Botha, P. W.

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Botha, P. W.

Born Pieter Willem Botha, January 12, 1916, in Orange Free State, South Africa; died October 31, 2006, in George, Western Cape Province, South Africa. Politician. P. W. Botha led South Africa during its final, horrific years as the last white-ruled nation on the African continent. The onetime Minister of Defense became prime minister in 1978 and president six years later, and spent the 1980s at the head of a white minority regime that was desperate to maintain political control over the remaining 85 percent of the population. Botha was famously known as the “Groot Krokodil (Great Crocodile)” for his te-nacity and determination in maintaining the country’s system of apartheid.

Born Pieter Willem Botha in 1916 into a farm family of Afrikaner heritage, the future president and prime minister grew up in Orange Free State, an independent territory established as a separate land for Afrikaners, as white South Africans of Dutch descent became known. As a young man, he studied law at Grey University College, which later became the University of the Orange Free State, but left in 1935 without a degree to work for the National Party (NP), the leading political voice of the Afrikaners, and for a time was even a member of the Ossewabrandwag, or “Ox Wagon Fire Guard,” a right-wing Afrikaner paramilitary outfit with ideological ties to Germany’s Nazi Party. He rose to the post of secretary of the party’s National Youth League in the 1940s, and was elected to South Africa’s parliament in 1948 as part of a wave of NP electoral victories that year. He represented the district of George in Cape Province.

With a majority in parliament, Botha and other NP legislators began enacting stringent laws that separated South Africa’s indigenous black population from the mixed English, German, and Dutch who had been settling in the fertile, gold and diamond-rich land over the past three centuries. These statutes, collectively termed apartheid, denied blacks any political role and relegated them to substan-dard status that even denied them most basic citizenship rights. Employment, housing, and education were all segregated, and interracial marriage was outlawed.

Resistance to apartheid remained strong, however, and the ruling National Party countered this with increasingly hostile strategies. It was in this climate that Botha rose to prominence in government, becoming Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs in 1958 and Minister of Community Development and Colored Affairs three years later. From 1966 to 1978 he served as the country’s defense minister, and in this capacity oversaw the government’s increasing stringent controls over South African society that were carried out with the intention of suppressing dissenting views of apartheid. In foreign policy, this also included the country’s attempts to foment unrest or suppress legitimate political movements in neighboring, black-controlled states like Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. He rose to the post of prime minister in 1978 after a party scandal, but the NP was now dangerously divided, and Botha adopted a more liberal tone in order to heal the rift. This included his support for constitutional reform that permitted South Africa’s Coloreds—as its mixed-race residents were called—and Asian some political representation.

Under a new system, Botha became state president as well as prime minister in 1984, but internal violence against NP rule increased that decade, and Botha’s government fought back viciously. A state of emergency went into effect, and thousands of blacks—along with white South Africans who called for the end of apartheid—were detained; an estimated 4,000 died as a result of the embattled government’s attempt to maintain control over a black majority. Only the threat of economic ruin, thanks in part to international sanctions against the South African government, resulted in a change in strategy and a decision to open negotiations with the long-jailed leaders of the African National Congress (ANC).

In the midst of this shifting climate, Botha suffered a stroke in January of 1989 that his family claimed was a result of poisoning by political foes in the Cabinet. He resigned as prime minister, but kept the title of state president despite widespread criticism from within his party, but was eventually pushed out altogether in September of 1989. He was succeeded by F. W. de Klerk in both roles, who freed Nelson Mandela and other ANC figures in early 1990. Botha himself had even met with Mandela— the world’s most famous political prisoner—in mid1989, but the visit was more symbolic than productive. Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994 in the country’s first free and fair elections.

Botha retired to a home called Wilderness, near his former constituency of George in what had become the Western Cape Province, and he died there at the age of 90 on October 31, 2006. His first wife, Anna “Elise” Rossouw Botha, died in 1997, and he is survived by second wife Barbara Robertson, whom he wed in 1998, as well as sons Rossouw and Pieter Willem and daughters Elanza,Amelia, and Rozanne. Unlike many prominent figures of the apartheid era, Botha never appeared before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the post-apartheid body charged with hearing testimonies concerning abuses and setting restitution amounts, though he was summoned to testify. When he failed to appear he was charged with contempt and given a suspended one-year prison sentence, but even this was overturned on appeal. “I have nothing to apologize for,” Botha claimed at the time, according to his Chicago Tribune obituary. “I will never ask for amnesty. Not now, not tomorrow, not after tomorrow.” Sources: Chicago Tribune, November 1, 2006, sec. 2, p. 11; Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2006, p. B10; New York Times, November 1, 2006, p. C20; Times (London), November 2, 2006, p. 70.

—Carol Brennan