About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

30 Nov 1999: General George Meiring in Pretoria

POM     Perhaps, General, you could just give me a little biographical sketch of yourself first, where you were born, raised, how you went into the army, a brief run through your career in the army.

GM     OK, I was born in the Free State in a town called Ladybrand, it's in the eastern part of the Free State on the border of Lesotho. I grew up on a farm and I attended a school in Ladybrand. I went to university in the Orange Free State, the University of the Orange Free State in Bloemfontein where I studied a BSC and later an MSC in Physics. I was also part time and then later a full time lecturer at the University in Physics for some of the pre-graduate courses. Then I decided to join the army, don't quite know how or why but I decided that and I came into the Corps of Signals and I started my career in the permanent force having been in the part-time force in the Commandos when I was still at university. I got my Commission incidentally in the part-time courses. Then I started my full time force career and my permanent force career at the School of Signals, at that time at Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria.

POM     What year would that be about?

GM     It was in 1963. Some time later I was selected to go on an electronic course in the United Kingdom, not at Catterick but at REME(?) at Harperfield(?), because the REME in the British Army does what the Corps of Signals does electronically in the South African Army. So I went to a post-graduate course, they called it an OLEE course, Officers Long Electronic Engineering, post-graduate. I went there for a year and I came back. I was subsequently moved to a unit where I got a command, Signals Unit, an operational unit incidentally who were the first doing electronic warfare in the South African military and I started that under my in the term that I was Officer Commanding of that specific unit. Later on I moved to become Officer Commanding of Witwatersrand Command which is now part of Gauteng with my headquarters at Johannesburg. I then later on became a Chief of Army Staff Logistics, later on I became Deputy Chief of the Army, then they moved me to at that time South West Africa/Namibia as the overall Commander of all the forces in that area. I stayed there for about four years and I was then moved to Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal at that time where I became the Officer General of the Command in the far north having responsibility for the total northern border of South Africa. I became again Deputy Chief of the Army, then Chief of the Army and then later on when General Liebenberg retired I became Chief of the Defence Force. That was in 1993. Later on, about 1994, the election came and then I was asked by Mandela whether I would continue to be the Chief of the new National Defence Force. I said I would and then I was Chief of the National Defence Force until I retired in 1998. That's more or less the synopsis.

POM     The period I want to concentrate on, during the eighties used the military command structure get briefings on what the political situation was in the country?

GM     Sure.

POM     And what the internal threats were and what the external threats were?

GM     I think it's vice versa, we briefed the politicians.

POM     You briefed them. What were identified at different points in time as the major threats internally and the major threats externally to the security of the country?

GM     You must remember that in the eighties, end of 1983, I became General Officer Commanding of South West Africa forces. My entire focus at that point in time was the northern Namibia/Angolan area where a threat to Namibia was coming from SWAPO at that point in time. SWAPO were the insurgents, Namibia was then under the protectorate, or under the guard of SA and the South African military also had a task to defend the area. There was quite a large terrorist warfare across the border. Also we decided at that point in time that to safeguard SWA/Namibia it is not possible to sit on the border itself but to make a pro-active defence going over on the other side. So we were very committed at that point in time, until round about 1987 when I left, in the threats that were basically a combination of what we called it at that point in time, Russian expansionism supplemented by Cuban and Angolan and East German forces in lesser and more ways in trying to obtain a breakthrough into Namibia. This is basically what our position was. So we perceived the external threat at that point in time as Russian expansionism.

POM     It would be the threat of communism.

GM     Of communism, but basically not so much communism as Russian imperialism. It's the same sort of thing that happened in Afghanistan. Russia at that time was very much fixed on what they called mobile defence or mobile operations where they would put forces, small forces and a lot of equipment which they could use in time of general warfare against the west. So there were a lot of tanks in Mozambique, a lot of tanks and planes in Angola. They had also in the northern part of the continent, in Libya, they had a lot of influence and so on, so that was part of what we perceived to be their global strategy and we had a small portion of that. Part of the global strategy was to get access to what the Russians called the mineral powerhouse of the western world which was the southern African continent, being along with Russia the two parts of the world that contain most of the strategic minerals in the world as opposed to the oil powerhouse which was in the Middle East. So our perception was that this was a Russian threat, not so much against SA but also against the western world. We perceived that the terrorist movements, the nationalism beginning to be fostered also by the communists for their own purposes, were used really as prongs for the Russian attack.

