Apartheid leader makes the most of his day in court

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The Independent Online
After months of defying the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, PW Botha, former South African president, found himself in court yesterday.

Mary Braid watched in vain for a glimmer of repentance.

In Georg, an Afrikaner stronghold on the south-east coast, the years seemed to melt away. The razor wire was rolled out and black protesters were monitored by helicopters buzzing overhead.

The extras then were relics of another time and place. The same applied to the star of the show. PW Botha, 82, custodian of apartheid during some of its bloodiest years, seemed to have been kept on ice for the decade since he was elbowed from power.

Charged with contempt for ignoring subpoenas to attend a hearing of the TRC, the body charged with laying bare the atrocities of the past, the old man emerged from his BMW with Reinette Naude, his new fiancee, half his age; the same old didactic, inflexible Botha.

The hearing was over quickly; postponed for plea until next month.

The magistrate was black. Mr Botha insisted he did not mind; had he not once played with little black boys? But that he should judge the old oppressor has its ironies and was evidence at least of South Africa's profound change.

But change seemed to have passed Mr Botha by. Expected to keep his head down and his mouth shut, the former president surprised with a rare 40- minute political speech in which he defended apartheid as mere "good neighbourliness". When sniggers spread across the court he demanded: "Who laughed?"

Outside the court, the banners listed the names of apartheid's victims and warned there could be "No reconciliation without Truth". "He never thought it would come to this," said one protester. "But he cannot ignore the TRC. He has answers and we want them."

But inside it was vintage rhetoric - Mr Botha arguing with reporters that he tried to save South Africa from the "Communist onslaught" and thanking former soldiers and policemen - including three former generals who turned up to protect him from the TRC "witchhunt" - who had joined him in the fight. "I tried to protect our fatherland," bellowed Mr Botha. "Is that the same fatherland as mine?" said a young black ANC supporter at the back.

Mr Botha said the TRC wanted humiliation not information. He had nothing to apologise for. He said he and his people were under attack. The Afrikaner tiger he warned was awakening and disaster loomed if the TRC continued to pursue him. The Afrikaner tiger must have been otherwise engaged yesterday. Only a tiny group of odds and sods showed.

While South Africa argued yesterday about the merits of pursuing the ex-president - the case could well extend beyond the life of the TRC - one thing was certain. Mr Botha loved it yesterday; a whiff of the bad old days seemed to put the spring back in the old dictator's step.