Book review: PK van der Byl, african statesman


“PK van der Byl, african statesman” is both very funny and quite sad. Humorous in that by all accounts Pieter Kenyon Fleming-Voltelyn van der Byl, known universally as “PK”, was an “extremely colourful character with a devilish sense of humour.” Tragic in that this arch supporter of Ian Smith and the November 11, 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) opposed Britain and South Africa’s efforts to hand the country to Marxist nationalists, fearing that disaster would follow. And it did.

PK was a bon vivant – “when the work was done he knew how to misbehave” – but also quite blunt and the publishers warn that even this biography “is likely to give offence to some because it portrays him as bluntly as he was in real life.” The reviewer agrees.

They add his “very nature was controversial and confrontational.” The British ‘The Times’ newspaper called this a “man calculated to give offence” – at least to the British. But was that because he stood up tothem? Because he did not go gently into that good night Britain was determined to send Rhodesia into?

Van der Byl was born in 1923 in Cape Town to Major Piet van der Byl, a minister in Jan Smuts’ wartime government. PK himself served in the Union Defence Force before transferring to the British Army and receiving a commission in the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars in which he served in Italy and Austria. He moved to the then-Southern Rhodesia in 1950 and quickly moved into Politics. By 1964 he was deputy minister of information and in 1968 he was promoted to minister of information, immigration and tourism, a post he held until 1974 when he became minister of defence and foreign affairs. He held the former post until 1979 but lost the defence portfolio in 1976 due to South African pressure: the latter’s Prime Minister John Vorster detested him and it appears the ill-feeling was mutual. After losing defence, he retained foreign affairs and gained the public service ministry. In 1977 he regained information, immigration and tourism in addition to what he already had, though in 1978 he lost the public service job. In 1979 he was for a time transport and power minister.

Wessels researched his subject well and the book is a good synthesis of interviews with PK ‘s brother William, his widow Princess Charlotte of Lichtenstein, his friend Lin Mehmel, former Selous Scouts officer commanding Ron Reid Daly, his secretary Marge Bassett and Ian Smith himself. There is no indication Wessels interviewed PK himself – he died in November 1999 – but he clearly had access to his records. He is no hagiographer, including much adverse comment, including that by British reporter Max Hastings, who thought PK “a sort of white caveman”, a “grotesque parody of a Dornford Yates English gentleman, “appaling” and “dreadful.”

He certainly could be. In 1968 or 1969 he was quoted saying: “I have never met a woman with an original idea in her head,” adding “no woman could do may job because she would have to command a large staff of senior men who would object and I would agree with them entirely.” Wessels says PK’s subsequent non-appearance at a dinner of the Business and Professional Women’s Club was duly noted by the Rhodesia Herald: “He had been called away to the comparatively safe task of tracking a wounded buffalo,” the paper reported… Indeed!

Harold Wilson called him “this very competent brainwasher”. PK responded that “Mr Wilson must realise we cannot be brought down by sanctions, but nevertheless this dangerous little man,whose conceit matches his arrogance, is still determined to try an crush us.” But why? From Wessels’ account it seems various British administrations were determined to punish Rhodesia for defying the crown. This accounted for the spite and malice, duplicity and lies in their dealings with Salisbury. Vorster was feeding the crocodile that was African nationalism in the 1970s, to him Rhodesia was a sacrifice to his idea of détente that he was quite willing to make. Van der Byl’s defiance left him livid. Smith, at least, in the words of Henry Kissinger, took being sold up the river “like a true gentleman, “which made it worse.”

PK van der Byl, african statesman

Hannes Wessels
30 South Publishers