POM     For their larger strategic interests.

GM     For the larger strategic picture. That is how we saw the whole thing, but we also said to our government that we as a military cannot safeguard the political well-being of SA, it's a political matter. It's like a pot where you have fire underneath it. We can put the lid on, we can put stones on the lid but only so long. You must take the fire out and the fire being the political influence. So you must get your house in order as far as politics are concerned, we will safeguard the entire area. This was basically how we saw it. We saw that the communists were using the nationalist movements for their own purposes.

POM     That would be the ANC?

GM     The ANC, starting off in Mozambique with Frelimo, with MPLA in Angola, with SWAPO in Namibia, with ANC and PLA in SA and so on. So that was the sort of bigger picture. So the one we thought was used by the other one, but to try and get even is to get a political solution first then you would take away the imperial order or the bigger threat because then the pawns were no longer under influence of the bigger idea that you could utilise them, if you understand the way I'm thinking.

POM     Now when you gave advice like that, and I think it was General Malan who said that the problem in SA is 80% political and 20% security, when you gave advice like that to the government how was it received?

GM     I think it was very well received until round about the end of the time when Mr PW Botha left and Mr de Klerk came into being. Mr de Klerk was not fond of the military basically because he was not fond of the previous President, PW Botha. PW Botha played things very much his own way. He had the Security Council really as a super-government sitting almost above Cabinet which if you're not in that circle you're almost out of the normal day-to-day managing of the security aspect which was then almost the entire aspect of government's doings. So when Mr de Klerk came into power he was not a member of the Security Council at the time when he was a Minister under PW Botha. He thought that the military manoeuvred the government, which wasn't quite true, when we gave advice and we sat in and because of the fact that there were internal and external threats and upheavals and whatever, it was quite a large voice but it was never meant or tried to usurp government of its power, but that was his perception. You can also read that in his book.

POM     I have it, I have many pages marked.

GM     Anyhow, the point of fact is at that point in time he thought that the only way of doing it was doing it in a political way, which is good, but he neglected the foundation, the solid base of security which the military provided. In other words he went into negotiations without his strong arm to assist him or from which platform he could go. You know if you're in the military you always say it's good tactics to advance from a solid base. Now I think the solid base was always there provided by the military and, of course, the rest of the security forces were in SA but at that time the advice was neglected and the military was not in in the main arguments for the sake of the continuation of the political process ahead. Not that we would like to be there but we were not there, we were not even considered or asked for our advice. From that point in time onwards the government took no notice of us, nothing whatsoever.

     So, yes, to answer your question the advice was falling on good ground all the time, not necessarily that they used it like we liked them to use it, but they used that information until the time when Mr de Klerk became President. From then onwards we didn't have a real input with the same effect as we had previously.

POM     Now he mentions, if I can get the reference I must be the only one who has gone through his book line by line, I told him that.

GM     I have not read his book incidentally so I wouldn't know basically. I don't know it as well as you do.

POM     He talks about two things: one he had gone before the senior military SADF Command in March 1990 and had given a speech in which he said there was not a role for the military in politics, it's there to defend the country and that politics is up to the politicians and we will take care of that and that he could detect some kind of hostility among some of the senior people.

GM     I think that's in his mind, there was no hostility.

POM     Just given the fact that many or some of the military who were a part of the securocratic system under PW would have lost that influence and power that they had, access that they had to the State President, would it be human for some just to feel resentful that they were now out of the loop whereas they had been in the loop before?

