PW Botha was 'kragdadige' autocrat

By the early 21st century, Pieter Willem (PW) Botha’s name had become a byword for unaccountable government and the autocratic exercise of power.

Botha, who died on Tuesday night at his home Die Anker near the Wilderness in the Western Cape, aged 90, was the archetype “kragdadige” Afrikaner and a worthy successor to John Vorster, whom he replaced as prime minister in the wake of the information scandal in late 1978.

It was he who coined the phrases “total onslaught” and “total strategy” to justify the ever-greater use of force to suppress growing black resistance to whites-only rule.

He was the “imperial president”, the finger-wagging “Groot Krokodil” who petulantly clung to power when it was time to go.

Botha was only pried loose after a power struggle with FW de Klerk—which, ironically, was the way he ousted John Vorster.

A career politician, he then retired, a bitter man, to the appropriately named Wilderness, a resort town outside George along the southern Cape coast.

Botha was born on January 12 1916 on the farm Telegraaf near Paul Roux in the then Orange Free State.

He was the only son of Pieter Willem and Hendrina (born De Wet—granddaughter of an MP for Lindley in the president JH Brand era).

She was interned in a concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer South African War—where two of her children died—and he was a “bittereinder”.

PW Botha attended school at Paul Roux until his standard eight (grade 10) year, before completing his schooling at the Voortrekker Secondary School in Bethlehem in 1933.

During 1934 Botha registered at Grey University College (now the University of the Free State) in Bloemfontein to read law.
But he became involved in politics the next year and was also a part-time reporter for Die Volksblad.

In 1936 he became a party organiser for the Cape National Party in the Western Province—a task that occupied him for the next decade—along with selling books for Nasionale Pers, as it was paying his salary.

He was said to be highly efficient in both recruiting new members and disrupting the meetings of other political parties.

Botha found time for romance, wooing Anna Elizabeth (Elize) Rossouw, whom he married on March 13 1943. They had two sons and three daughters.

Between 1943 and 1945, while a world war against fascism raged, he also took an interest in the “coloured question” and served on a party special committee of inquiry into coloured affairs.

Although he had been involved with the right-wing Ossewabrandwag, he broke with it in August 1941 over policy and escaped internment. Botha then returned to the pen and as union information officer headed the party’s propaganda and publicity drive.

Good constituency man

Botha was elected MP for George in the landslide that brought the National Party (NP) to power and made DF Malan prime minister. He would hold that seat until 1984: a total of 36 years during which—as a “good constituency man”—he promoted the town’s development ceaselessly.

Promotion came in October 1958 when HF Verwoerd, the prime minister, appointed him deputy minister of the interior. Part of the job was enforcing some of the more odious apartheid laws, the Group Areas Act.

In August 1961 he was elevated to full minister with the portfolio community development and coloured affairs. In a typical example of apartheid double-speak his ministry was responsible for the destruction of District Six and the displacement of its people to the sandy and now gang-riven Cape Flats during his tenure.

He held this post for about five years, giving it up in April 1966 to become Verwoerd’s minister of defence.

Another highlight of that year was his election as the NP’s Cape leader and his appointment to the board of the Nasionale Pers—a traditional sinecure for that position. He retained the position until 1984.

Botha was in the House of Assembly on September 6 that year when parliamentary messenger Dimitri Tsafendas stabbed Verwoerd to death. He then rushed up to the Progressive Party’s lone MP, Helen Suzman, and said it was liberals like her who were to blame for the murder of the lone madman.

With international criticism of apartheid growing and with arms embargoes tightening, defence minister Botha busied himself with making South Africa self-sufficient in the defence field. He also served ex-officio on the state security council and regularly visited the operational area in northern South-West Africa (now Namibia).

Botha kept South Africans in the dark about Operation Savannah, the at-first secret South African involvement in Angola in the wake of the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule—which he had convinced the Cabinet to endorse. The country first learned about the event through the foreign media.

Soon whites-only national service would be for two years and coloureds and then blacks would don army browns to defend his rule.

Vorster ‘kicked upstairs’

In 1978, as the scandal over the state funding of the Citizen newspaper rocked the government, Vorster came under increasing pressure to resign.

He was eventually “kicked upstairs” to the figure-head post of state president, clearing the way for Botha to become prime minister, which he did on September 28, after defeating challenges by Connie Mulder and Pik Botha.

Botha retained the post of defence minister until October 1980. He also became the NP’s chief leader and would remain so until 1989.

Botha would remain prime minister for six years, during which time he tinkered with apartheid, bringing in a new “constitutional dispensation” that would elevate him to executive state president and enfranchise coloureds as well as Indians in their own, separate and unequal parliaments.

Blacks would remain foreigners on their own land—all still being considered citizens of bantustans many had never even seen.

