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Botha's Contradictions

IT was not the style of Pieter Willem Botha, South Africa's iron-fisted leader for more than a decade, to relinquish power willingly. Mr. Botha's political demise had all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy. He had already relinquished the party leadership in January after he had suffered a stroke. Thereafter he sought to play a more neutral role, transcending party politics.

And under Botha's 10 years of rule more inroads were made into apartheid laws than under any of his predecessors.

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After telling whites a decade ago that they would have to ``adapt or die,'' he scrapped laws outlawing sex and marriage across the color line, extended rights to black trade unions, bestowed property rights on blacks, and abolished the hated system of influx control for blacks known as the Pass Laws.

But when Mr. Botha appeared poised in August 1985 to announce the scrapping of key apartheid laws he reacted to mounting right-wing pressure within his party by scrapping the speech and warning the world: Don't push us too far.

His outburst had disastrous economic consequences as foreign banks recalled their loans to South Africa and the local currency plummeted. It has never recovered and the country has never regained access to international capital markets.

Yet he traveled abroad and in Africa putting his case for gradual reform. In doing so he met more Western and African leaders than any of his predecessors. He fathered two important peace accords, in Mozambique in 1984 and in the long-disputed territory of Namibia this year.

But when he finally quit Monday he faced a Cabinet united in its desire to get rid of him, a party that had turned against him after he had served him for a lifetime, and a black majority who saw him - in the end - as a caricature of Afrikaner intransigence.

Faced with mounting black resistance and an accelerating shift of Afrikaners to the far right in the mid-1980s Mr. Botha appeared to lose his political nerve and resorted in 1986 to a nationwide emergency, which is still in effect.

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