GM     I don't think resentful is the right word. I think we were sorry that it actually happened and we felt that good advice is not being adhered to or listened to, but until the time when he had these Generals fired there was no resentment at all. I went along as Chief of the Army at that point in time to all Commands and I spoke to all people, all levels of people in the military, part time forces as well as full time forces and I think I know the spirit of the country because I spoke from the farmer who was a Commando member right through to the Officer Commanding of his specific Command and I got to know the basic spirit of the area. People were waiting to see what could happen. Resentful? No. Expectant? Yes. Doubtful? Yes, but not resentful. There was no hostility. The military never had hostility in its mind towards the government, it always served the government of the day. People who didn't like it got out. This is how we operated so the government always had the full support of the military, that was our job to see that it went like that. I can give you the assurance that there was no resentment. Perhaps some uncomfortableness, yes, because he didn't like to work the way that we supposed he should but then, as we say, everybody kisses his wife in his own style. That's his style, let us see what he can do and we sat back and looked. We gave advice, sometimes he listened, mostly he didn't, but resentment, no. But he changed when, I think unnecessarily, he initiated the demise, he used Steyn, through the Steyn Report he initiated the demise of certain officers which was not correct. I went through that and I can tell you it was not correct.

POM     You were part of the meeting that he convened?

GM     Yes, sure.

POM     Along with other senior Commanders, General Steyn put out his findings.

GM     Look the Steyn Report is another one. The meeting you're talking about happened

POM     Oh sorry, the 1990

GM     1990, I was there then. I was also part of the small group of people who met with him in his office in Cape Town just before the so-called 'Night of the Generals'. Yes, I was there, I was then Chief of the Army.

POM     And were the allegations against these

GM     Completely groundless, absolutely and completely. I can give you exact facts on that. Basically to say, you know when you are an Intelligence officer and working with this sort of thing yourself you know you cannot use the source coming from a single source only, you can't use information coming from a single source only, you must have it corroborated and supported by other evidence. Now in the course of some of the investigations a specific raid, if I can call it that, was made by the investigating officers of the investigation on to a specific Military Intelligence covert house which they used to talk to agents, the agent handlers used that house not to be contaminated by the military so they can't be seen for security reasons, and not to contaminate their agents, security-wise I'm talking about, by letting them be seen with the military.

     In the process they found things which they didn't like but because they didn't know the full facts it seemed to be out of place so he got Steyn, this is now the President, the way he got him was General Liebenberg who was the Chief of the Defence Force at that time attended or was supposed to attend a Security Council meeting. He couldn't go and Steyn stood in for him that day and he said to Steyn, 'You must now if rank(?) speaks to you on the Security Council, you is not Georg Meiring it is the military because I represent the military, you must now conduct an investigation into the goings on of the Military Intelligence Division.' Steyn said 'Yes'. He went on conducting it himself. He came and told the Chief of the Defence Force that he had to conduct such an investigation. He said, 'Well if you've got that order from the Commander you must go along because he's the Commander-in-Chief.' So he in fact assisted him, he asked myself and also General Joffel van der Westhuizen who was the Chief of Staff Intelligence at that point in time to give him all the assistance possible. We did that. But Steyn then took hold of a lot of hearsay evidence which was in the Counter-Intelligence Division of Military Intelligence. He was given that, what people said about other people, but because it was not substantiated it was never used but it was still being investigated. He put this in a type of a table in which he put the man's name, what he was supposed to be doing, what the evidence was or what facts were against him, what was mitigating, etc. Then he went to the President with that and he said 'I only have this evidence so far but it's not substantiated at all, so there is not enough to continue on it.' He said 'Have you been to National Intelligence?' He said, 'No'. So he went to a Dr Scholtz at National Intelligence (he used to be at National Intelligence) who didn't give him any files but read out of files to him. So Scholtz read certain allegations out of a paper to him, which is also not correct and I'll tell you one or two of them just to make a point. He took them down, wrote them down, gave them to the same people at Counter-Intelligence at the Military Intelligence section who made the table for him and he included them in there and then he handed them to the President.

     Now the President has had that information from Scholtz already, Steyn didn't know that. So when Steyn handed him this, it is intelligence or information from two sources. Actually it was only from one but Steyn put it in such a way as if it came from him. So then he said, 'Now I've got substantiated evidence about these certain things', which was not true. When I pointed that out to Steyn the night when he flew back he went as white as this paper. He suddenly realised how he was used for this specific area.

