Wednesday, November 01, 2006

PW Botha 'defiant to the end'

Yes, sooner or later we all have to leave this world. PW Botha's passing, see article lower down, will be greeted with mixed reactions. He was the last stalwart of Apartheid, a fierce hawkish president who ruled while South African whites were caught in the grips of a border mentality - not unlike what America is experiencing at the moment. Granted modern America is a full democracy and South Africa was not - in the 1980's only whites had the vote.

Very few will feel sad about his death. However, in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation process that South Africa went through, the respect with which his death is being treated is remarkable. The ruling ANC, the erstwhile Apartheid government's biggest enemy, responded with a statement which wished Botha's family "strength and comfort in this difficult time".

Botha will mostly remembered for 'what could have been'. He is famous for an important speech he made, dubbed 'The Rubicorn Speech'. In the speech he declared that South Africa has crossed the Rubicorn, implying that the country was heading down the road of reforms for good. He drove through Soweto (South Africa's biggest 'black' township) waving at excited onlookers who waved back and ran alongside his cavalcade. The majority of whites never dared to enter a township. Those who did, mostly did so as conscripted soldiers sent in to 'enforce law and order'. A signature photograph showed only Botha's white hand visible through a partially open car window with the rest of his body hidden behind darkened (probably bullet-proof) glass. Yet, that awkward reserved gesture, on the back of his Rubicorn Speech, created huge expectations. (2008 update on a similar photograph available on the internet here).

Sadly, he didn't follow through on the foundation that was laid. It should be noted that the first contact with the then still imprisoned Nelson Mandela was made on his watch, with his approval. The challenge was huge though. South Africa was isolated and its white population felt threatened from within and without. It believed that it had the blessing of God in carrying the torch of civilization into darkest Africa. The rest of the world was viewed as simply being ignorant, as not grasping the complexities that was South Africa.

However, all the potential was there for change. The Afrikaner population (white Afrikaans speakers) has changed from a not-too-educated rural farming nation to a well-educated mostly urbanised group. The 'ship of knowledge cleaving through a sea of ignorance', the mantra of the HQ Administration Building at the University of Pretoria, was having it's effect on the Afrikaner nation. Increased 'knowledge' gained through much improved education was eroding the arguments at the foundation of Apartheid.

Segregation (separate development) was looking more and more like the pure discrimination it has always been and not the noble cause it was pitched as. The idea of human rights and liberty for all was making more and more sense. Importantly, the biggest of the religious Afrikaner's churches, the Dutch Reformed Church, issued a document in 1986 entitled "Church and Society" in which it retreated from it's previous support of Apartheid. It basically concluded that there was no basis in scripture for Apartheid and that as such the church has erred in providing religious backing for it (it's against this kind of background that intellectuals in South Africa balk at the current influence Evangelicals are having on American politics).

What was desperately needed was strong, visionary, leadership. Botha was definitely a strong leader, as bold as they came (once again the similarity with American President Bush in this respect is not comforting). Importantly in that time, as with all the Apartheid leaders, he publicly proclaimed his Christian faith. He thus met the religious requirements Afrikaners was looking for. He showed promise of vision, but alas did not follow through on this.

I was busy with my 'national military service' (compulsory for white young men at the time) as a 18 year old when Botha had a stroke. On Botha's return to office a leadership battle ensued, with FW de Klerk leading the protagonists. For a short tense time everyone in South Africa held their breath - white and black. For most it was clear that Botha was leading the country down a dead-end. I was heading home on a weekend pass from the Army when our bus stopped at a road-side 'one stop' (filling station, convenience and food store). There was no radio in the bus and I was curious as the crisis seemed to be heading to a conclusion, one way or the other. I approached a black family in their car, knocked on the driver's window, and politely asked the driver if there was any news on the Botha vs. De Klerk issue. Grinning from ear to ear the driver informed me that the 'groot krokodil' (big crocodile) has resigned and de Klerk has been sweared in as president. In a very unusual moment a young white Afrikaner (boy) in his army uniform and an adult voteless black man shared excitement of what the future may hold (neither of us probably realised just how big a change was waiting down the road...)

At the time I did not fully grasp the significance of de Klerk's leadership, most South Africans were simply relieved at Botha's departure. However, de Klerk picked up Botha's spilled opportunities and set to work making something of it. The rest, as they say, is history. He re-established contact with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, unbanned various liberation movements (including the ANC), released political prisoners (including Mandela) abolished various apartheid laws and lead the government in negotiating a largely peaceful transition to a full democracy in which all of South Africa's citizens could cast their votes.

De Klerk's visionary role is today often disputed by some commentators. They argue that he had no choice and simply acted under huge international pressure. I believe the life of PW Botha shows how flawed this argument is. Apartheid South Africa, under the leadership of hawks such as Botha, could have survived for at least another few decades. There are many examples in the international world of undemocratic strongman regimes surviving despite our much more open global world. South Africa was in desperate need of a strong leader with vision, and de Klerk was the ideal person to fulfill that role. Elaborating on Nelson Mandela's incredible contribution to achieving a democratic South Africa and then steering it down the path of reconciliation will be addressed in this column sooner or later. But de Klerk should be given his due, the pretty picture of South Africa's transition to democracy would not have existed without him - period.

For now the Groot Krokodil has taken his final bow. He has been a mixed blessing for this country. Hamba Kahle PW!

PW Botha 'defiant to the end': "Johannesburg - PW Botha, who died on Tuesday, was a finger-wagging hawk who defied the world while ruling apartheid South Africa in the turbulent and violence-wracked 1980s.

Nicknamed the 'Groot Krokodil' for his tough-talk and uncompromising stance, the feisty 90-year-old Botha continued to cock a snook at critics and remained combative to the very end.

During an interview ahead of his 90th birthday this year, Botha said South Africa would have 'gone down the drain' if it had achieved liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the same interview, he said he never regarded blacks as inferior because 'many blacks and coloureds (mixed race) cooperated with us'."

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