South Africans surprised by farewells for Botha

Johannesburg, South Africa — Johannesburg, South Africa -- When former President P.W. Botha died Tuesday at age 90, many South Africans expected the current black-led government to do, well, nothing.

After all, the finger-wagging Botha was a hated figure who fiercely defended the apartheid system of white rule through the tumultuous 1980s, a time when over 30,000 people were detained and scores killed by security forces, their bodies sometimes blown up to hide the crime.


Yes, he scrapped some apartheid laws, including a ban on interracial sex and marriage, but many critics say he was hell-bent on keeping power in the hands of the white minority as long as possible. And in 1997, as the country went through the wrenching coming-to-terms with apartheid that was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Botha thumbed his nose at it. He called it a "circus" and refused to testify.

Yet after his death last week, the government of President Thabo Mbeki did plenty: It ordered flags across the country flown at half-staff and set out public condolence books at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and offered Botha's family a state funeral (his widow declined). Mbeki and former President Nelson Mandela issued conciliatory statements.


While the government says the gestures were driven by a desire for reconciliation, they have disappointed the country's leading trade union group and the Pan Africanist Congress, a small party that was once a rival of Mbeki's ruling party, the African National Congress. Others are more puzzled than anything.

"I find it extraordinarily magnanimous of them to do that, and I'm not quite sure why they did," said Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a white former Progressive Party leader who clashed often with Botha. "My argument is it was done to placate any polarization between white and black."

Race remains a potent force a dozen years after apartheid. The white minority accounts for about 10 percent of the country's 47 million people, and a vocal segment complains that the ANC is forcing whites to emigrate with punitive affirmative-action policies and ineffective crime-fighting strategies.

But a presidential spokesman rejected van Zyl Slabbert's suggestion that the government was trying to placate whites. "That implies it's a cynical political tactic," said Mukoni Ratshitanga. "It's about something bigger. It's about saying, look, we're all of this country, we're born of this country, we share a destiny together."

He added: "Right from the beginning of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, the tradition of the ANC has been one that we want a united, nonracial, nonsexist South Africa."

On a more mundane note, he said government policy states that all former presidents are entitled to a state funeral.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, part of an often strained alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, had a different perspective on the government's response.

"It's very hard to understand," said spokesman Patrick Craven. "Presumably it's for reasons of protocol. We believe these are far outweighed by an assessment of the role which he played, which means he deserves no kind of public recognition."


Craven said, "We're in favor of attempting to reconcile people, but never at the expense of distorting and falsifying history. That's the big danger - this is giving him a role in history which he did not play."

The PAC's leader, Motsoko Pheko, went further. He issued a statement calling the state funeral offer "naked appeasement to the forces of apartheid. It is bordering on docility and is an insult to the intelligence of the African people."

Contrast that with a statement issued by Mandela, who was released from prison after 27 years by Botha's successor, F.W. de Klerk: "While to many, Mr. Botha will remain a symbol of apartheid, we also remember him for the steps he took to pave the way toward the eventual peacefully negotiated settlement in our country."

Or with what Mbeki said: "It stands to his credit that when he realized the futility of fighting against what was right and inevitable, he, in his own way, realized that South Africans had no alternative but to reach out to one another."

It is expected that when Botha's funeral takes place Wednesday, Mbeki will be there.