     Anyhow, let me tell you one or two one of the people working with me (I'm not going to call his name, there's nothing wrong with him but just for the sake of his privacy) he used to conduct operations, what we called communication operations. In other words if you can't shoot the man, talk him out it. This is basically liaison towards the enemy. So at that point in time we in the military could not act politically or otherwise against forces of the ANC like uMkhonto weSizwe because they were now not any more they were unbanned.

POM     Sorry, this is post-1990?

GM     Yes. So at that point in time they were still giving us a lot of problems and we tried to find out from our intelligence sources how they do things like that and how we can by means of media action and otherwise, speeches and things like that, sort of negate certain of these actions like the one day when we heard from a very good source that they're going to kill Oupa Gqozo who was then the Chief Minister of the Ciskei. We know it for a fact they were going to kill him but we could do nothing about it because we were in the military, it's another country next to us, we can't enter into there, etc. So I made a speech and I said they're going to kill him, and they were stupid enough to disclaim it from open stage and that weekend when they were supposed to kill him he was the safest man in this country because if anything happened to him I would have been right, you see. So it's these sort of actions that we tried to take and this specific individual was meeting up with some of the handlers of agents, which I talked about just now, in a place to enable him to know intelligence as quickly as possible to enable him to produce something which he could present to us to ask us whether we could go ahead with this specific communication operation. They met at Loftus Versveld, which was the headquarters of the Northern Transvaal Rugby Union, in one of the lodges there, a friend of his just because that was a safe place. So because National Intelligence knew the man, knew that they were there, they said these individuals are planning to disrupt the government and are meeting with people they thought were being assisting him by dislodging the government at Loftus Versveld. So they knew something but not all so they made they own deductions. This is the sort of information that went through all of this all along.

POM     So you didn't have National Intelligence and intelligence agencies within the Defence Forces working in co-ordination with each other, sharing information?

GM     On the look-like, yes, they are supposed to but they didn't. There was a lot of friction between Military Intelligence, Police Security and National Intelligence. They met together and they exchanged information but specifically National Intelligence tried to look at what the others were doing.

POM     They were spying on you?

GM     Spying on us for sure, for sure they were. They spent more time on that than looking at the external thing. This is for sure. All of us knew it at that time. So it was just one perhaps not a very good example but an example just to tell you that certain things were more or less true but the facts, the deductions coming from them were not true, they made them up.

     So those were the things that Steyn presented the President with. When we went to him he got Joffel van der Westhuizen in and he said, 'Certain things are very wrong, there are people in this military that are not doing the right thing, they are trying to work against the government and such people must go.' We said, 'Yes, if there are such people sure they must go'. But he didn't give us facts. So we went back, we were the two of us alone there, so we went back to our Commander, the Chief of the Defence Force, General Liebenberg who has now died, he was then there with Steyn and the Minister and they said they've got this list from the President and these are the people that must go. He said, 'No ways. What have they done?' So we decided and we worked the thing out and we said, 'But can't you go back to him?' So the General went back to the President and he said, 'Can you give us some time because we don't believe some of these things?'

POM     This was General Liebenberg who went back to him?

GM     Yes, yes. So he came back and he said, 'The President said I'll give you time but you must let them go or I will relieve them myself. I've got the powers under the constitution and the Defence Act to do that.' So I said to the General, 'If this is so, we take the people that are supposed to go in this list, who are very near retirement or who want to go on retirement, give them the full benefits if that is what the President wants.' Otherwise he can just let them go without any retirement annuity or anything like that. That was then when we decided to do something for the people concerned but he promised us to give us two weeks in which we can come back to him. That was the evening, Friday evening. When we reached Pretoria it was already over the news that he's going to release some people, has already mentioned certain names.

POM     He mentioned names in the - ? That was before the final list had been submitted to him by you.

GM     Yes, sure, before the time that we had. It was then whether he mentioned them or somebody else but it was in the media then. The only people that knew about it were him, Roelf Meyer, who was in the United States at that time and the leak came from the States, and the four of us that were in the plane and we couldn't get to anybody because we flew together from Cape Town to Pretoria and when we got here it was already in the news. And later on it was said by then Minister Louw, who was Minister of Defence at that point in time, he brought out a statement, a very diluted statement that said there was nothing really against these people, etc., etc. But never the President at any time said that he was wrong and that he did perhaps not do the correct thing or things like that. This is what the military didn't like about him at that point in time.

