Former President Nelson Mandela said Wednesday the death of P.W. Botha, the apartheid-era leader who resisted pressure to release him from prison in the 1980s, should serve as a reminder of South Africa's "horribly divided past."

However, Mandela added, it should also evoke how all citizens ultimately came together to save the country from destruction, the South African Press Association reported.

"While to many Botha will remain a symbol of apartheid, we also remember him for the steps he took to pave the way toward the eventual peacefully negotiated settlement in our country," said Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before Botha's successor, F.W. de Klerk, freed him in 1990.

Botha, 90, died late Tuesday at his home on the southern Cape coast.

Tributes poured in for the man known to many as the "Old Crocodile" because of his feared temper and ruthlessness. Even those like Mandela who suffered under Botha's rule from 1978-89 were magnanimous toward their former oppressor.

President Thabo Mbeki said Botha had led the country "at a difficult time."

"It stands to his credit that when he realized the futility of fighting against what was right and inevitable, he, in his own way, realized that South Africans had no alternative but to reach out to one another," he said in a statement.

Mbeki ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff until the funeral, said the Rev. Frank Chikane, a top presidential aide. He said the government had been ready to accord Botha a full state funeral, but respected the wishes of the family.

Chikane rushed to Botha's house to pay the government's condolences. The gesture was especially poignant, since the former head of the South African Council of Churches narrowly escaped death in 1989 when his clothes were laced with pesticides by the apartheid regime.

Botha liked to depict himself as the first South African leader to pursue race reform, but he tenaciously defended the framework of apartheid, sharply restricting the activities of black political organizations and detaining more than 30,000 people.

Through a series of liberalizing moves, Botha sought support among the Asian and mixed-race communities by creating separate parliamentary chambers. He lifted restrictions on interracial sex and marriage, and met with Mandela during his last year as president.

But after each step forward, there was a backlash, resulting in a 1986 state of emergency declaration and the worst reprisals in more than four decades of apartheid.

De Klerk ousted Botha as National Party leader in September 1989 in a bitter fight over the pace of apartheid reform. Mandela took power after the first democratic elections in 1994.

De Klerk said his relationship with his predecessor was "often strained" and he did not like Botha's "overbearing leadership style." However, he said it was under Botha's leadership that the government first made contact with Mandela and African National Congress leaders in exile.

"P.W. Botha was a strong leader and an effective organizer. I would like to honor Botha for the enormous contribution that he made to preparing the way to the new South Africa," de Klerk said.

The African National Congress, which now rules South Africa but was outlawed as a terrorist organization under Botha, was one of the first groups to offer condolences on Tuesday — a symbol of how the new multiracial South Africa is trying to heal the wounds of its apartheid past.

"The African National Congress extends its sympathies and condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of former President P.W. Botha, who passed away. The ANC wishes his family strength and comfort at this difficult time," the party said.

Botha spent his final years in seclusion, stubbornly refusing to appear in 1997 before a panel investigating apartheid-era crimes. He risked criminal penalties by defying subpoenas from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to testify about the State Security Council he had headed.

The council was believed to have sanctioned the killings and torture of anti-apartheid activists, and the panel was investigating Botha's possible involvement. In documents to the panel, Botha denied knowledge of killings, torture and bombings carried out during his rule.

Born Jan. 12, 1916, the son of a farmer in the rural Orange Free State province, Botha never served in the military or graduated from college. He quit university in 1935 to become a National Party organizer.

During World War II, Botha joined the Ossewabrandwag (Ox Wagon Fire Guard), a group sympathetic to the Nazis and opposed to South Africa's participation on the Allied side.

He won election to Parliament in 1948, the year the National Party came to power and began codifying apartheid legislation. He joined the Cabinet in 1961 and became defense minister in 1966.

As head of the white-minority government in 1978, Botha repeatedly stressed the paramount importance of national security. He charged that the anti-apartheid struggle was a "total onslaught" on South Africa instigated by communist forces.

During a series of gradual race reforms, he told white South Africans they must "adapt or die." A new constitution in 1983 gave Asians and mixed-race people a limited voice in government, but continued to exclude blacks.

The new law also drastically increased Botha's powers, changing his title from prime minister to president. He declared a national emergency in 1986 after widespread violence erupted in black areas, where anger focused on the new constitution.

State security forces brutally quelled the opposition, and one of his former lieutenants — police minister Adriaan Vlok — told the Truth Commission that Botha had personally congratulated him for bombing a building thought to harbor anti-apartheid activists and weapons.

Botha's reprisals against the black majority drew international economic sanctions against South Africa during the 1980s, which contributed to apartheid's fall.

In July 1989, Mandela went from prison to Botha's official residence for a conversation, which increased speculation that he would be freed. He found Botha holding out his hand and smiling broadly, which "completely disarmed" him, Mandela wrote in his autobiography.

Mandela said the only tense moment was when he asked Botha to release all political prisoners — including himself — unconditionally.

"Mr. Botha said that he was afraid he could not do that," Mandela wrote.

The meeting was one of Botha's last acts before he was ousted by de Klerk. He refused to attend a farewell banquet held the party he had served for 54 years.

Botha's widow, Barbara, said he would be buried in a private funeral Nov. 8, as he did not want a state ceremony.