Focus more on religion at Botha funeral

By Melanie Gosling Time of article published Nov 9, 2006

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Former president PW Botha was laid to rest in a small graveyard in the hills above his home town of Wilderness in the Western Cape after a funeral service where the focus was more on religion than on politics, and the sermons more about God than about the man who led the apartheid government for 11 years.

Well over a thousand people crammed into the imposing "Moeder Kerk" in central George, with its massive pulpit carved out of stinkwood and its domed yellowwood ceiling, while another 200 filled a marquee in the church grounds where they watched the service on television.

Beneath the pulpit stood Botha's coffin, the remains of the man who president Thabo Mbeki's office described this week as having led South Africa during a period of sustained oppression against the majority of South Africans, but who had also initiated contact between the apartheid government and the ANC.

Behind the coffin a group of five musicians played quietly while the packed congregation, most of whom had taken up their seats when the doors opened at 1pm, waited for the service to begin at 2pm.

They were almost all white, almost all Afrikaans and most were elderly.

The pews to the left were reserved for the dignitaries, and former president FW de Klerk and his wife, Elita, were the first of them to arrive.

Just before 2pm, president Thabo Mbeki and his wife, Zanele, slipped in almost unnoticed from a side door to take up their seats next to De Klerk.

As Mbeki walked in, the rows of parliamentarians behind him stood up, but the majority of the congregation remained seated.

When Botha's wife, Barbara, and his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren filed in, the congregation rose.

The stillness inside the church was broken with the blast of a ram's horn, one which had belonged to Botha - and one whose sound he was said to have loved.

There was some murmuring and gesturing when Botha's grandson, wheelchair-bound Pierre Maritz, was wheeled into the church and positioned in front of president Mbeki.

When Mbeki realised they were trying to move Maritz elsewhere, he stepped out of the pew, smiled, put his hand on the young man's shoulder, and bent to speak to him.

Maritz said later: "He told me, 'no, no, you must stay here, please'."

Dominee Bill Barkley, who conducted the service, said it had been Botha's last wish that his service should be based on Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd.

Although Botha had been a president, he had always been deeply conscious of God, who was the true ruler of all, Barkley said.

"God rules," Barkley said, asking the congregation: "Are you ready to meet God?"

Dominee Johan Botha said he and the former president had held "deep, spiritual talks" over the 10 years he had known him, and that it was clear that Botha had had "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ".

He said Botha had been "born again" in his presence, and that his last words to his wife were: "I love you."

Evangelist Bahjat Batarseh, a Jordanian who had got to know Botha in his later years, said "God had arranged" for him to be at the funeral.

In an evangelical sermon which drew laughs and applause, Batarseh ridiculed evolution, dismissed the Big Bang theory, and urged the congregation to take Jesus into their hearts.

He had had the privilege to pray with Botha and to "anoint him with oil". "I realise PW Botha was not perfect, but you are not perfect, I am not perfect, there is not anyone who is perfect," he said.

Batarseh urged South Africans of all colours to live as one family, adding: "Bury the past, or the past will bury you."

As the service ended, De Klerk shook hands with the family in the church, while Botha's daughter Rozanne went across to Mbeki and his wife and hugged them, her eyes screwed up tight as she held the president.

De Klerk left straight after the funeral, but Mbeki and Leonard Ramatlakane, as acting Western Cape premier, joined the family and congregation in the church hall briefly for tea and refreshments.

At 4:30pm, Botha's coffin was carried to the hearse by his son Rossouw, his sons-in-law Jannie Maritz, Uwe Paschke and Schalk Visagie, grandsons Francois Maritz and Sasha Paschke and bodyguards Frikkie Lucas and Hugo Jordaan.

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