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Edward J. Perkins, 92, Dies; First Black U.S. Envoy to South Africa

  • November 26, 2020

“Apartheid South Africa was on fire around me,” he wrote in his memoir.

When he presented his credentials to President Botha, the two instantly engaged in a test of wills.

“President Botha was standing one step above me,” Dr. Perkins, an imposing 6-foot-3 figure, wrote.

“I suspect that the ceremony was choreographed so that he would tower over me and I would look up at him,” he added, “but he is a short man and we stood looking one another straight in the eye. I was determined not to avert my gaze until he did.”

As the ambassador handed over his credentials, Mr. Botha had to look down, at which point he lost the staring contest.

Their relationship remained icy for the duration of Ambassador Perkins’s tour. He had made it clear that he intended to visit South African townships, attend church services and meet both white and Black people. Mr. Botha regarded this as interference.

“He stuck his finger in my face,” Dr. Perkins recalled of one meeting, which he said “was like putting his finger in Reagan’s face.” Mr. Botha “ranted on,” Dr. Perkins said, before storming out of the room. Despite Mr. Botha’s objections, the ambassador met with Black and white South Africans and even held integrated receptions.

He stayed in South Africa until 1989, by which time cracks were beginning to show in the country’s repressive regime. Nelson Mandela was released from prison the next year, and in 1994 he was elected the nation’s first Black president, bringing the curtain down on apartheid.

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