After receiving his primary and secondary education in the Eastern Cape, he went on to receive his bachelor of law degree from Stellenbosch University and set up a law practice in Port Elizabeth in the late 1930s. With the onset of World War II, he ardently opposed South Africa’s involvement in support of the Allies by becoming a member of the pro-Nazi Ossewa-Brandwag. His support of the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler landed Vorster in jail during much of World War II.
However, this did little to deter his radical ideology, and he maintained that the dictatorial regime in Germany at the time was a more productive and suitable model for South African governance than the parliamentary system already in place. When Vorster was released from jail in 1944, his right-wing political and social views led him to join the growing South African National Party.
Vorster worked his way up the ranks of the party cadre, and in 1953 he was elected to parliament in Cape Town as a National Party representative. After one session in parliament he was appointed deputy minister of education in 1958; he rigidly enforced apartheid’s Bantu education policies.
Under Prime Minister Verwoerd he became minister of justice in 1961. During this time, the government sent South African Defense Force soldiers to support Ian Smith’s white regime in Rhodesia, with the popular support of most of white South Africa.
Vorster succeeded Prime Minister Verwoerd unopposed after Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966. His brief and uneventful time as a cabinet minister under Verwoerd meant that he knew little about the workings of departments other than his own.
He knew little about the African population and the inner workings of the huge departments that governed their lives. However, during the year he came to succeed Verwoerd, Vorster combined the Justice portfolio with that of Police and Prisons, strengthening the power of the department and the South African Police Service.
Although Vorster continued with the basic tenets of separate development policies, he alienated extremist factions of the National Party early in his prime ministership by pursuing diplomatic relations with African countries and by agreeing to let black African diplomats live in white areas. However, Vorster’s tenure as prime minister was marked mainly by an increase in racial discrimination and violence in all of South Africa, including an increase in detention without trial.
Although Vorster’s government is mainly known for streamlining and harshly enforcing apartheid’s policies, his foreign policy initiatives are generally viewed as moderate and conciliatory.
He began by unofficially supporting Rhodesia, which at the time was struggling to gain independence from British rule under prime minister Ian Smith. Although publicly he espoused the white public opinion in South Africa, he did not wish to alienate potential political allies such as the United States by extending diplomatic recognition to Rhodesia.
He exerted his pressure as a hegemon in the region by persuading Smith to negotiate with Mozambique during the regional civil war that was ongoing in southern Africa. Vorster began cutting off vital supplies to Smith and even went so far as to refuse calls made by the Rhodesian prime minister. International pressure continued to squeeze South Africa for the remainder of apartheid.
Vorster, in an attempt to regain South African public approval, invaded Angola in the 1970s in order to protect South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) against rebel attempts by Angola to invade the country for diamonds. Continuing his conciliatory initiatives in September 1974, Vorster announced in Cape Town his famous Détente with Africa policy. Despite regional efforts in Angola at the time, Vorster promised cooperation with the leaders of neighboring black African nations.
The negotiations over Rhodesia and attempts to make peace with black Africa were predicated on the hopes that such maneuvers would postpone Vorster’s day of reckoning in South Africa. His hope was that emerging Zimbabwean and Mozambican states would feel indebted to South Africa for its role in liberating these countries.
The 1970s were a turbulent time for Vorster. He harshly suppressed the Soweto uprising in 1976, which would draw more international pressure in the form of economic and social sanctions. He granted independence to the Transkei in 1976 and Bophuthatswana in 1977 in accordance with apartheid’s separate development policies, although economic development within them would stagnate.
He maintained the view that Africans could exercise political rights only in their homelands regardless of where they actually lived. On September 12, 1977, Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader, died in horrifying circumstances while in police custody. Vorster’s response was personally to ban 18 organizations. This step helped him to an overwhelming victory in the general election of November 1977.
However, Vorster did take the first, unconscious steps toward a more equal South Africa. Vorster’s minister of sport and recreation, Dr. Piet Koornhof, managed to secure some limited desegregation of sport by invoking the fiction of multinationalism: Each national group had to play sport separately, but they might play against each other in multinational events.
Similarly higher-class hotels and restaurants might acquire multinational status and thereby admit people of all races. An elaborate system of permits for mixed gatherings, events, and venues was initiated. Vorster saw many apartheid policies as unnecessary and began the slow process of weeding them out.
In the late 1970s Vorster was implicated in what became known as Muldergate (so named after Dr. Connie Mulder, the information cabinet minister at the center of the scandal). Although Vorster was certainly a victim of the scandal, in a sense the scandal arose from circumstances that he himself had perpetrated.
Vorster was implicated in the use of a slush fund to buy the loyalty of The Citizen, the only major English-language newspaper favorable to the National Party. The official investigation concluded that Vorster, in conjunction with the head of the South African Police Services, General H. J. van den Bergh, had not only conspired to manipulate The Citizen but also to buy the U.S.-based Washington Star.
It was discovered that in 1973 Vorster had agreed to Mulder’s plan to shift about 64 million rands from the defense budget for a series of propaganda campaigns. In what became a National Party embarrassment, a commission of inquiry finally concluded in 1979 that Vorster had been aware of the fund and had tolerated it. After the scandal, Vorster retired from the position of prime minister in 1978. Vorster died in Cape Town in 1983.