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."