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A Death, Barely Noticed

P W Botha presided over a most oppressive white minority regime that excluded the majority of South Africans from any kind of political participation. Official reactions to Botha's death indicate a subdued willingness to reassess his role but there can be little doubt that even in his own lifetime that saw rapid change in South Africa, Botha and the system he presided over had been well reduced to an anachronism.

A Death, Barely Noticed

P W Botha presided over a most oppressive white minority regime that excluded the majority of South Africans from any kind of political participation. Official reactions to Botha’s death indicate a subdued willingness to reassess his role but there can be little doubt that even in his own lifetime that saw rapid change in South Africa, Botha and the system he presided over had been

well reduced to an anachronism.


he reactions in South Africa to the death on October 31 at the age of 90 plus of Pieter Willem (PW) Botha, the fifth and penultimate of the six leaders of the regime of institutionalised apartheid (the 40 lost years as denoted by an historian), starkly highlight the enormous gap between official and popular responses to that event.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, PW, as he was generally known, was a horror, a forefinger-wagging bully and an unholy terror even to his followers. Like his predecessors, he too presided over a most oppressive white minority regime that by definition excluded the majority of the people of South Africa from any kind of political participation. He remained ‘Leader’ (all political parties operating during apartheid had Leaders with a capital L, rather along the lines of the ‘Fuhrerprinzip’) for 11 years (1978-89), six years as prime minister and for the last five yeas (1984-89) as executive president, an office far more powerful than that of the prime minister, under the 1984 constitution. He had the second longest stint of power under institutionalised apartheid, after his immediate predecessor John Balthazar Vorster who was prime minister for 12 years (1966-78) and was ceremonial president for one year (1978-79) when he was kicked upstairs by his successor in one of the typical internal factional fights of the National Party.

South African political literature uses the Afrikaans expression, ‘kragdagid’, meaning “driven by might” but best interpreted as “iron-fisted”, to characterise the PW regime. These 11 years were marked by an intensification of all the repressive features of the earlier regimes, even while the regime seemed to make some concessions towards power-sharing with the majority. Thus came into being the infamous tricameral parliament

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006 (1984-94) that accommodated Coloured and Indian stooges of the apartheid regime in farcical parliamentary structures, along with the existing all-white parliament that had a monopoly of power, even while excluding the majority of blacks (Africans) from any kind of political participation.

The Botha years were also the years of “total strategy”, incorporating the so-called reforms with an iron-fisted approach to any kind of dissent even from within the apartheid establishment, supposedly in response to the “total onslaught”, an idea advanced by a 1977 defence white paper prepared during the Vorster regime, in the wake of the Soweto uprisings. The regime, according to this total misreading of the ground situation that failed to take into account the increasing militancy of the youth, was facing a “total onslaught” from the ANC and its allies, in particular the South African Communist Party, financed by Moscow gold. This had to be countered with an equally comprehensive “total strategy”. Despite the split in the international communist movement in the 1960s which came into sharp focus in the struggles in southern and central Africa, in particular in the internal and international dynamics of the liberation movements in the erstwhile Belgian Congo and Portuguese Africa, these ridiculous lies went down well in those years of cold war, especially with its western wellwishers who were committed to the strategic perception of apartheid South Africa as a powerful bulwark against international communism making inroads into southern Africa.

With this kind of ideological support, the regime literally got away with mayhem and murder. Apart from two proclamations of states of emergency (July 1985 and June 1986) and the accompanying repression inside the country, the PW years were also marked by repeated acts of aggression against all the neighbouring countries, even those that were not actively extending support to the liberation movement but were only accommodating the exiles and the refugees. The most notorious of such attacks, not so much for their ferocity but for their international ramifications, were the simultaneous raids on the capitals of three neighbouring commonwealth countries, Gaborone, Harare and Lusaka on May 19, 1986. These raids coincided with the visit of the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG), a Commonwealth initiative, to Lusaka for discussions with the ANC leadership in exile, while the EPG was on its way back to South Africa.

While political repression was a central feature of every apartheid regime, the Vorster and Botha regimes did away with many of the formal and limited legal provisions against arbitrary exercise of power under various security legislations. Thus, the coining of a new word, “securocrat”, to characterise the regime. No wonder, the largest number of cases of human rights violation that were reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) occurred during these two regimes. No wonder, too, that Botha refused to appear before the TRC, loftily turning down the most importunate appeals of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spurning them even when Tutu visited him at his home in Wilderness near George in Western Cape with a request that he appear before the TRC, relishing the farce of such a circus to the huge delight of the cynical media.

Responses: Official and Popular

The man died at the ripe age of 90 years. There was nothing about his life, or about his death, to require any mourning except by members of his immediate family. He and his kind never reconciled themselves to the end of apartheid, to the induction of a democratic dispensation. When, in a gesture that deeply offended the victims of his regime, meaning the majority of the citizens of South Africa, the government of South Africa proposed to accord to the dead tyrant a state funeral, the family spurned the offer. Nevertheless, President Thabo Mbeki, accompanied by his wife, attended the memorial service, the two standing out prominently among a sea of white faces.

These gestures are sought to be defended on two grounds. One, the bureaucratic one based on so-called precedence and protocol, that as a former president, PW was entitled to a state funeral, can easily be dispensed with. The government of democratic South Africa is a successor government only to the extent of the continuity of institutions, though these necessarily have had to be radically modified. Even though the apartheid regime too had legal instruments and parliamentary structures, can anyone pretend that these in democratic South Africa are organically derived from and linked to the apartheid structures?

But then, an argument can be made (and indeed has been made in Thabo Mbeki’s long assessment of PW in the latest ANC newsletter, ANC Today), that even if the majority of the people would want to throw stones on Botha’s coffin or dance on his grave, sentiments openly expressed by several curious black onlookers of the funeral, PW has still to be acknowledged as one who took the first initiatives towards a negotiated settlement in South Africa. Much the same point was made by Nelson Mandela in his tribute. There are suggestions that personal factors, like his lack of rapport with F W de Klerk may have influenced Nelson Mandela to make a positive assessment of PW who took the initiative to have a secret meeting with him in Cape Town while Mandela was still very much a prisoner. The details of that meeting are now part of South African folklore. However, in the case of Mbeki, his duties and responsibilities as president of the republic seem to have outweighed the necessary political judgments he had to make as president of the ANC. Certainly, the prolixity of the 75-paragraph long essay which Thabo Mbeki perhaps felt obliged to write in demonstration of his grasp of history does stand in contrast to the terse two sentence statement issued by the ANC, commiserating with the family.

Like all apartheid leaders, P W Botha had a nickname, indeed several. The most widely used of these was ‘Die Groot Krokodil’, meaning the “great crocodile”. If the name was intended to convey the predatory beast’s power, stealth and ability to launch a surprise, sudden attack, the nickname was quite apposite. Like the crocodile, he also belonged to a species closer to the era of the dinosaurs, though still thriving in the 20th century. Howsoever fearsome, the crocodile never attacks and kills except when it is threatened, or is hungry and has to feed itself and its kind. The crocodile indeed has its space in the natural order of things. So to call PW a crocodile is perhaps an insult to the beast. There is no point in the mourning of such a creature that should never have seen the light of day, one when alive was very much an anachronism like a dinosaur in the 20th century.



Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

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