Apartheid leader is unreconcilable Botha stands before black judge defiantly resisting new S. Africa

January 24, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GEORGE, South Africa -- Apartheid-era President P. W. Botha bowed to the law of this changed land yesterday and appeared unremorseful before a black magistrate on a charge of contempt for his refusal to testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"We are on a dangerous road," said the 82-year-old retired politician, warning reporters that Afrikaners were busy organizing themselves to protect their interests.

He was in combative form as conservatives, in business suits and ties, turned out to support him, and members of the ruling African National Congress, less formally dressed, demonstrated against him.

Thus, for a few hours yesterday this remote and usually unruffled town, founded as a timber center for the Dutch East India Company in 1776, became a stage for the public display of the tensions and divisions that still run through this nation four years after the election of its first majority black government. Roadblocks were thrown up at major entry points, and the courthouse was ringed with razor wire.

The formal hearing lasted only a few minutes as Magistrate Victor Lugaju, 46, postponed the trial until April to give himself time to study the voluminous documents filed by Botha and his chief accuser, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the the ** reconciliation commission.

But it was the drama surrounding the case that imposed a sense of history on the occasion.

Here was a previously all-powerful white politician, whose fierce implementation of the policy of racial segregation earned him the nickname "The Crocodile," appearing before a magistrate who suffered from that policy and is now insisting he will be "neutral" in judgment.

Botha told reporters he grew up on a farm playing with black children and had no objection to having his day in court before a black judge.

In line with the novelty of his situation, he offered a baffling, new definition of apartheid, the policy that segregated the races and kept the black majority in this country oppressed for four decades. "Apartheid," said Botha, "is an Afrikaner word, and can be easily replaced by a proper, positive term -- good neighborliness."

The reconciliation commission, whose charge is to get at the truth of what happened during apartheid and to try to reconcile former enemies, has been trying to question Botha for the past year. It wants him to reveal the workings of the National Security Council, a key government agency during the worst apartheid oppression.

Botha has refused to accept the commission's subpoenas, questioning its authority, disparaging it as a "circus" and accusing it of bias against Afrikaners, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers in South Africa.

"They want me to apologize," he complained yesterday. "I only apologize for my sins before God. Why do you want me to go and apologize before Archbishop Tutu. For what? For what?"

Asked by a reporter if he would apologize for all those who died in detention during his 1984-1989 term as president, he snapped back: "No. I'm praying for them."

His defiance has become a rallying point for right-wing Afrikaners, who perceive themselves, their language and their culture as being increasingly pushed to one side and threatened by the ruling black majority.

For President Nelson Mandela's government, Botha's trial represents an essential demonstration that nobody is above the law in this fledgling democracy.

These contrasting perceptions of the case bring the past and present leadership into direct conflict, undermining the process of national reconciliation which is one of the central pillars of the Tutu panel.

The case is likely to last months, if not years, as the defense team of the ailing 82-year-old Botha tries to put the commission rather than the defendant on trial, questioning its authority, its even-handedness, and its power to command a personal appearance by a man who has already supplied the commission with 2,000 pages of written testimony.

"The focus will be less and less on Mr. Botha, who is the accused, and more and more on the TRC," said Jacko Maree, representing the National Party, which Botha used to lead.

"We are busy organizing. We are busy telling our people to stand together. We will not stand our language being trampled on, and we will not allow our cultural values to be trampled on."

Outside the modern cement courthouse -- built on the spot where Botha was first sworn in as a member of Parliament 50 years ago -- ANC protesters chanted and danced, carrying posters with such slogans as "Steve Biko died in prison: Botha guilty," and "Victoria Mxenge assassinated: Botha guilty."

Hoisting a placard protesting the 1984 forced relocation of squatters from the Lawaaikamp shantytown in George during Botha's presidency, John Henry Titus said: "Mr. Botha is a very old man now. Let him apologize for all the things he did."

In the shade of a bandstand on the lawn running down the town's main street, James Ngculu-Prou, ANC secretary for the Western Cape province, told the crowd of about 100: "Botha must come and account [for his actions], and tell us why he has killed so many people in our country.

"He has not told us that. Now we must tell him that he must. History is being made, comrades."

Ngculu-Prou dismissed Botha's warning of a reawakening of the "Afrikaner tiger," saying: "He is living in the world of the past. There is no more 'Afrikaner tiger.' It is disorganized, demoralized. There is no way it can rise again.

"The people have tasted what democracy is all about. If the tiger rises, the people will rise to crush the tiger."

After his moment in court, Botha left to return to the peace of his home in the nearby town of Wilderness and its beautiful setting on the Indian Ocean.

If he is found guilty of contempt, he faces up to two years in prison and a fine of $4,000.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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