South Africa buries last hard-line white leader

Pallbearers carry the coffin of former South African President P.W. Botha at his funeral in George
Pallbearers carry the coffin of former South African President P.W. Botha at his funeral in George on Wednesday.  Mike Hutchings / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

South Africa bid farewell to its last hard-line white leader, P.W. Botha, on Wednesday in a private funeral attended by President Thabo Mbeki as a sign of reconciliation after the horrors of apartheid.

Mbeki joined Nobel Peace Prize winner F.W. de Klerk, who succeeded Botha and repudiated his policies, and former members of Botha’s government at a colonial-style church for the funeral, which was aired live on South African television.

Botha died on Oct. 31, at the age of 90.

“I realize P.W. Botha was not perfect ... we all make mistakes,” said Bahjat Batarseh, a Jordanian Christian minister who was one of the featured speakers at the service.

“But I have no doubt in my mind that former President P.W. Botha has his hand in the progress of this nation.”

“I am asking you today as South Africa ... black South Africans, white South Africans, colored South Africans: this is your nation — live as a family. Bury the past or the past will bury you.”

Defiant face of white South Africa
Botha served as South Africa’s president during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, the belligerent and defiant face of a white government attacked at home and shunned abroad because of its racist policies.

Known for his hectoring, finger-wagging style, Botha doggedly refused to release anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela from prison, and was prime minister and then president from 1978-1989 when thousands of black activists were murdered and tortured.

Botha was unseated in a cabinet rebellion in 1989 and replaced by de Klerk, who moved to free Mandela and legalize his African National Congress (ANC).

Mandela, who shared the Nobel Prize with de Klerk, led the ANC to a landslide victory in multi-racial elections in 1994 and became South Africa’s first black president.

Botha, widely known as “The Great Crocodile," remained unrepentant to the end.

“I don’t care what they remember about me,” he said in a 2006 newspaper interview. “I led South Africa on the right path. Order, prosperity. Problems too, but the problems were dealt with effectively.”

Silent symbol
Mbeki did not speak at Botha’s funeral, which took place in a Dutch Reformed Church in the coastal city of George, near the small village of Wilderness where Botha spent his retirement.

But Mbeki’s presence at the head of a government delegation was another sign of the post-apartheid political and racial reconciliation espoused by South Africa’s black leaders after centuries of white domination.

Botha’s family turned down an offer of a full state funeral.

But Mbeki did order flags flown at half staff across the country, a move which infuriated some South Africans who said official honors were misplaced.

The influential Sunday Times called Botha “evil personified” while the COSATU trade union his hands were stained with blood.

Mandela, 88, did not attend Botha’s funeral but had earlier urged South Africans to remember his positive side, including his first hesitant steps toward dismantling the most vicious of apartheid’s restrictions.

“While to many Mr. Botha will remain a symbol of apartheid, we also remember him for the steps he took to pave the way towards the eventual peacefully negotiated settlement in our country,” Mandela said in a statement.