Once bent on destruction, Afrikaner now strives to rebuild South Africa


PRETORIA, South Africa -- Three years ago, Koos Botha was figuring out how to plant bombs against black progress in the old South Africa. Now, he's figuring out how to build houses in the new one.

The story of the transformation of this one-time right-wing radical seems to sum up the struggle for the soul of the Afrikaner, the white settlers of this land who are so full of contradictions.

They fought a courageous war at the end of the 19th century against the oppression of the British and then proceeded in this century to unleash their own oppression against black South Africans. To this day, the most virulently racist of the Afrikaners can be admirable in almost all other respects -- friendly, honest, trustworthy, loyal.

Mr. Botha, 47, has watched that struggle take place within himself. Though not all of his friends would agree, the side of the angels seems to have won.

In 1991, Mr. Botha and a friend placed a bomb in a Pretoria school that had been designated for children of members of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress who were returning from exile. He went on to bomb two post offices.

Eventually, he was caught and confessed. He has yet to be tried, pending his motion for the type of amnesty that has been given to many others whose crimes were political in nature.

As South Africa's first nonracial election approached in April, he began to view his country in a different light.

Today, with two black business partners, he is trying to turn squatter camps of shacks into tracts of decent, affordable housing.

"If I can change, anybody can change" Mr. Botha said. "Many of my right-wing friends are sitting around waiting for the new South Africa to fail. But if the new South Africa does fail, I don't want it to be because of me, but despite my efforts."

There was no sudden flash of inspiration that led Mr. Botha to his new views. It was a gradual process that began Feb. 2, 1990, as he sat on the back benches of Parliament and heard then-President F. W. de Klerk announce that Mr. Mandela would be freed and the ban on the ANC lifted.

"I said to myself that South Africa was going to change radically. There was no way the Afrikaner could ever govern the country the way we had," he said.

Mr. Botha was in Parliament as a member of the Conservative Party, the right-wingers who opposed the reforms proposed by Mr. de Klerk and the National Party. But gradually, he grew disillusioned with Conservative Party colleagues who refused to accept change.

"We were told that the Afrikaner had a God-given right to govern this country," he said. "That's the way they were raised, taught that the Lord had put us here to bring Christianity to the black people, but that we were not to mix with them, biologically or in any other way."

Turning to explosives

With the Conservative Party refusing to take part in the negotiations that led to the election, Mr. Botha felt that no one was presenting the Afrikaner's case. In what he now describes as something close to a 2-year-old's temper tantrum, he turned to explosives.

"When they announced that this school was going to be used for the ANC's children, the Conservative Party said that the ANC was not going to get it," he said.

"I knew they were just talking, so I called up a friend of mine who knew something about explosives."

After observing the school for two weeks to be sure it was deserted at night, he and the friend planted their bomb. "Now, at last, I thought we had achieved something," Mr. Botha said.

A few months later, his small group bombed the two post offices. No one was killed in the explosions.

Even as he was becoming a saboteur, Mr. Botha was begging the Conservative Party leadership to take part in the negotiations. When he stood up in Parliament and made that proposal, he was kicked out of the party.

"I really kicked myself out of the party," he said. "Now I thank the Lord for it."

In retreat from politics, Mr. Botha was approached by friends north of Pretoria who wanted him to help remove some black squatters from white farmland.

"They knew about my violent background," he said.

But as he got involved in the discussions between blacks and whites, he saw there was another way. Instead of forcing out the squatters, he arranged for the local government to buy the land for low-cost housing that the squatters might be able to afford. And he put leaders of their well-organized communities in touch with developers.

He also formed a company with a black businessman, Walter Dube, and with Mathabatha Sexwale, brother of Tokyo Sexwale, the premier of the province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg.

"It used to be that it was good to be in business with a Botha in South Africa," Mr. Botha said. "Nowadays, it's good to be in business with a Sexwale."

On a bush-covered hillside north of Pretoria is Boikhutsong -- Sotho for "place of rest" -- a squatter camp of about 5,000 people living in 1,200 shacks.

Most of the squatters there fled crowding in the homeland areas of Bophuthatswana, just to the north. Among the people to move was the squatters' leader, Philip Khumalo.

"I was living with my wife in the dining room of my parents house," said Mr. Khumalo. "The television was in there, so people would be up watching until 1 in the morning, then others would be up to eat breakfast in the room early in the morning. It was no way to live."

As the elections approached and Bophuthatswana fell apart, Mr. Khumalo and thousands of others headed for the vacant farmland. The house he eventually built was made with the wood from shipping crates that brought parts to a nearby Nissan plant.

Before Mr. Botha started working here, he sat down with a leadership committee and told them of his right-wing past. Both his honesty and his deeds impressed the squatters.

'Son of South Africa'

"He is a good man," Mr. Khumalo said. "He is a son of South Africa."

"He is a changed man. In those days there were people on both sides who lost control. Now, there is no time to fight anymore. What we need at the moment is unity."

Mr. Botha's plans for the community call for everyone to get a basic two-bedroom house with indoor plumbing and that will cost just over $5,000, a price kept low by having the community doing some of the work at low wages. Mr. Botha gets $85 for each house completed.

Government housing subsidies will pay two-thirds of the costs. But in a community with 60 percent unemployment, finding that other one-third is difficult, especially since banks are reluctant to lend to such people, no matter what their background.

"The problem with the bankers is that they all sit in their 10-story buildings," Mr. Botha said. "They never get out here with the people. They are just interested in making big profits. What they have to realize is that we all have to give up big profits for a while so that we can lay a solid foundation for prosperity in the new South Africa."

A few years ago, Mr. Botha said, he would have driven past a squatter camp like this one and not even noticed it. "They lived in a different country," he said.

"I'm glad I've changed. For the first time in my life, I'm free."

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