Nation seeks truth from aging symbol South Africa: P. W. Botha has answers about apartheid-era atrocities, but he doesn't want to give them.

June 08, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GEORGE, South Africa -- The trial here of former President P. W. Botha marks a watershed in this country's search for closure to its shameful apartheid past.

Whether he is found guilty or innocent, the appearance of the elderly white separatist before a young black magistrate showcases the "new dispensation" here.

Botha's fate, to be announced after final legal arguments June 15, is all but irrelevant. At age 82, and nine years after leaving office, he is clearly yesteryear's man in a country focusing on its future under majority, instead of minority, rule.

"The need becomes great to focus on our tomorrows and transcend our yesterdays," said an editorial in the Star last week, commenting on the yearning, after all the revelations of atrocities, to put the apartheid era "behind us."

But still, Botha's trial on charges of contempt for refusing to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is seeking to set the record of the apartheid era straight, has resonated throughout the system.

"Tactically, this is a trial about the relationship between Botha and the truth commission and the powers of the truth commission," said Tom Lodge, professor of political studies at Witwatersrand University. "But in the common view, it is perceived as Botha on trial for human rights crimes during the apartheid era, and obviously it excites deep passions on both sides."

For the commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Botha's court appearance is the ultimate display of its earnestness as it prepares its final report for submission to Parliament.

The commission is charged with investigating the gross violations of human rights inflicted by both sides between 1960, when anti-apartheid activists decided to meet oppression with violence, and 1994, when the first black majority government was elected. Botha, former leader of the National Party, was prime minister from 1978 to 1984, and president from 1984 to 1989.

Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his resistance to apartheid. He has tried repeatedly over recent months to persuade Botha to testify. But he said he took little satisfaction from seeing the defiant Botha in court, now a frail figure, his suit hanging from shoulders that have lost their bulk, sitting on a padded chair.

"I stand here with the greatest possible reluctance and filled with considerable distaste," said the archbishop from the witness box. "I believe this is something that should not have happened."

Botha's refusal to testify under oath on what he knew, authorized and did during the period of the worst violations, has left a large hole in the commission's investigation, particularly of the activities of the State Security Council, which Botha chaired and which made recommendations on security activities to the Cabinet.

Evidence from other witnesses to the commission and in separate criminal trials has suggested that Botha not only knew of illegal and brutal activities, but authorized some of them.

While refusing to appear before what he dismisses as "a circus," he has publicly defended his government's right in the 1980s to take legitimate security measures to protect the nation against what he perceived as a revolutionary threat both from within the country and across its borders. But he has denied any involvement in or knowledge of gross human rights violations.

Some see him as a victim

For many of his fellow Afrikaners, particularly right-wingers, his court appearance symbolizes the victimization they feel under a system that has stripped them of much of their power and thrown doubts over their future prospects in a land they consider their own.

"You are determined to disempower the Afrikaner and whites in all respects," Corne Mulder, a member of Parliament for the Afrikaner-based Freedom Front, told the African National Congress-led National Assembly last week. "You have already taken our freedom. You are already busy destroying our language, our culture, our traditions and our way of life. Enough is enough."

On Friday, Mulder and other Freedom Front leaders spent five hours with Deputy President Thabo Mbeki discussing Afrikaner fears and frustrations.

Hermann Giliomee, an Afrikaner professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town, said: "There is a certain sense of alienation and disaffection, a feeling that when the state was handed over in 1994, it was never foreseen that this kind of thing would take place. I would not say it's creating rebellion or anything, just disaffection."

Witwatersrand's Lodge said: "Many -- how many we don't know -- Afrikaans-speaking whites feel that the TRC is a biased body which is particularly directed against Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. So they see Botha as a victim of this.

"That does not mean they find him a particularly attractive or appealing figure. He never was a very popular prime minister or president, and they would not want to endorse everything he did."

Lawyer speaks for him

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