Botha spurns last chance to repent

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PW Botha yesterday lost his last chance to appear before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mary Braid in Johannesburg says the apartheid-era president risks a prison sentence

Cartoonists always depict PW Botha, 82, the same way; bug-eyed and sanctimonious, wagging his finger at the nation as the edifice of apartheid crumbles.

Mr Botha's failure yesterday to take his third and last chance to comply with a subpoena to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, therefore, a gift to journalists. "PW gives the TRC the finger," declared one headline. It was crude but accurate.

Mr Botha ignored appeals from the commission's chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and from President Nelson Mandela. His non-appearance at a Cape Town hearing finally forced the commission's hand. Within an hour, Archbishop Tutu, "angry and sad", had laid criminal charges with the Attorney General of Cape Province, Frank Kahn. Mr Botha faces a fine, or two years in jail.

The TRC, charged with uncovering the truth about the brutal apartheid years, bent over backwards to persuade Mr Botha to co-operate. It even offered to take the hearing to Wilderness, the former president's home, a four-hour drive from Cape Town, when ill health was presented as the problem. The TRC wants to question Mr Botha about the workings of the former State Security Council, which imposed a brutal state of emergency in the late 1980s during which thousands of blacks died in clashes with the police.

It also wants to ask Mr Botha, who has denied sanctioning any killings, about the testimony of Neil Barnard, the former National Intelligence Service chief. Mr Barnard says he personally informed the former president about the killings of activists by the security police.

Yesterday, as Archbishop Tutu waited, a reporter telephoned Mr Botha at his home. He was told the former president was "in the shower".

It is unlikely that yesterday's appointment slipped the old man's mind. A few weeks ago he said the TRC was a "circus" in which he would have no part. The Afrikaners would bow only to God. "I will not ask for forgiveness for fighting the Marxist revolutionary onslaught," he added. Unlike other senior National Party figures he has not asked for amnesty.

It remains to be seen whether right-wing Afrikaners will rally behind Mr Botha. Yesterday, the Conservative Party leader, Ferdi Hartzenberg, said the prosecution proved that the TRC was merely a witchhunt against Afrikaners.

Mr Botha could yet undergo a change of heart. No decision will be made about prosecution until 2 January. In the meantime, he will not be arrested. "To arrest Mr Botha now would be empty posturing," said Mr Kahn yesterday.