POM     That soured the relationship.

GM     Very much so. It didn't sour it to the effect that you couldn't work with him, because he was still your boss and you were still part of the government, but where there was no animosity before there were some ill feelings then.

POM     Do you think he always felt that he could rely, that the military were in the end his final fall-back card?

GM     He didn't think so. He came to that conclusion on the day of the Inauguration when he said to me, in the Inauguration of Mandela, 'But with all this, we needn't have given everything away.' I said, 'But we told you that long ago, you didn't listen.' It was at the

POM     I was at the Inauguration myself, so this was as the jets were flying over.

GM     We secured Pretoria that day. Nobody could move with ill feelings and we didn't notice it. We had people on all the ridges, we had armed aircraft flying across doing armed reconnaissance flights, we had helicopters looking for people, we had people with binoculars to look at if a bloke played with his stovepipe that day it could have been a mortar, he would have been dead. So we really secured the area tremendously and with the fly-past of the aircraft and the troops lining the streets and everything like that he said, 'We needn't have given this all away'. I said, 'I told you that a long time ago but you didn't listen'.

POM     What could he have done?

GM     I think, personally, I've never gone into it really, but I really think that it was too easy. There was no real hard confrontational dialogue, it was too easy. For instance, general amnesty was on the table, it was almost negotiated. He was the leader, two of his Ministers, Meyer and Kobie Coetsee buggered this thing up between the two of them, but being a leader, or supposed to be a leader, and if it was important enough to you, you could have told you two Cabinet Ministers 'Get out of the fray and let us get this thing right.' We are still today fighting with general amnesty which in Namibia happened overnight with a decree and everybody is happy and happy ever after. So things like that I think could have been entered into the negotiations on a much stronger basis.

POM     Do you think that he could have, how would I put it, fought or bargained harder to get a more inclusive and longer-lasting period of inclusive power sharing? For example, in Northern Ireland today they put into operation, it's enforced, it's legislatively enforced by the British government, you've got to share power.

GM     This could have been on the table completely because there was a rolling action at that point in time which could have been stopped if he had let us, and the rolling action that took away Bophuthatswana, that took away the Ciskei and those things needn't have happened at all. It could have been a good process to get an inclusive, all-sharing government. But I'm not a politician so I can't say. I just said that he could have used the military better and he didn't.

POM     He could have used, taking the case of Bophuthatswana which I was going to get to, you have the scenario of Bophuthatswana beginning to fall apart, Mangope calls on Constand Viljoen for assistance, General Viljoen says he will help, he has a certain number of Commandos in place, he flies to Mafikeng and he finds that the AWB have taken it upon themselves to involve themselves and are buggering everything up and he says, 'I told Terre'Blanche not to get involved and if I have to deal with this kind of person I'm out of here', and he promptly left.

GM     We got in that night and I called him and Jan Breytenbach to the Embassy. I said to him, 'We are now here to establish stability'.

POM     The Embassy in Bophuthatswana?

GM     Yes.

POM     So that General Viljoen was still there?

GM     He was there.

POM     With Jan Breytenbach?

GM     Viljoen came in to have a look and he came in with Mangope's helicopter and Jan Breytenbach drove in with his vehicle. I said to them 'I'd like you out of here by nightfall', and they said, ' OK we will go if you give us an escort out'. So I gave them an escort out and I took them out by nightfall.

POM     Had, let us say, the AWB which in an odd way it would seem may have been responsible for the process going forwards rather than backwards, had they kept out of it and had General Viljoen, as he says that he had up to 40 000 Commandos, well trained and disciplined, around

GM     He thought he had it but it wasn't really so.

POM     It wasn't. He thought he had.

GM     I know. I was Chief of the Army at that point in time and we had long discussions, him and me.

POM     Were you doing intelligence work on him so you knew what his actual strength was?

