Botha ignores another subpoena from panel South Africa's Truth Commission considers prosecuting ex-leader

December 20, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A defiant former state President Pieter W. Botha ignored yesterday his third subpoena to appear before the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, risking imprisonment and a fine.

The 81-year-old apartheid-era politician is refusing to testify on the workings of the State Security Council, which advised the white-minority government on strategy during some of the worst human rights violations by the security forces here.

He was expected to be questioned about the killings by security forces of anti-apartheid activists and about South African military raids into neighboring countries fighting leftist insurgencies or harboring South Africa "freedom fighters."

The commission is trying to create a historic record of human rights violations, eliciting confessions in return for amnesty, and offering the victims reparations.

Botha reportedly remained at home in a town called Wilderness. His refusal to testify touches several nerves.

The ruling African National Congress must demonstrate to its constituency that no one is above the law, even a former president.

Black commentators are watching closely how Botha fares in the wake of the commission's rough handling this month of populist politician Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of President Nelson Mandela.

But prosecuting Botha will resonate through right-wing sectors of the Afrikaner community, which already feels persecuted by the commission. Afrikaner leaders have accused it of focusing primarily on the excesses of whites while downplaying violence by the anti-apartheid forces.

The Conservative Party said yesterday the pressure on Botha was "nothing more than a witch hunt against Afrikaners."

Botha, president from 1984 to 1989 and prime minister for six years before that, has denied any involvement in human rights violations and has offered to give his account in writing, but has refused to appear before the panel.

Alex Borraine, deputy chairman of the commission, said yesterday: "He obviously feels quite strongly that our motivation is not to get information as we have suggested, but rather to humiliate him or abuse him in public."

Attorney general for the Western Cape, Frank Kahn, will decide if a contempt charge will be lodged against Botha. It could carry two years in prison and a fine of $3,000.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission chairman, said: "I am sad in so far as this thing could be over."

The commission, he said, was prepared to take Botha's failing health into account and to make his appearance as brief as possible. It was not planning to sit for the 11 hours a day it devoted to the Madikizela-Mandela hearings.

President Mandela said this week that he had twice spoken to Botha to persuade him to attend the hearings, and had even appealed to Botha's children to try to get their father to avoid possible arrest and imprisonment.

A frustrated Tutu said: "Clearly the appeals of various people, including the president of this country, have not prevailed and Mr. P. W. Botha has seen fit not to attend when he was validly subpoenaed.

"We indicated that the ball was very firmly in his court and we would let the law take its course."

Madikizela-Mandela scored a victory in a different forum yesterday, winning a seat on the ANC's National Executive Committee.

A vote by secret ballot on the last day of the party's conference in Mafikeng put her 15th on the list of 60 winning candidates, who included many ministers in President Mandela's government. At the last conference, she placed fifth.

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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