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Balthazar Johannes Vorster


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(b. 13 Dec. 1915, d. 10 Sept. 1983).

Prime Minister of South Africa 1966–78; President 1978–9

Early career

Born in Jamestown, he studied at Stellenbosch, where he attended Verwoerd's lectures on sociology. Active for the National Party (NP) from the 1930s, he became a lawyer and moved to Port Elizabeth, where he became a leading party member and an activist for Afrikaner nationalism. A committed republican, he was interned for seventeen months for his opposition to the war effort, 1942–3. He moved to Brakpan (Transvaal), but was not elected to parliament until 1953, when he was also admitted to the Johannesburg Bar. As Deputy Minister of Education, Arts, and Science from 1958, he handled Verwoerd's controversial extension of the University Education Act, which provided for racial segregation at university level. As Minister of Justice from 1961, he commended himself through his toughness in dealing with the unrest caused by the ANC, PAC, and the outlawed Communist Party in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre. Leading activists were placed under house arrest, and the Criminal Procedure Act allowed the detention of any person without trial for 180 days.

In office

Vorster was the first South African Prime Minister (apart from Smuts in 1945–8) to allow a relaxation of apartheid, however moderate, through the discouragement of ‘petty apartheid’. In consequence, he allowed sports competitions between teams of different races, and eventually also allowed mixed‐race teams. Gradually, a small number of restaurants and other public amenities for other races opened up in White areas. However, as the Soweto riots of 1976 showed, his attempts to improve race relations failed owing to his unwillingness to change the essence of apartheid, racial segregation. He sought to overcome the country's increasing isolation through improving relations with its African neighbours and the UN in general, e.g. by accepting the international status of South‐West Africa (Namibia). The South African military intervention in Angola from 1975 foiled any international sympathy South Africa might have gained from this. Ill health forced him to retire in 1978 and accept the ceremonial post of President. He was forced to resign from the presidency after eight months in office owing to his former involvement in alleged irregularities in the Department of Information.

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