GM     No, because I wanted to know what my strength was and the only source of people were the people in the country, there are no two sides of people and I know every Commando whether they were loyal to the military or not and 90% of them were. So he didn't have the full facts at his disposal and I told him that and that's why he didn't go forward with the whole thing. But anyhow

POM     It's important from the point of view that he maintains that he did have enough former, he is quite plain in saying, 'If anybody from the army defected I wouldn't take them. A soldier is loyal to the government that he's serving and I wouldn't take a defector.'

GM     Be that as it may, the question is: wasn't the AWB involved in getting this thing forward or not? I say if the government was strong enough because it was a very week government at that point in time, you could get no decision, nobody wanted to take a stand on anything because they might be wrong. So when terrorist action occurred it was to them a heavenly sent environment in which they could thrive because there were Kwanjamas, a specific tribe of the Ovambo nation, living north and same Ovambos living south. In fact the Chief of the Kwanjamas lived in Angola and most of his underlings lived in Namibia. So there was a natural to and fro flowing of population which made it easy for the infiltration to take place. They were ably assisted, that was SWAPO then, by the Angolan military and the Cubans and they were sitting on the doorstep, so to speak, of the country that we were supposed to guard against terrorist acts. Whenever you chased them they ran across the border and they were safe, in a complete safe haven. It was almost in a certain area of your time like running across the border to the south.

POM     To the Republic.

GM     Almost but not quite it was even more so because we were not allowed to cross this border at all. At one stage we then put a sort of no man's land a kilometre into the area of Namibia and allowing that as a small buffer in which you could kill anybody that was in there. It didn't work. So when a large infiltration took place and a lot of people were killed, missionaries burned, schools burned, headmen killed, it was in 1980/81, the first definite attack into Angola took place. At that point in time people moved into Angola and they established bases up to about 30 kms from the border, mobile bases, temporary bases moving across, being there, having a military presence in the area, allowing SWAPO to, if they would like to come in, they have got to go from 30 kms beyond the border and you have a lot of time to try and a lot of space, or more space in other words, to try and locate them before they cross the border and being in the area. From time to time you would find that SWAPO would mass at some of the MPLA strongholds, like Shangombo, N'Giva and place like that, and from there they will then under the auspices of the MPLA/Cuban environment attack into the area again, massing a lot of people, trying to move at one strike through the night, using transport almost to the border and we were then again hampered because we were not at war with Angola itself, the Angolan people or the Angolan military, but with the SWAPO element. From then on we moved against the MPLA itself to tell them, look you mustn't give save havens to SWAPO otherwise you'll get clobbered as well and we did that. Operation Protea was the first really large scale operation we did into the country. We took Shangombo and we took N'Giva and we drove the MPLA out of it. From then on it was much easier to control the infiltration into Namibia than it was before. That was the one scenario.

     The other scenario is that there was an agreement or a treaty between the Pretoria government and Savimbi of Unita to assist Unita to combat the communist assisted MPLA because of the total onslaught, because of the communist threat that was perceived, etc. We then from time to time assisted Unita in their area when attacks were confronting them. One of the last real throws of specifically the Russians supporting the MPLA to conduct operations against Unita started in 1985. That war was never mentioned anywhere, you'll never find it. You talk about Cuito Cuanavale in 1987/88, but from 1985 to 1987 nobody spoke about the war because it wasn't supposed to happen. I was fighting it so I know about it. But then we assisted Unita in the first move against Melunga which was a strong point on the final hop to Jamba which is in the south-east. So we then got permission from our government and we stopped, we had very few people in there, used Air Force in one or two bombing raids but that was all. We had one Battalion, only two Companies of one Battalion, some advisers and some multiple rocket launchers in the area and we stopped, with Unita, we stopped three Brigades coming down. That was a nice war, to fight a war with nothing against a lot of people and two Russian Generals, it was quite nice. I liked that. That was now really, really nice. Then we stopped them and then it happened again in 1986 and we stopped them again and then in 1987 the Cuito Cuanavale thing when they really massed up there and it happened. This is just what I these are the two scenarios.

POM     What is the significance of Cuito?

GM     Cuito Cuanavale had no significance at all. It had significance insofar as that was the last MPLA stronghold as a jump-off point to the south east of the area which was an Unita area, Unita controlled area, it was the last military stronghold. That was what Cuito Cuanavale was more than anything else.

