By Peter Hawthorne
Updated October 04, 1976 12:00 PM

A dour onetime Nazi sympathizer who introduced some of the most repressive laws that prop up apartheid, paunchy, 60-year-old Balthazar Johannes Vorster is an incongruous candidate to lead South Africa into the 20th century. The Afrikaner prime minister seems more of a throwback—a living symbol of the sturdy, self-righteous Dutch pioneers who colonized South Africa with a Bible in one hand and a rhino-hide whip in the other. Yet many observers regard Vorster, who has been meeting with troubleshooter Henry Kissinger, as his country’s last hope for avoiding a shattering race war.

Vorster, who succeeded the assassinated Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd as prime minister in 1966, remains a rigid guardian of South Africa’s internal security. He has, however, become the country’s first prime minister to meet with black tribal leaders and has established cool but correct working relationships with several foreign black African leaders. Though he has allowed no fundamental changes in apartheid, he has relaxed some of its petty discrimination, including the prohibition against mixed competition in sports. Above all, the pragmatic Vorster appears determined to avoid a violent showdown with South Africa’s restive black majority. “I am no unqualified admirer of Vorster,” declares the liberal South African writer Alan Paton, “but he knows that changes must be made. Nowadays when he talks, I know what he is talking about. He is talking about my country, my future and the future of my children.”

Vorster—who now prefers the anglicized “John”—was once regarded as the most Neanderthal of Afrikaner reactionaries. The 13th of a Cape Province sheep farmer’s 14 children, he was educated at the conservative University of Stellenbosch and then took up law. After internment by the British for his activities in the pro-German underground during World War II, he was elected to parliament in 1953. He became one of Verwoerd’s chief lieutenants and in 1961, as justice minister, initiated a rigorous crackdown on the rights of free speech and assembly. Under Vorster’s guidance, an autonomous secret police force was established. “As long as he is convinced that he is acting in the interests of the country, nothing and nobody can put Balthazar Johannes off his stride,” his brother J.D. once observed.

The implacable Vorster is a devoted family man who delights in the company of his wife, Martini, 59, and their three children: Elsa, 30, married to a farmer in the Orange Free State; Willem, 26, a surveyor in Pretoria, and Piet, 24, an articled clerk to a lawyer. Vorster is known as Oupa (grandfather in Afrikaans) to his four grandchildren. “He has a way of getting through to children,” says Martini.

The Vorsters maintain residences in Pretoria and Cape Town, but the prime minister seems most at ease at their holiday retreat on the Cape coast, where he presides over barbecues in sneakers and shorts. Martini, known as “Tini,” is a gourmet who likes to serve venison and ostrich egg omelets. She considers Vorster “the easiest man in the world to live with,” providing dinner table conversation is nonpolitical. (“Everybody makes mistakes from time to time,” he once snapped, “but it’s a fool who talks about them.”) An avid chess player, golfer and outdoorsman, Vorster in recent years has bagged elephant and lion on big-game expeditions. “He’s one of the coolest men on a lion hunt I’ve ever seen,” says one professional hunter.

“I don’t take my troubles to bed with me,” says Vorster. “If you can’t switch off in this game, you can’t last 10 years.” Indeed, 10 years ago he suffered from low blood pressure, but on the advice of his doctors began donating blood. He has since given 50 pints and says he feels “great.” He also naps for 30 minutes after lunch every day.

Vorster does not give retirement a second thought. “It’s a lot easier to get into this job than out of it,” he says. “I don’t want to die with my boots on. But I feel duty bound to finish things.” Whether he succeeds will depend on his willingness to depart from the past. “Vorster is a good politician for his own people,” says Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi. “But if he stays in the arena of intransigent racial politics and fails to begin dismantling apartheid, he will go down in history as the man who sealed the doom of South Africa for black and white alike.”