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”.
Botha is also remembered as the man who defied the country’s post-apartheid truth commission, which implicated him in human rights violations, and got away with it in court.
Born in January 1916 on a farm near the small town of Paul Roux, Botha joined the erstwhile National Party (NP), becoming the white supremacist organisation’s press officer in 1946.
In 1948, when the nationalist NP took power in the country, marking the official start of apartheid, Botha was elected to parliament from the small southern coastal town of George.
His political career reached its zenith in 1978 when then prime minister John Vorster was forced to resign after it emerged that the apartheid government had bought the loyalty of a major English-language newspaper.
Botha succeeded Vorster and quickly moved to impose a vice-like grip on power called “kragdadigheid” (Afrikaans for “brute force to achieve political goals”) and launched an all-out campaign against the black liberation movement.
This included campaigns to destabilise neighbouring countries such as Zambia, and Zimbabwe where the African National Congress (ANC) had offices and training facilities.
Botha also clamped down on anti-apartheid elements in the country and imposed emergency rule in 1985, a year which saw 824 people die in political violence.
But he also did away with the so-called “petty apartheid” laws, thereby scrapping segregation in public places and paving the way for mixed race marriages, as well as scrapping the notorious Pass Laws in 1986.
However, he staunchly defended apartheid and doggedly refused to pay heed to mounting international criticism of his regime.
In January 1989 Botha, now the country’s executive state president, suffered from health problems which eventually saw him lose a leadership battle to the country’s last white president Frederik (FW) de Klerk.
After the demise of apartheid in 1994, Botha defied a 1998 subpoena to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up to probe apartheid atrocities.
The TRC found that Botha personally ordered the bombing of Khotso House, the headquarters of the anti-apartheid South African Council of Churches, and had virtually cleared the killing of government opponents by state agents.
Botha won an appeal against the conviction for failing to heed the subpoena in 1996. “I will never ask for amnesty. Not now, not tomorrow, not after tomorrow,” he memorably said.
Following rumours of his death a few years ago, Botha—when contacted by journalists—told them in his typically acerbic fashion: “I am sorry to disappoint you.”