John Vorster

Balthazar Johannes "B. J." Vorster (Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈbaltɑːzar juəˈhanəs ˈfɔrstər]; also known as John Vorster; 13 December 1915 – 10 September 1983) was a South African apartheid politician who served as the prime minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978 and the fourth state president of South Africa from 1978 to 1979. Known as B. J. Vorster during much of his career, he came to prefer the anglicized name John in the 1970s.[1]

B. J. Vorster
4th State President of South Africa
In office
10 October 1978  4 June 1979
Prime MinisterP. W. Botha
Preceded byMarais Viljoen (acting)
Succeeded byMarais Viljoen
7th Prime Minister of South Africa
In office
13 September 1966  2 October 1978
PresidentCharles Robberts Swart
Tom Naudé (Acting)
Jacobus Johannes Fouché
Nicolaas Johannes Diederichs
Marais Viljoen (Acting)
Preceded byTheophilus Dönges
Succeeded byP. W. Botha
Minister of Police
In office
1 April 1966  9 August 1968
Prime MinisterHendrik Verwoerd
Preceded byOffice established
as Minister of Justice
Succeeded byLourens Muller
Minister of Justice
In office
8 October 1961  14 September 1966
Prime MinisterHendrik Verwoerd
Preceded byFrans Erasmus
Succeeded byPetrus Cornelius Pelser
Personal details
Balthazar Johannes Vorster

(1915-12-13)13 December 1915
Jamestown, Cape Province, Union of South Africa
Died10 September 1983(1983-09-10) (aged 67)
Cape Town, Cape Province, Republic of South Africa
Political partyNational Party
(m. 1941)
ChildrenElizabeth (Elsa) Vorster
Willem Carel Vorster
Pieter Andries Vorster
Alma materUniversity of Stellenbosch

Vorster strongly adhered to his country's policy of apartheid, overseeing (as Minister of Justice) the Rivonia Trial, in which Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage, (as Prime Minister) the Terrorism Act, the complete abolition of non-white political representation, the Soweto Riots and the Steve Biko crisis. He conducted a more pragmatic foreign policy than his predecessors, in an effort to improve relations between the white minority government and South Africa's neighbours, particularly after the break-up of the Portuguese colonial empire. Shortly after the 1978 Internal Settlement in Rhodesia, in which he was instrumental, he was implicated in the Muldergate Scandal and resigned the premiership in favour of the ceremonial state presidency, from which he was forced out as well eight months later.

Early life

Vorster was born in 1915 Jamestown, Cape Province, Union of South Africa, the fifteenth child of a successful sheep farmer,[2] Willem Carel Vorster and his wife, Elizabeth Sophia Vorster (née Wagenaar). He attended primary school there. Vorster entered Stellenbosch University, known as the "cradle of Afrikaner nationalism",[3] to study law. With six out of the seven South African prime ministers between 1910 and 1971 having been students there, its influence on the development of Afrikaner culture has been profound. Vorster involved himself in student politics becoming the chairman of the debating society, deputy chairman of the student council and leader of the junior National Party.[4]

In 1938, Vorster graduated to become a registrar (judge's clerk) to the judge president of the Cape Provincial Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa[4] but he did not remain in this post for long, setting up his first law practice in Port Elizabeth and his second in the Witwatersrand town of Brakpan.[2][4]



From 1939, Vorster attracted attention by strongly opposing South Africa's intervention on the side of the Allies and their former foe the United Kingdom, in World War II.[2] More out of an anti-British feeling than a positively pro-Nazi spirit, many Nationalists enthusiastically hoped for a German victory.[4]

Vorster dedicated himself to an anti-British, pro-Nazi organisation called the Ossewabrandwag (Ox-wagon Sentinel), founded in 1938 in celebration of the centenary of the Great Trek. Under the leadership of J.F. van Rensburg, the Ossewabrandwag conducted many acts of sabotage against South Africa during World War II to limit its war effort. Vorster claimed not to have participated in the acts of war attributed to the group.[4] He described himself as anti-British, and not pro-Nazi and said that his internment was for anti-British agitation.[5]

Vorster rose rapidly through the ranks of the Ossewabrandwag becoming a general in its paramilitary wing.[2] His involvement with this group led to his detention at Koffiefontein in 1942.[4] Following his release in 1944 from the detention camp, Vorster became active in the National Party, which began implementing the policy of apartheid in 1948. Although racial discrimination in favour of whites had long been a central fact of South African politics and society, the National Party institutionalised racism through apartheid legislation.

House of Assembly

In 1953, Vorster was elected to the House of Assembly representing the seat of Nigel in the Transvaal. He was appointed as Deputy Minister in 1958.[2] He was an MP during the terms of prime ministers D.F. Malan, J.G. Strijdom and Hendrik Verwoerd. Vorster's war time anti-British activities came back to haunt him.[6] Vorster answered his critics by saying that he had now "come to believe in" the parliamentary system.

A leader of the right wing of the National Party, he was appointed Minister of Justice in 1961 by prime minister Verwoerd, an outspoken mentor and idol of Vorster, and he combined that with Minister of Police and Prisons in 1966.[2]

Upon Verwoerd's assassination in 1966, Vorster was elected by the National Party to succeed him, and continued Verwoerd's implementation of apartheid legislation, including the 1968 abolition of the last four parliamentary seats that had been reserved for white representatives of Coloured (mixed race) voters (realised in 1970). Despite this, Vorster's rule oversaw several other such proposed bills dropped, as well the repealing of legislation prohibiting multi-racial sports teams in order to allow for South Africa to compete at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. Despite Vorster's efforts, protests by numerous African nations meant that the IOC refused permission for South Africa's proposed team to compete.