POM     But you didn't take Cuito?

GM     We were in it but we never took it.

POM     Yes. Because what I've heard

GM     If you had taken it what could you do with it? We couldn't stay there indefinitely and Unita couldn't hold it and Unita never held cities. They held areas and they left cities as strongholds and they throttled them over time. That is how they fight now. It's exactly the same thing. They control now 75% of the Angolan area and they leave these little places. They put up a token fight now and then for the holy places like Bie and Huambo and those places but as soon as the opposition becomes too strong they withdraw into the country and they fight a real guerrilla war. If we had taken Cuito Cuanavale what would we do with it? Nothing. It was too far away from us to keep indefinitely, very long logistic lines, and for what? Because Unita didn't want it so there was no real incentive taking that place. It was built up out of proportion I think by the Cubans as something

POM     That was their winner, they won there. Did the ANC play a part in the when they fighting in their camps in Angola they weren't a significant part of - ?

GM     They were fighting sometimes against Unita but on a very small scale, but they never fought us, never ever. There might be a single bloke here and there which we didn't know about but not as a group, never, ever.

POM     Operation Vula when it came to light after Mandela was released and Mac Maharaj was back here in the country, was it at that time a moribund operation or was it a real operation or was it an operation that existed more in the minds of-?

GM     It was a planned operation, it existed in the minds of a lot of senior people. We thought at one stage it had quite significance, it never had because we know so well what Operation Vula was supposed to have meant at that point in time, that there was no real threat. I think the threat was more psychological that such a thing is being planned.

POM     Sometimes even talking to Mac I got confused. Was it an operation that was supposed to be in place, that if negotiations broke down there would be - ?

GM     You see what they thought is that they wanted to have they perceived the government had a strong military behind them. They wanted to make a token effort to either obtain a certain bit of prestige or perceived to be that they were in a strong man's position also like a military force, which they never were, and this is really what Operation Vula was supposed to be. Once we knew what Operation Vula was and how and what and who is going to take place in it there was no sting in the tail, it was a pouf.

POM     So this idea of that it was an underground structure being established throughout the country with cadres ready to mobilise once the call went out is a fiction?

GM     I don't think they didn't try but it wouldn't have happened. It couldn't have happened on a very large scale because so many people infiltrated those things, specifically from the Police side, that it would have been a laughable effect. They would have known long before anything happened.

POM     OK. I've got to go see my next General. Would you mind if I came back and talked to you again.

GM     You can phone me.

GM      get somebody from Parliament to do that. That's according to the Defence Act and the constitution at the time. He can't by himself request anybody to invade a country. He could on request of that country do that and then get clarity but he can't do it on his own account, he can't pledge aggression on his own account, by himself. This would be contra to the

POM     So did the TEC, as far as you know, play any role in - ?

GM     Definitely afterwards, especially afterwards, especially when we were already there and then they, I think, they put enough pressure to bear on the government to let Mangope go because eventually Maharaj, Pik Botha and myself flew to Mangope's place, I just conducted them there, I was just there to act as their carrier so to speak. Then the spoke to Mangope and conveyed the message from the President for him to step down.

POM     'They' being Pik Botha and - ?

GM     Pik Botha and Mac Maharaj. Mac Maharaj was part of the TEC then, both were there.

POM     And you were there too.

GM     Yes. I didn't like it but I was there.

POM     So you went in first to stabilise

GM     It was after the stability, yes, it was a day or two after that.

POM     So first of all you went in to stabilise his regime and then you accompanied

GM     Stabilised the area.

POM     The area, the country, whatever, and then you went in to tell him that

GM     I was then requested by the President to conduct Minister Botha and Mac Maharaj to Minister Mangope's place and I did that.

POM     So the message was that if he didn't go voluntarily at that point then the SADF would simply

GM     They didn't say that. No, they requested him to step down. This is what they did. He said he acknowledged that he can do nothing so he would do that.