Even this was too much for some ardent NP members and the party’s right wing, under Transvaal leader Andries Treurnicht, broke away to form the Conservative Party, which opposed Botha’s 1983 all-white referendum to okay the new deal.

Botha duly became state president in September 1984 but the elections to fill the racial parliaments—which many in the coloured and Indian communities did not want—triggered a new wave of violent resistance to continued white control and saw the rise of the United Democratic Front.

Total onslaught

The “total onslaught” years were upon the country, which became increasingly militarised as the state security council, which Botha now controlled, implemented its answer to what was advertised as an all-out godless, communist attack on the last bastion of Western values in Africa. This was known as the “total strategy”.

Violence begot violence and South Africa’s townships would burn for the rest of his tenure.

But his attempts at making apartheid more humane were not over. His government introduced a common identity document in 1986, abolishing the hated “dompas” or pass book every black person previously had to carry at all times. It also lifted a ban on mixed-race marriages.

But the tricameral system and his other “reforms” to preserve white supremacy had done little to stifle black demands for democratic representation in the government—the dismantling of “petty” apartheid was not permitted to affect materially issues such as separate group areas, a common voters’ roll or his bantustan policy.

The country’s financial position had also deteriorated, the inflation rate was crippling the economy and unemployment had assumed massive proportions, further stimulating township discontent, which emergency powers, repeatedly invoked in the late 1980s to crush political dissent, could barely control.

Botha suffered an irascible temper, which he vented regularly during his career on his political opponents and on the press, most notoriously when he failed to cross the Rubicon during a speech in Durban in August 1985.

Business, the press and diplomats were rudely disillusioned that the much-heralded speech would augur in further reforms.

Instead he publicly turned his back on change and, with a wagging finger, berated the world, telling them not to “push us too far” and to do their worst. His challenge was accepted: business confidence plummeted, disinvestment became epidemic and unrest worsened as organised resistance to state repression grew.

Botha suffered a light stroke on January 18 1989 and was hospitalised for a few days. He was unable to attend the opening of Parliament that year, and was soon embroiled in a fight for his job.

He was succeeded as leader of the NP by De Klerk, then national education minister and Transvaal leader, who fought off a determined challenge by Botha’s favourite, finance minister Barend du Plessis.

Botha continued to cling to the presidency, but the tension between him and De Klerk came to a head with a public dispute over whether minister of foreign affairs Pik Botha had advised the president of a proposed visit to Zambia by De Klerk.

Botha’s insolvent estate

At a caucus meeting on August 14 1989, Botha was asked to resign, and De Klerk became acting state president the next day.

Soon he was just an unpleasant memory for most South Africans while the new reformer got on with liquidating—as De Klerk himself once put it—the insolvent estate Botha left behind.

Under Botha’s rule up to 20 000 blacks were killed or imprisoned, the security forces fomented black-on-black violence by supplying arms to rival factions, blew up church property where radicals met and bombed countries that harboured the African National Congress (ANC).

After leaving power, Botha lived on in obscurity in De Anker (The Anchor), his Wilderness home—an unassuming lagoon-front home set back among the trees along the bank of the Touws River.

The coming of democracy, in 1994, did briefly give him trouble, in the shape of Archbishop Desmond Tutu—and old foe—and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a new one.

Botha took a dim view of its search for truth and reconciliation, famously calling it a “circus”.

Other than providing written answers to questions, Botha shunned the commission, refusing to appear before it to the point of rather preferring the dock in the George Magistrate’s Court.

He was convicted in 1998, at age 82, of holding the commission in contempt and was fined, but successfully appealed both the conviction and sentence in the Cape High Court.

A tribute came from an unexpected quarter in late 1999, when then recently retired president Nelson Mandela told a South African Broadcasting Corporation television programme that Botha as well as De Klerk had played a “critical role” in the peaceful transition of South Africa to non-racial democracy.

More common was the use of his name as a barb to sting the new government. In May 2000 Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the leader of the New National Party, criticised a speech by President Thabo Mbeki by comparing it to the “Rubicon” speech.

A month later the Democratic Party said an ANC government plan sounded like one of Botha’s, and in July that same year, the Congress of South African Trade Unions invoked Botha’s name as a rallying cry in opposing changes to pro-worker labour legislation.

His nickname, the “Groot Krokodil”, once whispered in fear, had became a standing joke—exploited to the full by cartoonists and comedians.

After Elize Botha died, he was again briefly in the news while dating a Graaff-Reinet socialite. The relationship was short but soon after he did remarry and spent his last years with his British-born wife, Barbara Robertson.

His hobbies included reading and—when younger—horse-riding, small game hunting and walking.

He died “peacefully” at his home, a member of his security staff said on Tuesday night.—Sapa

Client Media Releases

Snupit makes tech improvements in 2019
Postdoctoral researcher inspires sanitary towel project
Different routes for tackling matric through distance learning
IIE Distance/Online learning at Rosebank College