Unrepentant P. W. Botha no more

By the early 21st century, Pieter Willem Botha’s name had become a byword for unaccountable government and the autocratic exercise of power.

Botha, who died on Tuesday night at his home, Die Anker, near Wilderness in the Western Cape, aged 90, was the archetype Afrikaner and a thus “worthy” successor to John Vorster, whom he replaced as prime minister in the wake of the information scandal in late 1978, and led the South African white minority rule in period 1978-89 ‘ during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle

It was he who coined the phrases “Total Onslaught” and “Total Strategy” to justify the ever-greater use of force to suppress growing black resistance to white-only rule.

He was the “Imperial President”, the finger-wagging “Great Crocodile” who petulantly clung to power when it was time to go.

Botha died peacefully, said a member of his security staff, Frikkie Lucas. He had recently been admitted to hospital for a routine check-up and was then discharged.

An Afrikaner, Botha was born into a deeply religious and highly political family of Orange Free State farmers on 12 January 1916.

Botha was elected MP for George in the landslide poll victory that brought the National Party to power and made D. F. Malan prime minister.

He would hold that seat until 1984: a total of 36 years during which ‘ as a “good constituency man” ‘ he promoted the town’s development ceaselessly.

Elevation came in October 1958 when Verwoerd, the prime minister, appointed him Deputy Minister of the Interior. Part of the job was enforcing some of the more odious apartheid laws, including the Group Areas Act.

In August 1961 he was promoted to full minister with the Community Development and Coloured Affairs portfolio. In a typical example of apartheid double-speak, his ministry was responsible for the destruction of the mixed race District Six suburb and the displacement of its people to the sandy and now gang-riven Cape Flats during his tenure.

He held this post for about five years, following which he became Verwoerd’s Minister of Defence in April 1966.

Another highlight of that year was his election as the NP’s Cape Leader and his appointment to the board of the Nasionale Pers (which owned the Afrikaans print media), a traditional sinecure for that position. He retained the position until 1984.

With international criticism of apartheid growing and with arms embargoes tightening Defence Minister Botha busied himself with making South Africa self-sufficient in the arms field. He deployed forces to destabilise the country’s Marxist neighbours, and worked to increase the military budget by 20 times, thereby undermining the international arms embargo against South Africa.

He also served ex-officio on the State Security Council and regularly visited the operational area in northern South-West Africa (now Namibia).

Botha kept South Africans in the dark about Operation Savannah ‘ the initially secret South African involvement in Angola in the wake of the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule ‘ which he had convinced cabinet to endorse. The country first learned about the event through the foreign media.

As prime minister and later the country’s first executive president, Botha told his people: “We must adapt or die.”

He later proposed that parliaments be set up for the coloured (mixed race) and Indian populations, though not for blacks.

It caused a split in the NP and provoked an increasingly aggressive response from the black population.

As a result, thousands of people were held without trial during states of emergency imposed by Botha at various times between 1986 and 1989.

Botha announced in February 1986 that the concept of apartheid was outdated, and promised more sharing of political power.

But then, in May, he sanctioned raids on alleged African National Congress bases in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana ‘ a move widely seen as a slap in the face for the West.

Perhaps concerned by the growth in support among the white electorate for extreme right-wing parties, Botha also imposed a ban on celebrations to mark Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988.

In 1989, after a bitter power struggle, Botha resigned the presidency and, in a final act of spite, refused to appoint his successor, F. W. de Klerk ‘ the white leader who did see out apartheid ‘ as acting president.

In 1998 he was fined and given a suspended five-year jail term for ignoring a summons to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

It had wanted to question him about his role as head of the State Security Council, which was found to have sanctioned the killing of anti-apartheid activists. The panel concluded that Botha was guilty of gross human rights violations.

Under his rule, up to 20 000 blacks were imprisoned, while others were tortured and killed by the security forces who fomented black-on-black violence by supplying arms to rival factions, blew up church property where radicals met and bombed countries that harboured the ANC.

The coming of democracy, in 1994, did briefly give him trouble, in the shape of Archbishop Desmond Tutu ‘ an old foe ‘ and the TRC ‘ a new one.

Botha took a dim view of its search for truth and reconciliation, famously calling it a “circus”.

Other than providing written answers to questions, Botha shunned the commission, refusing to appear before it to the point of rather preferring the dock in the George magistrates’ court. He was convicted in 1998, at age 82, of holding the commission in contempt and was fined, but successfully appealed against both conviction and sentence in the Cape High Court.

The now ruling ANC, which was outlawed under Botha, was among the first to offer condolences. The ANC issued a brief statement saying it wished Botha’s family “strength and comfort at this difficult time”.

As a former president, Botha will be accorded a state funeral, as stipulated in the South African constitution.

He led a quiet life with his second wife, Barbara, in the seaside village of Wilderness, about 350 kilometres east of Cape Town, for almost two decades.

In a interview to mark his 90th birthday, he suggested that he had no regrets about the way he ran the country. ‘ BBC-SAPA-own.

November 2006
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