Old, frail and sick - but still the leader of a vile regime

What have we heard from PW Botha? The same belligerent tripe he bellowed in power
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The Independent Culture
ON MONDAY, an 82-year-old man will shuffle into a courthouse in the South African seaside town of George. There, he will listen to a day of legal arguments and prepare to hear the judgment of the court. The accused is Pieter Willem Botha, retired politician with an address at "Die Anker" (The Anchor), Wilderness, Republic of South Africa.

The charge is that he refused to obey a subpoena to give evidence before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which is investigating the abuse of human rights during the apartheid era. As the man who was President of South Africa during that period, it is fair to imagine Botha might have been able to shed light into some murky areas. But the man who once waved his finger at the world has chosen to remain silent.

PW Botha was the most powerful of South Africa's Afrikaner leaders. He wasn't a racist visionary in the mould of DF Malan or Hendrik Verwoerd, but no other National Party leader amassed the total power of Botha in his heyday. A bully who terrified many of his own cabinet ministers, Botha was a proponent of rough house politics from the earliest days.

As an aspiring politician in the Western Cape, he specialised in breaking up meetings of his opponents. As the years progressed, he graduated from fists to guns and bombs. I never encountered the man personally but I did visit and work in the South Africa he terrorised and repressed. One of my most vivid memories of the 1980s is of arriving in South Africa on the morning Botha declared a state of emergency - Soweto Day, 16 June 1986. The townships had been in a state of open revolt since late 1984 and white rule seemed - for the first time in a generation - to be threatened. Rather than opt for negotiation, Botha cracked down with an iron fist.

Driving into Johannesburg that morning, I passed row upon row of police and army trucks rumbling towards the townships. In the city centre, large groups of police marched through the streets wielding whips. Troops had set up sandbagged emplacements at key intersections. That afternoon, I went to Khotso House, headquarters of the South African Council of Churches (later bombed allegedly on Botha's orders) to meet some anti-apartheid activists, only to discover they'd all been arrested that morning.

While I sat waiting, several teenagers arrived carrying a youngster who'd been wounded by police at a demonstration on the East Rand. Mothers kept arriving, enquiring after missing children. All over the country, people were being hauled in to custody by the police. Roadblocks were thrown up around the major townships. An Irish priest managed to smuggle me into a township in the Eastern Cape disguised as a fellow priest. We spent a day playing cat and mouse with military patrols who wanted to throw us out of the area.

That, of course, was the public war. But out of the public eye, with the press heavily censored and reporters like Mike Buerk of BBC and Peter Sharpe of ITN being hounded and threatened, the dirtiest of wars was being waged. The security police and covert military forces were given carte blanche to kill and torture as part of a "Total Strategy" devised by Botha and his securocrats. Botha and his Defence Minister, Magnus Malan, were determined to counter what they imagined to be the communist "Total Onslaught" against South Africa.

To try and convey the fear of those days is next to impossible. People simply disappeared. They were shot and burned and hacked. Torture was the norm. To quote the memorable lines of Sidney Kentridge, QC, from the Biko trial a decade before, the security police were given licence to "abuse innocent people with impunity".

The licence, of course, came from PW Botha. It was he who sat at the top of the murderous pile that was the police, the army and the homeland forces. They were also the days of conscription and borders. Young, white South Africans were drafted into the army to serve for two years. Many were dispatched to then South West Africa (Namibia) and Angola to fight Botha's wars of destabilisation. The damage done would set Southern Africa back for decades.

Africa has produced leaders who were more brutal and murderous than Mr Botha. Nor was he financially corrupt in the manner of so many of his neighbours further north (he actually came to power after the Vorster regime collapsed because of a financial scandal). What marked Botha out was his monstrous arrogance and his wilful indifference to justice. Who can forget that wagging finger, the big tongue slobbering, as he turned his back on reasoned opinion and nearly destroyed his country in the process?

It wasn't that Botha didn't know what he should do. He was, after all, the man who told white South Africa that it should "adapt or die". Oh, he knew alright. But he was too much of an old racist, to deeply convinced of black inferiority to do what needed to be done.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that his successor, FW De Klerk, was a liberal or a non-racist or a defender of human rights. De Klerk was part of the state security system, too. But there were two crucial differences: De Klerk had the courage to act and release Mandela - the single most important move by a white leader since the introduction of apartheid in 1948; secondly, he was capable of listening and of saying sorry. De Klerk's apartheid confessions and apologies were by no means fulsome but they were at least a nod in the right direction. You can question FW De Klerk's motives until the cows come home, but without his leap of faith in 1990, South Africa would have slid into a prolonged and vicious race war.

But what have we heard from PW Botha, he who was most culpable of all the apartheid leaders? Only the same belligerent tripe that he bellowed when he was in power. This is a man who believes he answers only to his own God. He is a very scary man, even in his old age.

There is a school of thought which says that because he is an old and frail man (he has suffered a stroke and undergone hip replacement surgery), he should be left alone. Why blame him for the accumulated sins of nearly four centuries of white rule? The political pragmatists in South Africa argue that pursuing Botha will turn him into a martyr and a rallying point for white extremism. I rather doubt that. The far right are still an irritation but they haven't the remotest chance of becoming a significant military threat. In any case, many of them believe, rather perversely, that Botha was too liberal in his dealings with black rebellion.

I never believed in demonising white South Africa. Living in the country and listening to people tends to dilute the instant rush to denounce all that is white and praise all that is black. To demonise is to fall into a trap of intellectual laziness, denying South Africa's complexity and the genuine fears of the minority. I think it is to Mr Mandela's credit that he has refused to indulge in what the holocaust writer Primo Levi once described as the "bestial vice of hatred".

But confronted with the unrepentant Mr Botha, I am loath to feel compassion. To do the damage he did, whatever "patriotic" motivation he claims, and walk away with a single "sorry" requires an extraordinary degree of callousness. The court may take a different view. It may regard him as simply too old and silly to pursue. But I hope history will judge him for what he was: a coward and a bullyboy.