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Putin reminds me more and more of PW Botha — hopefully, he’ll suffer a similar fate

By Nick Dall
18 May 2022 2

Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people — dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (Penguin Random House).

Both PW Botha and Vladimir Putin banked on a fractured response to their Machiavellian schemes. Instead, they ended up uniting the opposition like never before.

For more than two decades, Vladimir Putin has gotten away with human rights abuses and unsolicited aggression across the former USSR and as far as Syria and the Central African Republic. Throughout this period, he’s been able to rely on a disjointed international response to his vile behaviour. But with his recent venture in Ukraine, he might just be about to run out of free tickets.

Finland and Sweden’s decisions to join Nato (assuming Turkey allows them to) are the latest in a string of shows of Western solidarity in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One of Putin’s stated aims for invading Ukraine was to shore up his western border and diminish the impact of Nato. Instead, the exact opposite is happening.

When the first missiles entered Ukrainian airspace on 24 February 2022, Europe relied on Russia for 40% of its natural gas and a quarter of its crude oil. Back then, the idea of an outright EU ban on Russian fossil fuel seemed preposterous: Germany would never back a ban, case closed. Now, less than three months later, only Hungary’s Viktor Orbán — himself a mini-Putin — stands in the way of a total EU ban on Russian oil and gas.

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And this is just one example of international solidarity. From France to Fiji, superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs have been seized. Roman Abramovich was forced to sell Chelsea. And if Senator Rand Paul can be convinced, the US will release a whopping $40-billion in aid to Ukraine. Even countries with historic ties to Russia like China, Israel and Turkey have stopped short of actively supporting Putin’s invasion (Turkey’s objection to Sweden and Finland joining Nato has nothing to do with Russia).

Putin thought he could get away with attacking Ukraine because, well, he’d done it before. While he probably knew most of the world wouldn’t be happy, he clearly didn’t bank on us (and by us I, sadly, don’t mean the South African government) forming such a united response.

Tricameral on for size

Which brings us to PW Botha, aka Die Groot Krokodil. When PW became Prime Minister of South Africa in 1978, he already had a long and proud track record of achieving his desired outcomes via the barrel of a gun. Twelve years as Minister of Defence for one of the most aggressive and belligerent regimes in history will do that to you. (As an aside, PW had a positively Putinesque approach to border security: between 1981 and 1983, the army was used to enforce compliance on every one of our neighbours.)

While the South Africa PW inherited clearly had problems — with the benefit of hindsight the 1976 Soweto Uprising is seen as a turning point in the political and economic fortunes of the apartheid state — the almost complete lack of any meaningful political opposition meant that he had total control of the country. Die Groot Krokodil could, seemingly, determine his own destiny and legacy.

Instead, his Putin-like braggadocio meant that he pushed things too far and inadvertently created the united multiracial opposition that had until then eluded South Africa. When we set out to write Spoilt Ballots, our recent history of the elections that shaped SA, our initial motivations for including a chapter on PW’s tricameral reforms were largely comic. And while Botha and his long-winded deputy Chris Heunis certainly provided plenty of Orwellian absurdities, the chapter morphed into so much more than mere parody.

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While researching the chapter it became clear that PW’s determination to tweak apartheid on his terms had brought about his downfall. When he proposed the tricameral system (literally “three rooms”) which would give coloured and Indian politicians a seat at the parliamentary table, he was attempting to give them and their voters a reason to believe in apartheid by co-opting them into the system. (Of course, PW’s plan was carefully calibrated to ensure that whites retained parliamentary control and blacks got bugger all.)

As the leader of a racist, totalitarian state, Die Groot Krokodil only sought white approval of his plans. More than three decades of apartheid had left the opposition in tatters: the Treason Trial, the murder of Steve Biko, and countless other episodes of arrest, torture, banning and sabotage meant he didn’t have to worry about them. Or at least he thought he didn’t.

Somehow his proposed tricameral reforms roused the wounded and unconscious beast. Under the charismatic leadership of people like Allan Boesak, the United Democratic Front brought together more than 400 organisations from around the country.

Before PW came up with his crackpot tricameral plan, organisations like the Natal Indian Congress, Women for Peaceful Change Now, The Inter-Church Youth, the African Food and Canning Workers Union and the Johannesburg Scooter Drivers Association had little in common. And on their own none of them — not even the big guns like the National Union of Mineworkers or the outlawed ANC — had the clout to change anything.

But together, they discovered, they found their strength. When the election days finally came, the vast majority of coloured and Indian South Africans voted with their feet by staying away from the polls. Turnout among coloured voters was a dismal 30.9%. Indian voters were even more vehement in their rejection of the polls with a 20.8% turnout.

In 1984, the same year as the elections, the international community significantly ramped up its economic sanctions on South Africa by embarking on a disinvestment campaign that was not dissimilar to what’s happening with Putin now. In 1985 alone a whopping R9.2-billion was taken out of South Africa. A further R14.7-billion left our shores in the next three years, bringing our economy to its now-familiar kneeling position.

Botha said that he regarded the low turnout as a “minor obstacle” that did not invalidate the revised constitution. “I do not say that what we are entering into is perfect, nor is it the total solution to our problems,” he continued. “But, I ask, what is the alternative?” Less than six years later he would discover that “the alternative” was the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC, and the steadfast commitment to bring true democracy to South Africa.

PW’s tricameral “solution” backfired spectacularly and it certainly hastened the end of apartheid. In fact, the end came far quicker than even its harshest critics hoped.

The united Western reaction to Putin’s abominations in Ukraine — and the notable silence from enablers like China and us — has me hopeful that something similar will happen to Russia’s Krokodil. It may not seem likely now, but dictators don’t cope well with not getting their way and things can change seriously quickly when the tide turns. Just ask Mugabe, Gaddafi and Mobutu Sese Seko. DM



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  • I think Botha was a tribalist. He didn’t much like English speakers either. Putin is in a different league in the world stakes of dictatorship. Botha was small fry most probably less powerful/destructive than Mugabe and not exactly in power very long in the dictatorship game. He’s over rated as a menace to mankind.

    • PW’s main problem was that he was totally and completely overshadowed by the security establishment and had no room to move in even if he wanted to. I agree with you in that he was over rated as a menace but his security people weren’t to be fooled with.

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