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President Botha and apartheid’s last stand

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Pieter Willem Botha was the last and most rabid of South Africa’s apartheid enforcers. A National Party hack from the age of 20, Botha worked his way up through the ranks, becoming an MP in 1948 and subsequently Minister of Defence, a position he used in 1978 to unseat Prime Minister John Vorster. Botha set about streamlining apartheid, modifying his own role from that of a British-style prime minister, answerable to parliament, to one of an executive president taking vital decisions in the secrecy of a President’s Council heavily weighted with army top brass.

Informed by the generals that apartheid couldn’t be preserved purely through force, Botha embarked on his Total Strategy, reforming peripheral aspects of apartheid while fostering a black middle class as a buffer against the ANC. He also pumped vast sums into building an enormous military machine that crossed South Africa’s borders to bully or crush neighbouring countries harbouring anti-apartheid activists. At home, security forces were free to murder, maim and torture opponents of apartheid.

Botha’s iron fist proved his undoing when, in 1985, he responded to international calls for change by hinting that he would announce significant political reforms at his party congress. In the event, out of fear of a white backlash, or just bloody-minded intransigence, he shrank away from meaningful concessions. The result was an immediate and devastating flight of capital from the country, a withdrawal of credit by Chase Manhattan Bank and intensified sanctions.

Botha blustered on through the late 1980s, while his bloated military sucked the state coffers dry. Even National Party stalwarts realized that his policies were leading to ruin, and in 1989, when he suffered a stroke, the party was quick to replace him with F.W. de Klerk, who swiftly announced reforms.

Botha lived out his unrepentant retirement near George, declining ever to apologize for the political crimes committed by his administration. Curiously, when he died in 2006, he was given an uncritical, high-profile state funeral, broadcast on national television and attended by members of the government, including then-president, Thabo Mbeki.

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