Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I respect the adage "do not speak ill of the dead" but in the case of Pieter Willem Botha, the former apartheid president of South Africa, facts would seem like I do not wish his soul to rest in peace.

Those who know the history of Botha's rule in the 1980s will agree with me that the man simply known as "PW" by both his supporters and victims personified the evil of a racist regime.
During the peak of his rule, I was in high school in Zimbabwe. Due to colonial links between the two countries, what happened south of the Limpopo River affected us.

Zimbabwe had just won its independence from another white racist regime, that of of Ian Smith; however, because the new majority government of Robert Mugabe refused to kick the then jailed Nelson Mandela's African National Congress out of the country, Botha targeted
Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, with a ferocity that could only be equated to that of a crocodile.

Fittingly, Botha was already known in Afrikaans as "Die Groot Krokodil" (The Great Crocodile). He is said to have liked the nickname, which was uttered in endearing ways by his supporters and in utter fear by the persecuted.

I was school in 1986 when Botha's ferocity was unleashed with staggering effects around the world. Sweden's anti-apartheid prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated and the plane carrying Mozambique's president, Samora Moises Machel, was shot down. Fingers were pointed at PW.

In Zimbabwe, ANC offices and safe houses in Harare and Bulawayo were bombed, killing the comrades of president Thabo Mbeki (who is now South Africa's president).

Fed up with seeing his backyard in Zimbabwe bombed at will by Botha's "birds of fire," Mugabe -- considered the toughest among all southern African leaders -- dared to challenge PW to a military duel along the Limpopo. It never happened.

Gossip making the rounds in Zimbabwe at the time was that Botha considered the invitation but was told by his generals that the Zimbabwe National Army was a small but mean machine, fired up by former guerrilla strategists who could beat the best conventional armies. I know the ZNA is mean, but that's all I know.

I also know "PW" was hated with a passion in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, ever the master of name-calling, got us all fired up with a daily dose of derogatory Shona names he gave Botha: "Chimbwasungata" (Mad Dog), "Chisveta Simba" (Blood Sucker) and "Mudzvanyiriri" (The Persecutor).

Musicians, too, took their best shot at the man with a permanent sneer. Zimbabwe's best known singer, Thomas Mapfumo (Canadians might remember him. He performed recently in Calgary and Toronto) produced one of his all-time hits whose main refrain was "Botha, Gandanga guru, ngaaurayiwe" (Botha, the biggest terrorist, must be killed).

Calypso king Eddie Grant mocked Botha with Johanna Gimme Hope, a worldwide hit that likened Botha to a mean woman who runs a country with such cruelty that her victims were forced to look up to her for salvation. Michael Jackson sang The Man in the Mirror.