referring to peeling eyes or had he been thinking about peeling off pantyhose? It was all too exciting for words.


The state had resisted importing foreign programming, as it worried that blacks would see more democratic societies in other parts of the world and whites would see just how ugly safari suits were, even when compared to the paisley bell-bottoms and pink tuxedos on Dallas. But soon it became clear that Colin Fluxman, the talking duck on SABC2 and the test pattern could not sustain the SABC forever. At some stage, the government realised, it would have to allow American shows onto South African television.

However, there was a shock in store for the Minister of Telegraph Poles and Mini-Bioscopes, Spartacus ‘Sparky’ Schmidt: in a dramatic speech to parliament on 9 September 1984, he revealed that Americans did not speak Afrikaans. Once the cries of outrage and fear had subsided, he explained that Americans spoke English and that all American shows would have to be dubbed into Afrikaans, with their original soundtracks simulcast on Radio 2000. And so it was that all American doctors, private investigators, vigilantes, cowboys, time-travelling astronauts and test pilots reconstructed out of metal at the cost of $6-million came to sound like Lochner de Kok.

man van staal
For a while it seemed that television was achieving its political goal of pacifying the population. The whites were content to listen to Lochner de Kok’s voice coming out of the mouths of fourteen different American actors, and black people had developed a grudging respect for the talking duck, although more and more were opting for the Saturday night variety show, Ngomgqibelo, which revolved around Brenda Fassie’s thighs.

But in 1986, P.W. Botha woke up in the middle of the night, screaming and sweating. First Tannie Elize panicked, thinking that the revolution had started, and pressed the launch button on the nuclear switchboard next to her bed, remotely detonating a twenty-kiloton mushroom pie that had been placed at the Beitbridge border crossing into Zimbabwe. But P.W.’s fears were not about an internal rebellion. Calling his cabinet together for an emergency meeting in the Leopard Lounge, he told them of his fears: that a giant international plot was being hatched to liberated South Africa, and that it would be led by the do-gooders on TV.

‘Black South Africa claims to have a problem,’ he shouted. ‘Nobody else can help them. So how long will it be before they hire the A-Team? We’ve all seen Airwolf fly to Russia and back on one tank of petrol! How long until it flies down here and shoots seven kinds of kak out of Lugmagbasis Racheltjie de Beer?’

Soon panicked ministers began their own feverish speculation. Would the trio from Riptide hover their pink helicopter over Robben Island and rescue Nelson Mandela? What if MacGyver used some chewing gum and a tampon to dismantle apartheid? And what if Thomas Magnum was already fornicating with a secretary from the Defence Ministry, coaxing state secrets out of her with his moustache and his rubber chicken?

Pik Botha tried to calm them. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, he had been ‘to the overseas’ on a few occasions and had seen more television than his colleagues. He tried to explain to them that most shows were fiction. When they did not understand this word, he said that they were ‘made up, not real, like the Bantustans’. But P.W. would not hear it. After all, many of these Americans had spoken with Lochner de Kok’s voice. Lochner was real. Therefore it followed that the characters were real too. He declared a State of Emergency and ordered the security police to arrest anyone who looked like MacGyver – that is, had a mullet or a Swiss army knife. The ensuing raids netted 1.2 million white men and 1.8 million white women (1.2 million of whom lived on the East Rand). However, they were soon released with an official apology and a year’s subscription to Huisgenoot.

If you want to find out what happened next, buy the bladdy book by clicking here. Please. Every copy I sell makes me, like, fifteen bucks. C’maaahn!


“What a dust do I raise!”

They ended apartheid

Who ended apartheid? These guys.

Once, in certain sweaty parts of the world where the main exports were bananas and refugees, it was fashionable to name infrastructure after ideologues.

South Africa has managed to restrain itself – you’re unlikely to find the Thabo Mbeki Glorious People’s Communal Tap – but we do still have a weakness for renaming roads after struggle icons. Which is odd, when you think about how awful roads really are.

This week the late professor Jakes Gerwel become the latest victim of this phenomenon as his name was grafted onto a blasted expanse of dead space lined with industrial blight formerly known as Vanguard Drive in Cape Town. And if the city gets its way, FW de Klerk will be synonymous not only with apartheid but also a piece of highway flanked by rusting fences and patchily carpeted with squashed rats. If first prize is getting a road named after you, second prize is having two roads named after you.

Not surprisingly, the proposed renaming of Table Bay Boulevard has raised questions. The Right has never forgiven De Klerk for being a volksverraier (traitor of the people). The Left has never forgiven him for being apartheid’s last Head Goon. So who were the 27 people who proposed the name change? Did the city put an ad on Gumtree asking for ideological fence-sitters and 27 people replied?

Of course, there are many people in the middle who believe that apartheid was abhorrent but that De Klerk deserves some sort of accolade for his role in our history. Helen Zille articulated their position best: those who claim that De Klerk was pushed kicking and screaming towards reform are wrong, she said, as he might easily have dug in and clung on as a tyrant. I’m not convinced. Deciding to stop being a dick is a good choice, but do you deserve a public gong 20 years after you dragged yourself up to par?

Still, Zille’s comment underlined how we believe in different stories. In the story Zille believes, there were two doors and De Klerk picked the right one. In the version I believe, there was one door through which he was marched with the bayonet of history pressing into his back. And, for all the facts we brandish at each other, we must concede that both of these are just stories.

There are plenty of stories about the end of apartheid. Most have similar endings and most are satisfyingly simple. The prisoner becomes a prince. There is a coronation and, if not a wedding, at least a honeymoon. No wonder, then, that so few of our stories delve deeper. For example, how do we deal with the apparent fact that Nelson Mandela seems to have liked PW Botha while he could barely tolerate De Klerk? How can the goodie like the baddie more than he likes the Conflicted Everyman Who Ultimately Makes The Right Choice Midway Through The Third Act?

An even more confusing story is the one that goes like this. Once upon a time, the United States and the Soviet Union were pointing vast numbers of nuclear missiles at each other, and inside these missiles was a magical substance called uranium. A distant land, South West Africa, had enormous deposits of the stuff but that country was controlled by an even more distant land, South Africa; and so, to ensure that the Russians didn’t get their red mitts on the precious uranium, the US tolerated and sometimes secretly bankrolled apartheid South Africa. But then, one afternoon, the Soviet economy fell apart and, with a soft fizzing noise and a small puff of smoke, South Africa and its puppet neighbour become completely irrelevant to geopolitics. The regime had its American Express credit card cut in half, and the resistance stopped getting its weekly back issues of Pravda and tins of borscht. The National Party had ruled unchallenged for four decades but just seven years after perestroika and glasnost, Namibia was independent and South Africa had black majority rule.

In this story, De Klerk didn’t end apartheid. Neither did Mandela and the ANC. What ended apartheid wasn’t black revolution or white reformers or sporting isolation or Londoners refusing to buy South African oranges. What ended it was a broken Soviet economic model and a series of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s not a great story for those of us who believe that we are the masters of our own fate, perhaps because it reminds us of another story, by Aesop: “The fly sat on the axle-tree of the chariot wheel and said, What a dust do I raise!”

The dust is settling now. In Cape Town, it’s drifting down onto new street signs. Does De Klerk deserve one? I don’t believe he does. At least, that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.


First published in The Times and TimesLive