PW: A 'reformer without results'

Though he had an overbearing leadership style, former South African prime minister and president PW Botha—who died on Tuesday night at his home in the Wilderness, Western Cape—was a strong leader and an effective organiser, his successor, FW de Klerk, said on Wednesday.

President Thabo Mbeki said it stood to Botha’s credit that when he realised the futility of fighting against what was right and inevitable, “he realised that South Africa had no alternative but to reach out to one another”.

Mbeki said: “Mr Botha took over the reigns of government at a difficult time in the history of our country.”

Botha served as prime minister and then state president from 1978 to 1989.

Mbeki continued: “On behalf of the government and people of South Africa, we express our heartfelt condolences to his wife and the rest of the family, who have lost a husband, father and grandfather. In this hour of need, our thoughts and prayers go to his family.
May his soul rest in peace.”


Official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Tony Leon also extended his party’s condolences.

Leon said in a statement: “Mr Botha’s legacy will be remembered for years to come. On the one hand, he presided over a South Africa which was increasingly fractured and engulfed by an incipient civil war. He placed great reliance on the state security apparatus to suppress unrest.

“On the other hand, it was under Mr Botha that the National Party started to turn its back on Verwoerdian apartheid. Indeed, it was under his presidency that the Immorality Act, the Mixed Marriages Act and the pass laws were scrapped and the white Parliament was abolished to be replaced by a tricameral model.

“In anticipation of this system, flawed though it might have been, Mr Botha forced the far right wing out of the National Party in order to free his hand for further reforms. This was a move not without risk or calculation.

“In many ways Mr Botha was described as a reformer without results. His ‘adapt or die’ clarion call to his own party started a fundamental process which, over time, proved to be irreversible. Unfortunately, he was not able to see the very process he had started to through to its logical and necessary conclusion.”

Former president Nelson Mandela also paid tribute Botha in a statement on Wednesday.

“While to many Mr Botha will remain a symbol of apartheid, we also remember him for the steps he took to pave the way towards the eventual peacefully negotiated settlement in our country,” Mandela said.

The death of Botha should serve as a reminder of the country’s “horribly divided past”, he said. However, it should also serve to remind South Africans of how citizens of all persuasions ultimately came together to save the country from destruction.

Mandela’s correspondence with Botha while in prison was an important part of the initial stages of South Africa’s reconciliation process, as was his agreement to a personal meeting in Tuynhuys in July 1989, he said.

‘I disliked him very much’

Former parliamentarian Helen Suzman also offered her condolences to the family of Botha, the man who once accused her of being responsible for the slaying of prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd.

“I would not say that it was an amiable relationship at all,” Suzman said from her Johannesburg home. “I was never on good personal terms with PW in Parliament, as was ... the case with some other Nat MPs, and this was really because he was a bad-tempered, irate debater and a bully, and often very personal in his attacks.

“He actually accused me in Parliament immediately after Dr Verwoerd was assassinated [in 1966] of having been responsible for it, together with, as he put it, ‘the other liberals’.

“I complained to speaker Klopper about this, and Klopper called him in and made him apologise, which he did very ungracefully. I disliked him personally very much. He was so bad-tempered and discourteous, to me anyway. Notwithstanding, I do send condolences to his family.”

She said that towards the end of his term in office, in the face of the rising tide of black resistance and world opposition to apartheid, Botha did allow certain important changes in the political landscape, and held secret meetings with the jailed Mandela. “He recognised the need for change, obviously, by these actions,” she said. “But of course he never crossed the Rubicon.”

Need for reform

Former president De Klerk extended his condolences to Botha’s family and friends. “I have learned with sorrow of the death last night [Tuesday] of former president PW Botha and would like to convey my most sincere condolences to his family and friends,” De Klerk said in a statement.

“PW Botha was also keenly aware of the need for reform in South Africa. He allowed free trade-union activity and presided over the repeal of almost 100 discriminatory laws, including pass laws, the Immorality Act and the Mixed Marriages Act,” said De Klerk.

“He made provision for Indian and coloured participation in government through the introduction of the tricameral Constitution in 1983 and he searched unsuccessfully for ways of involving black South Africans in government.”

However, it was under Botha’s leadership that the government first made contact with Nelson Mandela and ANC leaders in exile, said De Klerk.

He said the National Party, in 1986, under Botha’s guidance, finally abandoned its policy of separate development.

“I should like to honour PW Botha for the enormous contribution that he made to prepare the way to the new South Africa. Personally, my relationship with PW Botha was often strained. I did not like his overbearing leadership style,” said De Klerk.

‘Hard nut to crack’

United Democratic Movement leader General Bantu Holomisa passed his party’s condolences on to Botha’s family and friends. “We will remember PW Botha’s style of leadership ... He was known to be a hard nut to crack,” he told the Mail & Guardian Online.

“PW Botha in the military circles will be remembered especially in the police and the army ... under his rule the police certainly had the upper hand over crime. He will be remembered as the person who authorised money to security forces to maintain law enforcement.”

Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, former MP and leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, said of Botha: “We never had a friendly relationship. He always regarded me as a traitor to the Afrikaans movement. But looking at him dispassionately, circumstances forced him to be a reformer.

“He was extremely authoritative, militant and not very well read; he relied heavily on the people around him. He started the process of dialogue with the ANC, but this was behind the scenes and very hush-hush.”

Botha played an indisputable, yet controversial, role in the transition to democracy in South Africa, Inkatha Freedom Party leader (IFP) Mangosuthu Buthelezi said.

“When the history of South Africa is written impartially, it will record that Mr Botha paved the way for Mr FW de Klerk’s sweeping reforms and that he was the one who took the gap by meeting with Mr Nelson Mandela,” said Buthelezi.

He said he had not spoken to Botha for many years because of their different views on how to resolve apartheid and oppression and because of the issue of the independence of KwaZulu-Natal. “But, Botha was a man of greater courage than many have given him credit for and he had a wry sense of humour.”

On behalf of the IFP, Buthelezi extended condolences to Botha’s family and friends.

‘He was just so well’

Botha’s wife, Barbara, found him dead in bed just after 8pm. He was 90 years old.

She said from the couple’s Wilderness home on Wednesday morning that the funeral service was provisionally planned for November 8, thought this still had to be confirmed with the minister.

The ceremony was being delayed to allow for people who had to travel from overseas.

She said her husband had not wanted a state funeral. Mrs Botha said Botha’s death was completely unexpected.

“He was just so well,” she said. “He just said to me, he’s a little bit weary. We went off to the bedroom to have an early night. He took my arm and he just sank slowly to the ground, and drew his last breath ... What grace that he was spared any suffering.”

Mrs Botha said it felt for her as if a huge chunk had been “bitten out of South Africa” with her husband’s death.

His critics would probably realise one day what the country had had in him. “He was a very misunderstood man,” she said. “I’m very blessed to have been part of his life for more than eight years. It was a privilege that God used me to look after him and be part of his life.”

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