Liberal boeremeisie with vooma

By Time of article published May 27, 2007

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By Boyd Webb

She felt a little bit like Mrs Ballinger, Sandra Botha said, as her mind wandered back to her days as the lone voice in the Orange Free State, screaming for racial equality but not being heard above the din of apartheid propaganda.

Sitting in a parliamentary lounge surrounded by the clink of celebratory champagne glasses following her election as the Democratic Alliance's parliamentary leader, Botha, still flushed with success, described how even as a child the inequalities of society haunted her.

Like Margaret Ballinger, the first president of the South African Liberal Party and who was one of three white members chosen to represent African voters in 1937, Botha has often fought to upgrade the living standards of disadvantaged people.

Coming from Viljoenskroon farming stock in the Free State, where she is equally at home among her Bonsmara cattle as she is in the thick of debate in the National Assembly, Botha's early activism portrayed a rural Afrikaner woman way ahead of her time.

As far back as the 1960s she convinced a number of farmers to employ a qualified social worker to service the needs of the rural black families and at the same time she successfully negotiated with the Citrus Board for additional winter aid for farm workers.

During her political career Botha participated as a Democratic Party representative on the steering committee of the women's national coalition, participated in Codesa's gender commission, worked with Idasa and was appointed deputy director for the Independent Electoral Commission in the Free State.

After the 1999 elections she was selected as the Free State's DP representative in the National Council of Provinces, where she was appointed caucus leader from 2000 to 2004.

Reclining on a couch, regularly interrupted by a string of well-wishers, Botha said while she loved the Free State, her "activism" had prohibited her from becoming part of the community as she would have liked.

"I was always pig-headed, or maybe I should rather say stubborn, about what I felt was right," she laughed.

Her involvement in the Black Sash did not help matters either, she mused.

"I went to Johannesburg for meetings, particularly at the time of the forced removals. I was very desperate to get involved in some progressive movement which just didn't exist in the Free State."

She noted that it was only as late as 1999 that the Free State eventually had its first opposition party. She said she had not at the time met Helen Zille, who was also involved in the Black Sash, but knew of her by reputation.

"Even then she was a great woman," Botha mused.

Botha matriculated from Parys Secondary School and went to school for a year in New York after winning an American Field Service Scholarship. After returning home she obtained her BA degree in economics from Stellenbosch University and simultaneously honed her political skills in the current affairs club, where she served as a committee member.

After marrying her husband, Andries, who is also a DA MP, Botha studied Sesotho and linguistics though the University of South Africa while raising her three sons and two daughters.

During the 1990s, Botha and her eldest daughter started a hand embroidery business with five female employees which has now grown and employs 80 women who sell their wares to markets in London, Paris and New York.

Botha, respected for her work as presiding officer in the National Assembly, is now tasked with uniting the past with the future.

With her background and culture, she is seen as the one to gather, lead and encourage skittish Afrikaans voters to stay with the DA, which is seeking new voters among the black population.

Botha disagrees with the notion that Afrikaners are afraid of change.

The new generation of Afrikaners was entrepreneurial and pioneering, and with the right leadership could play a huge role in this country, she said.

The Voortrekkers would never have trekked had they been scared of change, she said.

She agreed that her new role as caucus leader could see her having to become "the homemaker" within the party.

"I will certainly pay a lot of attention to that, but I have got to earn that position," she said.

"We didn't come from the same past, we didn't come from the same mould and so we are still getting to know each other," she said, commenting on the apparent division between former National Party and Democratic Party members.

"But I think generally there is enough that unites us and the divisions are of lesser importance," she said.

"Not in the sense that they don't have to be addressed but they can be overcome."

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