As a personal figure, Vorster was described as "flesh and blood" by Progressive MP Helen Suzman in contrast to the "diabolical" and "frightening" Verwoerd. His supporters held him in great affection for his eccentricities. Examples of this were the occasion when he briefed the opposition in his private chambers, his allowing pictures of himself to be taken in often precarious situations and then to be distributed publicly as well as his welcoming of foreigners, in his words, to "the happiest police state in the world". This new outlook in the leadership of South Africa was dubbed "billikheid" or "sweet reasonableness".[7] He alienated an extremist faction of his National Party when it accepted the presence of Māori players and spectators during the tour of the New Zealand national rugby union team in South Africa in 1970.

Vorster was more pragmatic than his predecessors when it came to foreign policy. He improved relations with other African nations, such as by the adoption of his policy of letting Black African diplomats live in white areas in South Africa. He unofficially supported, but refused officially to recognise, the neighbouring state of Rhodesia, whose predominantly white minority government had unilaterally declared independence (UDI) from the UK in 1965. Vorster followed white public opinion in South Africa by supporting Rhodesia publicly, but was unwilling to alienate important political allies in the United States by extending diplomatic recognition to Rhodesia.

The collapse of Portuguese rule in Angola and Mozambique in 1975 left South Africa and Rhodesia as the sole outposts of white minority rule on the continent: while Vorster was unwilling to make any concessions to his country's majority population, he soon realised that white rule would be untenable in a country where blacks outnumbered whites.[8]

In September 1976, under pressure from US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he pressured Ian Smith, the Rhodesian Prime Minister, to accept in principle that white minority rule could not continue indefinitely. Smith and non-militant black nationalist leaders signed the Internal Settlement in March 1978, and in June 1979, following multiracial elections, Rhodesia was reconstituted under black majority rule as Zimbabwe Rhodesia which, in this form, also lacked any international recognition.

Information Scandal

After the Soweto Uprising in 1976, as Prime Minister, Vorster encouraged the Department of Information to engage in clandestine activities in and outside South Africa. Vorster did not inform his cabinet of these activities and financed them through a secret defense account. When the auditor general made a critical report, a scandal broke out, ultimately leading to the resignation of Vorster. This scandal was colloquially known to some as "South African Watergate".[9]

State President and retirement

Vorster resigned as Prime Minister in 1978, after twelve years in office. He was succeeded by P. W. Botha, a hardliner who nevertheless began the first reforms to moderate the apartheid system. Following his resignation as Prime Minister, Vorster was elected to the largely honorary position of State President. His tenure in his new office, however, was short-lived. In what came to be known as the Muldergate Scandal so named after Dr Connie Mulder, the Cabinet minister at its centre, Vorster was implicated in the use of a secret slush fund to establish The Citizen, the only major English language newspaper that was favourable to the National Party. A commission of inquiry concluded in mid-1979 that Vorster "knew everything" about the corruption and had tolerated it. He resigned from the state presidency in disgrace. In 1982, John Vorster supported the Conservative Party of Andries Treurnicht at its founding congress. He died in 1983, aged 67 years.

Legacy under apartheid

Using the Group Areas Act, Stellenbosch University dispossessed coloured residents of central Stellenbosch of their land in order to expand the university. They named the building built there after B.J. Vorster, an alumnus and chancellor of the university. It was renamed in the 1990s.[10]

Johannesburg Central Police Station was formerly called John Vorster Square, and was the home of South Africa's Special Branch during the apartheid era.[11]

Depiction on coins

He is depicted on the obverses of the following coins of the South African rand;

1982 1/2 Cent to 1 Rand.


  • Vorster, Balthazar Johannes (1976). O. Geyser (ed.). Geredigeerde toesprake van die sewende Eerste Minister van Suid-Afrika: 1953-1974 [The edited speeches of the seventh prime minister of South Africa: 1953-1974] (in Afrikaans). Bloemfontein: Instituut vir Eietydse Geskiedenis, UOVS. ISBN 9780868860053.


  1. Hawthorne, Peter (4 October 1976). "'A Cool Man on a Lion Hunt,' South Africa's John Vorster Tries to Head Off a Race War". People. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  2. "Balthazar Johannes Vorster". South African History Online. Retrieved 5 January 2011.
  3. Spener, Maja (October 2015). "Calibrating Introspection". Philosophical Issues. 25 (1): 300–321. doi:10.1111/phis.12062. ISSN 1533-6077.
  4. Balthazar Johannes Vorster Biography. Retrieved 5 January 2011.
  5. Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. (9 February 2017), Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: The Question of South Africa, archived from the original on 12 December 2021, retrieved 2 April 2017
  6. Müller, André (September 2000). "The economic history of the Port Elizabeth‐Uitenhage region". South African Journal of Economic History. 15 (1–2): 20–47. doi:10.1080/10113430009511123. ISSN 1011-3436. S2CID 155003223.
  7. "South Africa: A Touch of Sweet Reasonableness". Time. 31 March 1967. Archived from the original on 15 December 2008.
  8. "APF newsletter, "Appraisal of Rhodesia in 1975"". Archived from the original on 31 May 2009.
  9. Crapanzano, Vincent (1985). Waiting: the Whites of South Africa. New York: Random House. p. 105.
  10. Grundlingh, Albert. "Die Vlakte" (PDF).
  11. "Johannesburg Central Police Station". TravelGround. Retrieved 4 June 2021.
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