Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Die Dood Groot Krokodil

PW Botha, the Great Crocodile who embodied and oversaw the last throes of white resistance to the changing tides of history in South Africa in the 1980s, died in his sleep Tuesday night at his home. Some of us had begun to believe that the ultimate embodiment of South Africa's securocrat state, who had established the "total strategy" against the perceived "total onslaught" of communist terrorists, would live forever. The bulk of my work on South Africa deals with the 1980s, so I feel as if I know Botha intimitely though reluctantly. The African National Congress, revealing the ongoing reconciliationist spirit in South Africa, has extended its sympathies in a way that many of us probably cannot.

The Mail & Guardian has its expected first-rate coverage of Botha's passing. In one piece, which accumulates tributes to the old apartheid warrior, Tony Leon, leader of the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, calls Botha a "reformer without results." The problem with this conception is that while there was some reform, there were all sorts of results under Botha's tenure in office. He oversaw an era of hidden hands and dirty tricks, ruthless covert operations during the States of Emergency that were characterized by the worst abuses of the apartheid era. In August 1985 Botha had his chance to engage in reform and push results, (which F.W. DeKlerk would finally carry out not even five years later) during a speech in which he was supposedly going to "Cross the Rubicon" into serious reform of the apartheid state. Instead in the much ballyhooed speech before the Natal National Party Conference in Durban, Botha ruled out significant concessions and explicitly denied that he would end apartheid. The Rubicon Speech revealed to the world the intransigence emanating from Pretoria and, in the ultimate unintended consequence, fueled a laggardly international community finally to disengage from its buttressing of the apartheid state.

Closer to the mark is the idea of Botha as the "kragdadige autocrat", the vigorous, strong, powerful authoritarian who ruled with an iron fist and a wagging vingertjie. What else explains the Rubicon Speech but the fact that Botha was so enamored of his own power that he maintained in the face of all evidence to the contrary that the views of the rest of the world and the resistance of the anti-apartheid masses on the ground was irrelevant. A belief in his own immutability led to Botha's downfall, and was a vital component of the tragic and eventually triumphant drama that was the South African story.

I'll shed no tears, crocodile or other, for the passing of one more of the twentieth century's authoritarian brutes. The world was a worse place with him in it. Hendrick Verwoerd, John Vorster and the other architects of the apartheid state have another suitemate in hell.

Update: British Rob has a couple of updates. The Guardian's obituary does not pull any punches. He also informs us that the Telegraph "remembered his 'genuine political courage' in reforming apartheid in the early 1980s." In that understated way that we all have come to incorporate in our stereotype about the Brits, Rob's summation is spot on: "Oh yes."


rob skinner said...

I'm also reminded, reading James Sanders' excellent new book on SA security services, that it was dear old PW who rounded on Helen Suzman in Parliament in the aftermath of Verwoerd's assasination promising that "We will get the lot of you". Helen Suzman is 89 years old next week. Cheers! Incidentally, in the process of finding HS's birthdate, I've discovered that Wikipedia had a page entitled 'A list of Jews from Southern Africa'. I think I might set up a website of "Welshmen in Indiana".

Dan van der Vat's obituary in today's Guardian is pretty forceful - and reflects media coverage of the old alligator's demise. Even the Telegraph was muted, although it remembered his "genuine political courage" in reforming apartheid in the early 1980s. Oh yes.

And then there was one ...

dcat said...

Rob --
I've added the links from the Guardian and Telegraph in an update on the post. Thanks.


Steve Hayes said...

A good summary of his political legacy.

The problem is that there are bigger crocodiles in the world today, whose names also begin with B.

PW Botha was no longer a threat. Was it Auden who wrote

His continental damage done
marooned on an island shelf
Napoleon has ten years more
to think about himself.

But the British media were saying that Tony Blair had "the moral high ground" when he was wanting to introduce 90-day detention without trial and some of his backbenchers rebelled.

PW Botha's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on, down Whitehall to Downing Street.

dcat said...

Steve --
Thanks for the contribution. I do have to say, I think your argument lacks critical historical perspective and reminds me of one of my biggest problems with the political climate today. Blair may be someone you don't like. On balance he may be bad for Britain, but to compare him to Botha is to misunderstand the totality of evil of Botha's regime. Whatever you want to say about the gravest excesses of Blair's tenure they are simply no match for South Africa in the 1980s.

Cheers --