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Afrikaners champion Botha's cause of silence

Former South African president, P W Botha, is to be prosecuted for defying a subpoena to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mary Braid reports from Johannesburg

Prosecutors announced yesterday that Mr Botha, 82, must appear in court later this month for failing to attend a hearing of the TRC, the body set up to expose the atrocities of the apartheid era. Mr Botha has condemned the TRC as a "circus" and a "witchhunt" against Afrikaners.

TRC chairman Arhcbishop Desmond Tutu has bent over backwards in recent months to avoid the martyring of Mr Botha, who, despite his recent engagement to a woman half his age, is reported by his lawyers to be in ill health. But all attempts to get the former president to cooperate with the TRC have failed.

There are fears Mr Botha may become a focus for white discontent with the new political dispensation. Mr Botha has refused to testify on the work of the state security council which he chaired in the late 1980s and which imposed a brutal state of emergency in which thousands of blacks died in clashes with the security forces.

The commission also wants to question Mr Botha about other apartheid- era abuses including border raids into neighbouring countries, the state's chemical warfare programme and the murder of black activists.

Frank Khan, attorney general of the Western Cape, said yesterday that the decision to prosecute Mr Botha, who faces a substantial fine or two years in prison, had not been easy, given his age and health. But he said that the law, as well as the public interest, demanded a prosecution.

Yesterday Tim du Plessis, assistant editor of the liberal Afrikaner Beeld newspaper, said that the TRC had no choice but to press charges, particularly after its nine-day public hearing into murder allegations against Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The commission had to maintain a political balance.

Mr du Plessis said many Afrikaners did regard the TRC as a witchhunt but it remained to be seen how much support Mr Botha would get. Mr Botha became estranged from the National Party after he was ousted from power by F W de Klerk, the country's last white president.

Mr Botha believes Mr de Klerk, who ended apartheid and began the inevitable journey to black majority rule, sold out the Afrikaner. Yesterday, the NP response was measured. A spokesman said that Mr Kahn had no choice but to prosecute but added that the TRC should not have forced the issue. The far right-wing Conservative party said it would support Mr Botha and that Mr Kahn's decision was designed to humiliate the Afrikaner nation.