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Apartheid's man and me

November 03, 2006|David Goodman | DAVID GOODMAN is the author of "Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa," and the just-published "Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back."

WHEN I WAS protesting apartheid as a college student in the 1980s, South African President P. W. Botha, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, was the embodiment of racist evil. But when my car broke down near his house in South Africa a decade ago, I was sufficiently brash and morbidly curious that I decided to call the "Great Crocodile" and invite myself over for tea.

I was in South Africa in 1996 and 1997 researching a book about the country's transformation from apartheid. I was on a road trip with my wife and 4-year-old daughter when our car's transmission blew outside Wilderness, the town where Botha lived. Botha had become the most famous recluse in South Africa since being ousted as president in 1989.

As the apartheid strongman from 1978 to 1989, the glowering leader may have been the most hated figure in Africa in the 1980s; he certainly was on U.S. college campuses. Under his reign, anti-apartheid protest rocked South Africa, and the irascible Botha responded with an iron fist. Thirty thousand people were detained without trial during his rule, and thousands were tortured and killed by his police. Botha imposed virtual martial law from 1986 to 1989.

I called Botha after touring the P. W. Botha wing of the local museum, which was near the auto repair shop. "Mr. Botha doesn't grant interviews any longer," his secretary snapped. Minutes later, Botha himself called me back at the museum. He repeated that he did not grant interviews, especially not to journalists, who have caused him nothing but trouble. After some prodding from me, he relented and invited me over the next day for "just 30 minutes, and no political discussions."

Thus began our three-hour conversation. I quickly discovered that Botha at 80 was as sharp, abrasive and truculent as he ever was.

P. W., as South Africans call him, greeted me stiffly at the top of some stone stairs and ushered me into his office. A small South African flag -- the old one, not the brightly colored flag adopted by President Nelson Mandela's government in 1994 -- stood in the corner. He was dressed casually in a tan jacket and hiking boots, and his shirt buttons strained against his bulging waist. Part of his face appeared to droop, a legacy of the stroke he had in 1989, which his Afrikaner political opponents used as a pretext to oust him from the presidency.

Botha wasted no time in orienting himself to me. "All right, Mr. Goodman, let me get straight with you. You're of Jewish descent, aren't you?" he said, not so much asking as telling me. Ethnicity mattered, now as always. "I am an admirer of great men in Israel," he declared. He recalled how he first helped Israeli leaders by sending them a "small boatload of 1,000-pound bombs."

We strolled around his library, and he pulled out books and gifts from the few world leaders who would meet him during his embattled rule. There was a gift from the president of Taiwan, one from the king of Morocco, several items from Israeli leaders and a bevy of souvenirs from the black puppet leaders whom he propped up in South Africa's former homelands. The mementos reinforced what a pariah apartheid South Africa was.

He proudly pulled a book off his shelf about the American Revolution, flipped it open and told me to read the inscription aloud: "To P. W. Botha -- With appreciation and esteem, William Casey." President Reagan's CIA chief was a good friend, he said wistfully.

Botha was totally unrepentant on his violent reign. When I asked him his solution for what ailed South Africa, he replied with a rehash of the original apartheid fantasy: a balkanized "confederation of states" consisting of white and black homelands. He objected to calling this "apartheid." What, I asked, would he have preferred to call the National Party's racial policies?

"Good neighborliness," he replied with a faint smile.

I asked him how he viewed Mandela, then South Africa's first black president. The two men had met three times: first when Botha was president and Mandela was a prisoner, and twice after, when President Mandela visited Botha at his home. Botha liked Mandela, sort of, and they regularly exchanged birthday cards. "I think Mandela is an intelligent man," he offered. "When we disagree, we tell each other. And when we agree, we say so." None of this mattered enough during his presidency, when Botha pointedly refused international demands for Mandela's unconditional release.

The Great Crocodile was at peace with his legacy: "I'm not despondent. I'm quite happy. He who is prepared to sacrifice himself in the name of decency and honesty and for the cultural values of his people -- his memory will live." I pressed him about how he thought he would be remembered. "History will deal with me," he concluded.

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