Theresa Papenfus

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Person.png Theresa Papenfus Facebook TwitterRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(journalist, author, publisher)
Papenfus Botha.jpg
Biographer Theresa Papenfus with Pik Botha
BornVilliersdorp, Western Cape, South Africa
Alma materStellenbosch University

Theresa Papenfus is a journalist, author, and publisher.


She started her career as a reporter at Beeld newspaper, Pretoria in 1975. Since 1979 she was a full time mother for her three sons, while writing short stories, essays, sketches and articles for various publications. A volume of essays was published by JL van Schaik publishers in 1980. She did freelance work for various publishers until 1991, when she became head of Fiction and Non-Fiction at JL van Schaik in Pretoria, where she handled the publication and marketing of titles in various genres and received the company's Award for Excellence in 1994.[1]


In 2000 she started Litera Publications as her own publishing house. Beside the work of valued authors, Theresa’s biography "Pik Botha and his times" (2010) appeared at Litera in both English and Afrikaans.[2]


This biography reads like a novel: exciting, moving and humorous. It is the story of an inspiring politician who wrote verses on the back of cigarette boxes, a minister with the finesse of a battering ram, a peacemaker, and ambassador who never had to take "No" for an answer, and a man who was happiest when sitting next to a campfire in the bush. And it is far more.

Theresa Papenfus depicts Botha against the broader political and social background of his time. This work is also an account of a tempestuous period in South African history. New facts are revealed on events such as the aviation disaster in which Samora Machel was killed. The research covers a formidable range of sources, including personal interviews and correspondence with authoritative and prominent South African and international figures. And then there are Pik Botha's verses, personal documents and the numerous interviews he granted.


"Even in the broader literature, no book exists that covers these events together in one volume and certainly not with anything approaching the depth and first-hand insight that Papenfus marshals. "Pik Botha and his times" is precisely the sort of book any writer on Southern African political history will want to have to hand for reference purposes if nothing else." — Jamie Miller, University of Cambridge

"Valuable. Thorough. Absorbing." Jeanette Ferreira, literary critic, editor and writer....

"An authoritative source of information ... that could never be ignored ... direct, with no mincing of words or empty praise ... a work that attests to intensive research and broad knowledge, sensitive but without sentimentality or obfuscation." Marinus Wiechers, Professor Emeritus of Constitutional, International and Indigenous Law and former principal, Unisa...

"History owes her a favour for writing this book. I enjoyed it immensely." Peter Sullivan, former editor of The Star and Group Editor-in-Chief, Independent Newspapers, South Africa.

Flight booking shenanigans

In her hagiography of the erstwhile minister "Pik Botha and his times", Theresa Papenfus gives a further version of the events of that fateful night, 21 December 1988.

Papenfus says:

"A former member of staff related that there had been a hitch in the travel arrangements. 'The SAA flight took off from Johannesburg for London on 20 December 1988 ... I was concerned with the travel arrangements to New York. Because Pik preferred Frankfurt Airport to Heathrow, the party was booked on Pan American World Airways Flight 103 from Frankfurt via London to New York.'” [Emphasis added.]

So this conflicts diametrically with the statement that there never was a booking on flight 103. Papenfus goes on to say:

"It was the third scheduled daily transatlantic flight from London to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. But this schedule would have interfered with affairs of the heart. The official had a fiancée in London and he simply had to see her. He quietly arranged for the delegation to take an earlier flight, from Johannesburg to London and then from London to New York."

How could changing to an earlier flight allow the spokesman to have more time with his girl in London?

Papenfus continues:

"Pik was highly displeased that his wishes had been ignored. 'You people never listen to me!' he shouted at the official and chased him out of his office. The party had to follow the new itinerary and take a different Pan Am flight (Pan Am 101), which took off from Heathrow an hour before Pan Am 103. They had an uneventful flight from Johannesburg to London, allowing the official time for a blissful interlude with his fiancée at Heathrow."

The official who changed the bookings was clearly with Pik Botha as Papenfus says:

"Once they arrived at New York the official had to attend to the usual administrative duties of ministerial staff. While the ministers were being whisked away from the airport in cars their baggage had to be collected and their passports stamped. Through the glass panels he could see people showing signs of hysteria. Some were crying, others screaming and a few were lying on the ground. 'Americans!' he muttered to himself. Then he was told by a member of the secret service that the Boeing on Pan Am Flight 103 had crashed. This was the flight on which the South African delegation had originally been booked." [Emphasis added.]

‘Originally been booked…’ is a further contradiction of the earlier version of only one booking on flight 101.

Papenfus continues:

"At the hotel the official found Pik staring at the TV screen. Thank you, the minister said quietly, for changing the arrangements. That evening at the residence of Mr Jeremy Shearer, South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, Pik expressed his condolences to the relatives of the victims of the disaster. 'Thank God that we escaped death. It was close. We could have been on the fatal flight.' He again thanked his staff for changing the booking." [Emphasis added.]

Papenfus admits a further intriguing detail:

"In response to enquiries the Department of Foreign Affairs initially officially denied that seats had ever been booked for the ministerial party on Pan Am Flight 103. They said that the bookings had been on Flight 101 right from the beginning."

Papenfus concludes:

"The tragedy claimed the life of the UN Commissioner for Namibia, Mr Bernt Carlsson of Sweden. He was supposed to have been present at the signing of the agreements."[3]


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Lucky Escapees from Pan Am Flight 103Article20 October 2018Christopher NicholsonIn this article, Judge Nicholson analyses in forensic detail conflicting claims that former foreign minister Pik Botha had been booked to travel on the doomed Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on 21 December 1988. The Judge's analysis concludes by asking whether UN Commissioner for Namibia Bernt Carlsson "was not the real target of those who put the bomb on Pan Am 103."