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S. African Apartheid Strongman P.W. Botha Dies

Former South African president, P.W. Botha, has died at his home in Wilderness on the country's southern coast. He was 90. VOA's Delia Robertson has this profile on the man who introduced some reforms in apartheid South Africa, but who also established a shadowy parallel government that ruthlessly oppressed opposition, assassinated opponents and was involved in widespread state-sponsored violence.

Immediately after being elected Prime Minister of South Africa in 1978, P.W. Botha stood on the steps of parliament in Cape Town and promised the country a streamlined government that would administer openly, honestly and fairly.

When pushed from power by his cabinet colleagues in 1989 he had established himself as an executive president presiding over a bankrupt administration that spent 20 percent of the national budget on defense; and included nine so-called homelands for black South Africans operating at varying degrees of nominal independence.

Most importantly he had put in place the so-called State Security Council, a shadowy parallel government whose tentacles reached into every aspect and level of South African society. The Council, in which he had the final say, was drawn primarily from defense and intelligence structures and included some members of cabinet, but by-passed parliament altogether.

Analyst Robert Schrire said on national radio that Mr. Botha was ruthless and typified his nickname of the "Groot Krokodil" or "Great Crocodile".

"P.W. really was the bull in the china shop. He was very tough, very ruthless," he said. "But ultimately totally insensitive to the interests the interests and perhaps the values of other groups, especially black South Africans."

During his tenure Mr. Botha tried to soften his image as an unrepentant racist by meeting with one or two African leaders; and in 1985 he put in place the so-called tri-cameral parliament which gave limited political power to colored and Indian South Africans. He also tentatively chipped away at what analysts then called petty apartheid; removing laws that criminalized inter-racial unions, and desegregated some public facilities such as park benches and post offices.

Former opposition politician, Helen Suzman, who spent many years sitting across from Mr. Botha in parliament, says that among his reforms was one of real significance - he allowed black workers to form and join trade unions.

"P.W. was always in a temper ... very irascible, very angry with people who disagreed with him. But I have to say that it was during his regime that many of bricks of apartheid were in fact withdrawn," she said. "The first one being the recognition of black trade unions; now that was an enormous advantage for the black working force."

But he never deviated from the goals of so-called grand apartheid, the permanent separation of races in which 87 percent of the population, blacks, would live in 13 percent of the country in the so-called homelands - nine small, carefully demarcated states with little or no arable land.

In 1985, after weeks of orchestrated leaks to the media that he would announce a major policy shift that would give black South Africans political rights, he shied away at the last moment, offering limited rights that were immediately rejected. In the speech that became known as his failed Rubicon, he was defiant about retaining power in white hands.

"I am not prepared to lead white South Africans and other minority groups on a road to abdication and suicide. Listen - destroy white South Africa and this country will drift in faction strife, chaos, and poverty," Botha said.

In 1989 Mr. Botha suffered a stroke, and while he relinquished the leadership of the National Party to F.W. de Klerk, he insisted on retaining the presidency. Within months however, his colleagues had ousted him and replaced him with F.W. de Klerk, the man who would ultimately lead South Africa away from apartheid.

Mr. Botha refused to testify at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - even defying defying a subpoena to appear. He was tried and convicted for doing so, but the conviction was overturned on technical grounds when he appealed.

Co-chairperson of the Commission, Alex Boraine, told national radio that the country had consequently left Mr. Botha behind and that he had died as yesterday's meaningless man. He said that Mr. Botha missed an opportunity to redeem himself and leave a lasting legacy to South Africans.

"I think it would have unlocked the statements of many, many other people, who had served under him. One of the shortfalls of the commission was that it was so difficult to persuade top political leaders in the National Party to come and speak to us frankly and honestly; and even indeed, to seek amnesty," he said. "And I think this would have helped P.W. Botha's legacy to the country, and most of all it would have helped, I think, to clear up a lot of unanswered questions that still remain unanswered now that he has died."

Reaction has poured in from across South Africa. In a statement, former president F.W. de Klerk said he honored Mr. Botha for his contributions to South Africa, but said he had never liked Mr. Botha's overbearing leadership style.

Another apartheid-era colleague, former foreign minister Pik Botha, said that, on occasion, his former boss showed a likable side.

"You know, on purely private occasions when we were not busy with official work, with cabinet work - for instance when we had these bosberaade (business retreats) where we could relax, he was a man's man - full of humor and wit and that sort of thing," Botha said. "But when it came to official work he was a very effective organizer, temperamental at times, I think that he was sometimes a little bit on the authoritarian side."

President Thabo Mbeki said that in his own way, Mr. Botha had realized that South Africans had no alternative but to reach out to each other.

Elder statesman, Nelson Mandela, who as a prisoner was invited to tea with Mr. Botha, said he would be remembered for the steps he took to pave the way to an eventual negotiated settlement, but that he will always remain a symbol of apartheid.

The funeral is likely to take place next week. As a former president, Mr. Botha is entitled to a state funeral, but his family have indicated a preference for a private burial.