The Groot Krokodil will bite no more

Joseph Gregory

Joseph Gregory

PW Botha, who died on Tuesday at the age of 90 at his home in George, struggled vainly to preserve apartheid rule in a tide of domestic racial violence and global condemnation.

Botha was a son of a well-to-do Afrikaner farm family who dropped out of university to work for the right-wing National Party. He gained a reputation as the "Great Crocodile" for his ability to charm, outwit and crush his opponents.

In 1978 Botha became prime minister and proceeded to engineer the creation of a new constitution: one that limited reform of apartheid policies and paved the way for him to become president in 1984.

Though the constitution allowed Asians and coloureds to be represented in a white-controlled parliament, it continued to exclude the black majority.

Some apartheid laws, like a prohibition on mixed marriages and a requirement that blacks carry special passes, were relaxed. But the measures only fuelled the anger of apartheid's opponents.

Holding out the promise that apartheid would eventually be dismantled, he opened negotiations with Nelson Mandela. The talks went nowhere and Mandela remained confined.

At the same time, Botha, who first achieved prominence as minister of defence, gave the police and military unprecedented power.

His government repressed dissent, encouraged rivalries among different tribes and ethnic groups, and tried to destabilise neighbouring countries opposed to the system of white rule.

As opposition to apartheid spread, Botha's room for manoeuvre shrank.

"He was caught in a bind between wanting to show the international community that he was not inflexible, and not wishing to appear weak within his own country," the journalist Allister Sparks wrote in his book Tomorrow Is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa's Road to Change.

In 1985, Botha was supposed to announce a giant step away from apartheid but his proposals, which offered blacks the vote under a legislative system that gave them no real power, disillusioned South Africa's few remaining friends in the world.

Botha was re-elected in 1987. Two years later, as opposition to his intransigent style grew within his own party, he suffered a stroke and resigned.

He was succeeded by FW de Klerk, who legalised opposition parties, freed Mandela and other political prisoners, and made the agreements that eventually brought apartheid down.

Pieter Willem Botha was born on January 12 1916 in the Orange Free State.

Raised in the traditions of the Bible and the gun, Botha learned to ride and shoot and to embrace the embattled self-image of the Afrikaner.

"I grew up on a farm where I came to know black people very well," Botha told Joseph Lelyveld in an interview for his book Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White.

"I played with them, I worked with them. I was taught by my father to be strict with them, but just."

In 1943 Botha married Anna Elizabeth (Elize) Rossouw, who died in 1977. They had five children. He married Barbara Robertson in 1998.

In the 1948 general election, Botha won a seat in parliament.

His rise through the government ranks coincided with the country's deepening isolation.

In 1974, the UN took away South Africa's seat in the General Assembly. Three years later, debate over trade sanctions reached a fever pitch.

But the disciples of apartheid hung tough. As defence minister, Botha increased military spending, conducted a clandestine weapons trade and pushed for the development of nuclear weapons.

In the early 1980s, his government launched military strikes on insurgent groups in neighbouring countries and carried out a programme of assassinating anti-apartheid activists.

In 1985, the government announced an indefinite state of emergency. In 1986, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the UN and urged further sanctions.

Botha grew defiant. But even within the Botha government, pressure was growing for negotiations with the ANC. Clandestine overtures were made to Mandela, who had been in prison since 1963.

In March 1989, Mandela offered to negotiate a political settlement. Botha, who had had a stroke that January, met Mandela on July 5 1989. The encounter turned out to be little more than a courtesy call.

Botha's days in office were numbered. Increasingly ill-tempered and authoritarian, he remained reluctant to move on with reform.

In February 1989 he renounced his position as NP leader while keeping the presidency. That August, at a cabinet meeting, his successor as party leader, FWdeKlerk, suggested that he step down. That night, in an angry, rambling broadcast, he resigned.

Under De Klerk, apartheid unraveled. In 1990, Mandela was freed and the ANC was unbanned. In April 1994, the first multiracial election was held and Mandela became president.

Apartheid was finished. Its brutality was exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Botha derided the commission as a witch hunt.

After failing to attend a hearing in Cape Town on December 19 1997, he was found guilty of contempt of court, fined and sentenced to a suspended 12-month prison term. The conviction was overturned on appeal. - New York Times