2 November 2006
PW Botha, South Africa’s last true white-minority president and ruler of an increasingly repressive and violent state in the final years of apartheid, died at his home near the town of George on Tuesday night. He was 90 years old.
Botha was prime minister and later state president of South Africa from 1978 to 1989. Known as the Groot Krokodil, the big crocodile, he was a finger-wagging autocrat who coined the phrases “total onslaught” and “total strategy” to rationalise the increasingly brutal use of force to suppress popular resistance to white rule.
With the country going through successive States of Emergency and plunging ever-deeper into chaos and bloodshed under his rule, pressure from all sides mounted for Botha to resign. In 1989, he was forced from office by his own National Party.
The following year his successor, FW de Klerk, unbanned the ANC and other resistance parties, released political prisoners – including future President Nelson Mandela – and set South Africa on the road to democracy and peace.
Botha retired, a bitter man, to the Wilderness, a resort town outside George along the southern Cape coast.
A life of Afrikaner nationalism
Pieter Willem Botha was born on January 12 1916 on the farm Telegraaf near Paul Roux in what was then the Orange Free State. His family’s experiences during the Anglo-Boer War over a decade before his birth primed him for fervent Afrikaner nationalism. His mother Hendrina was imprisoned in a British concentration camp, where two of her children died, and his father Pieter Willem was a bittereinder – one of the Boer guerrillas who continued to resist the British after the end of the war.
He became involved in politics in 1934 while at Grey University College. In 1936 he became a party organiser for the Cape National Party, a position he would keep for the next 10 years. He was said to be highly efficient in both recruiting new members and disrupting the meetings of other political parties.
During the Second World War he became involved with the Ossewabrandwag, an Afrikaner movement that sided with Nazi Germany, although in August 1941 he broke with the movement over policy and escaped imprisonment.
Botha was elected minister of parliament for George in the 1948 landslide that brought the National Party to power – power it would hold onto for the next 56 years.
In1958 Botha was appointed deputy minister of the interior by HF Verwoerd, the then prime minister and the man known as the architect of apartheid. His new job included enforcing the Group Areas Act, one of the cruellest pieces of apartheid legislation.
He was promoted to full minister in 1961, with the portfolio community development and coloured affairs. His ministry was responsible for the destruction of the coloured community of District Six, in Cape Town.
In 1966 Botha, who held the rank of colonel and had a strong affinity with the army, was appointed minister of defence. On 6 September 6 that year he was in the House of Assembly when a demented parliamentary messenger, Dimitri Tsafendas, stabbed Verwoerd to death. He is said to have rushed up to the Progressive Party’s sole parliamentary representative, Helen Suzman, and said it was liberals like her who were to blame.
In 1978 Botha succeeded BJ Vorster as prime minister, after the power struggle that followed the Information Scandal. In the early 1980s he introduced some cosmetic reforms to the apartheid system. These included toothless parliamentary representation for Indian and coloured South Africans in separate chambers of government – the tricameral system. But the real change was to concentrate power in his hands, elevating him to the new position of executive state president.
He suffered a light stroke on 18 January 1989 and was hospitalised for a few days. At a caucus meeting on 14 August 1989, Botha was asked to resign, and FW de Klerk became acting state president the next day.
The ANC, once Botha’s most fervent enemy, expressed their condolences for his death.
“We extend our sincere condolences to Mr Botha’s family,” ANC provincial secretary Mcebisi Skwatsha said. “We disagreed sharply with his policies, but we recognise him as a fellow South African. May his soul rest in peace.”
On Tuesday South African President Thabo Mbeki announced that flags at all state institutions would fly at half mast until Botha’s funeral.
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