S. Africa panel seeks truth from former president Botha snubs investigation of apartheid abuses, could be convicted of contempt

June 02, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GEORGE, South Africa -- "Eliminate," "destroy" or "neutralize" -- such was the fate decreed by South Africa's security chiefs for the enemies of the white-supremacist apartheid state in the 1980s.

But did they mean "kill"?

That is the crucial question that South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has tried to put to former President P. W. Botha for the past year.

Three times he has refused to honor a subpoena from the commission, and now, still defiant, he sits in magistrates court awaiting his fate on a charge of contempt. If found guilty, he is unlikely to be jailed but could be fined up to $4,000.

The man known as the "Great Crocodile" contends he knows nothing about any gross human rights violations committed by apartheid-era security forces, and he defends the legitimate security actions taken by his government.

He regards the so-called truth commission as "a circus" bent on belittling his "people," -- the Afrikaners -- for their imposition of apartheid, and so has refused to testify.

Prime minister, then president of this country from 1978 to 1989, Botha, 82, is being spared the indignity of appearing in the wooden dock of the modern magistrates court and instead perches on a padded seat beside it.

A frail figure, with his dark-gray pinstripe suit hanging from his shoulders, he appears to be relaxed and enjoying his day in court, smiling frequently and shaking hands with right-wing supporters.

In trying to convince the court that Botha should testify before the truth commission, Paul Van Zyl, its executive secretary, read the minutes of State Security Council meetings, which Botha chaired during some of the worst rights abuses committed during his administration. Botha listened intently as his trial resumed yesterday after a six-week adjournment. It is not known whether he will testify this week.

Yesterday, he left it to his lawyers to argue with Van Zyl whether assassination was in the minds of the security chiefs when they used the words "eliminate," "destroy" and "neutralize."

"Did it not send a message to the security forces that terrorists were to be killed?" asked Van Zyl. He referred to a State Security Council meeting in February 1980 during which the "elimination" of exiled anti-apartheid activists in Rhodesia was discussed.

"It is quite clear that the word 'eliminate' means kill, and we would want to ask [Botha] in that context whether eliminate did mean kill in the lexicon of the Security Council," Van Zyl said.

Another document called on the government to develop the capacity to "destroy" or "neutralize" concentrations of anti-apartheid "terrorists" and conventional forces.

"We would want to know whether the State Security Council intended to authorize the killing of political opponents," said Van Zyl.

He noted that in 1986, the head of the national intelligence service expressed concern to Botha that security forces were perhaps engaged in illegal killings, but there was no evidence that the president took any action.

It was not until 1990, when President F. W. De Klerk chaired the State Security Council, that the government tried to rein in the agency, said Van Zyl.

Botha's attorney, Lapa Loubsher, focused briefly on a hit list of the enemies of apartheid, which included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now chairman of the truth commission, and others now holding prominent positions in the black-majority government.

How many on the list had actually been killed, Loubsher asked Van Zyl. The answer: None.

"If the chief of the South African police or the South African Defense Force had the impression that these people should have been 'taken out' or removed permanently from society, somebody didn't execute his order very well," observed Loubsher.

Loubsher questioned the validity of the subpoenas, suggesting that Botha had fulfilled an agreement with Tutu to supply written answers to written questions.

The agreement, said Van Zyl, did not imply that Botha "would be forever immunized from appearing before the truth commission at any stage." Tutu has consistently offered to withdraw the contempt citation if Botha relents and appears before the commission. He is expected to testify today or tomorrow on his attempts to persuade Botha to testify.

As the sides made point and counterpoint in the courtroom yesterday, this pristine little town on the coastal plain between the Outeniqua Mountains and the Indian Ocean went about its daily business.

A handful of black demonstrators stood at the razor wire ringing the heavily guarded building at the end of the bustling main street, and fewer than a dozen of Botha's white supporters were inside.

But the case has assumed a national resonance, as conservative Afrikaners, feeling politically powerless and culturally beleaguered under the country's first black-majority government, look on Botha as a symbol of resistance to what many perceive as a hostile new order.

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