My road to Damascus in apartheid SA

2014-03-30 14:00

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In 1991 Conservative Party MP Koos Botha filled his parliamentary car with dynamite and bombed a school for ANC children. Then he went to church with his family. Today, he tells Bienne Huisman, he’s a changed man.

Koos Botha invites us to interview him at his home, giving meticulous directions to his brown face-brick house nestled under thick trees in the Johannesburg suburb of Cresta.

When we arrive, he stands waiting behind an unrolling garage door, smiling, hands on his hips.

Dressed in a crisp red-and-white-striped shirt by Pringle and spectacles, the 66-year-old grandfather looks homely – and certainly not like a dynamite-toting bomber.

He leads us to a patio where wood-framed pictures bear homely Afrikaans messages: ’n Huis word gebou met klip en hout, ’n tuiste met liefde en drome (a house is built with stone and wood, a home with love and dreams).

Botha summons his wife, Martie – who he calls Mammie – to provide refreshments.

He reappears with a silver tray with sausage rolls and apricot jam tartlets.

“That’s one thing about us Afrikaner people, we are generous, hey. We’re always feeding people,” he says.

He started serving in Parliament as a Conservative Party MP in 1989 and later formed a militant underground group called the Afrikaner Volkstaat Beweging (the Afrikaner Homeland Movement), which was set on finding an independent Afrikaner homeland.

Botha recalls his shock sitting in the back benches of Parliament early in February 1990 when he heard then President FW de Klerk announce that the ANC would be unbanned and Nelson Mandela freed.

“About five other guys and I decided to show the ANC that South Africa wasn’t just theirs for the taking,” he says.

In 1991, Botha got a friend with mining connections to source dynamite and they bombed a school in central Pretoria that had been designated for the children of returning ANC exiles.

He spied on the school building for weeks to ensure it was deserted at night.

Then, in the early hours of Sunday, June 2 1991, Botha and his friend drove along what is now known as Nelson Mandela Drive.

They cut through the cold, quiet city centre in his pea-green parliamentary Toyota Cressida, a knee-high barrel of dynamite bouncing in the boot.

“We were petrified. As far as we knew, any movement could have detonated the dynamite,” he says.

They prayed before lighting the explosives: “Please Lord. Maximum harm and no casualties. Thank you,” he said?–?and then they ran.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Later that day, he went to church with his family.

But that year an ideological change was beginning to stir in his mind.

“I thought to myself that South Africa was going to change radically. I told my party we were part of the problem?–?that we had to become a part of the solution.”

He grew disillusioned with his conservative peers for refusing to negotiate with other parties.

In 1992, Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht kicked Botha out for his “leftist” views.

Botha describes the time as his “Damascus-road experience”.

“I realised that nothing could be attained through militant acts, that I had been stupid,” he says.

Botha’s wife and three children were unaware of his extracurricular activities until he was caught and charged at the Pretoria Magistrates’ Court in 1993 with sabotage, high treason, terrorism and damage to property.

“It was hard. My youngest daughter was head girl of her school, but she did very well in matric. I’ve always taught my children to think for themselves and never forced my ideas on to them,” he says.

Botha’s case was postponed until he received amnesty.

He never went to prison, but his political career was in ruins and, as a branded terrorist, he battled to find work.

He turned to construction and went into business with Mathabatha Sexwale, the brother of Tokyo Sexwale.

They created community housing, notably in Boikhutsong, north of Pretoria.

Botha made friends in the townships, refreshed by the open-mindedness he encountered.

These days, he rents out children’s carts for parties and fundraisers.

The former politician recalls watching the rugby World Cup final at home on June 24 1995.

“It just amazed me. It was beautiful how Nelson Mandela supported the Springboks after everything, acknowledging us as a people.

“I mean, his incorporation of Die Stem [into the new national anthem] and his visit to tannie Betsie Verwoerd. He was a special man.”

Botha felt the struggle in his heart and the right side won.

“A while ago, I decided not to surround myself with negative people. I’m glad I’ve changed. I’m happy and blessed.”

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