POM     It's fascinating, it's thrown me off my questions. Buthelezi, in your meetings with him do you think he was ever serious about an independent KZN or he was just that he knew that it wasn't

GM     No he was never serious as far as I'm concerned. My assessment of the facts when I spoke to him was that he was never serious about anything like that. When I spoke to him and when I heard what was being said about him he was two different things. He had very good manners all the time and he spoke very well. He spoke always in a very humble sort of way, that's his way of speaking you know.

POM     I've interviewed him ten times.

GM     He can speak a lot but he is always in a humble sort of way. He will never affront you or anything like that. But I was never under the impression that he would like to do a real thing. I think that was more in the minds of the white people and the people under him than in his own mind. If you had asked me whether Felgate thought that, I think he did, but I don't think that Buthelezi really was all in earnest about this whole thing.

POM     Going back a bit and why I'm getting into this is I had been asked to do a paper on comparing the peace processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa and particularly what the Northern Irish learned when they were at Arniston and how they applied that to their peace process and they all say they learned an enormous amount, particularly David Trimble and Martin McGuinness who are now Ministers in the same government or will be tomorrow. One of the things one gets to is people don't begin to think about negotiated settlements until each side realises that it can't win. It may not necessarily lose the armed struggle or the defence against it continues, but they're not going to win, you have a kind of indefinite stalemate. Could SA have indefinitely controlled the situation in SA using the methods it was using in the late eighties or could it only do so up to say we can do it for another five or six years but the more repressive we become that's going to have an effect, it's going to create an opposite effect which is that it will antagonise more people and more people will get engaged in the struggle, so we'll be on an escalation course where in the end we're not going to be able to contain it unless we start taking such draconian measures that even to start considering them is not

GM     It's a very difficult question. I don't know. I can tell you this that we could have continued for a number of years basically because at the time the major supporters of parties like the ANC, being Russia, were no longer able to do it.

POM     After the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

GM     They collapsed after the Berlin Wall fell down and everything and Afghanistan and their problems all over the world, so they had to use other measures to be able to continue the so-called struggle at that point in time. Perhaps if de Klerk had continued a wee bit longer he could have used the same tactics in a different strategy. In other words he could still continue to do the negotiations but there could have been certain specific safeguards built in which he talked about a lot but it was never built into the negotiating process.

POM     Like?

GM     Like certain aspects concerning a transitional government, like certain actions concerning the rights of minorities, like certain actions concerning the rights of education, language, culture and things like that, which could have been encapsulated in stronger negotiating agreements than what happened at that point in time. It all seemed to us that it was a bit too much in a hurry to finish this process. All of us told him you don't have to do it now. You must do it, yes, it's the right thing to do, you can point the way, you can start negotiations, you can satisfy a lot of people by doing things but you needn't do it as quickly and as drastically as you were doing it at that point in time. So for a long time, as I said to you, government collapsed, there was no real effective government and we had lots of problems with that. If we could continue along the way a lot of actions could have been taken that could have made it easier with the transition process to be smoother. Perhaps I'm objective, I'm looking at it in an objective way, I'm not sure, but we worked very hard to get the transitional process going because we worked from only one side to get the transitional process running smoothly and I think it ran smoother in the military than it did in any of the other departments. The transition was too sharp to make effective government at all levels governance possible, not just government but governance possible. Your civil service is going to hell and it's buggered at this moment in time. There's no effective governance at certain levels. You've got high levels of whatever in dis-management if I can call it that.

     We've always said that from the military point of view, indefinitely no, but we could keep the lid on until the time is right, perhaps the time wasn't completely right at that point in time, I'm not sure.

POM     But you couldn't have kept the lid on indefinitely?

GM     We could have kept it on indefinitely, it would have been a hell of a thing to do I think because we would then be against western countries which we didn't want to be.

POM     Let me go back to the total onslaught, the theory of the total onslaught. What in essence was in distilled form that theory? Who was the enemy that you were fighting against?

GM     It was perceived to be communism basically and, as I said, we have narrowed it down in certain areas, as far as we're concerned basically more to Russian imperialism than communism, communism being a tool of that. But let us say for instance it is communism then you have the onslaught as it was defined then, it was defined on the five pillars of the communist theory. In other words it is government, it is social, it is culture, it is everything. So the total onslaught being that it is not just a military onslaught, it is onslaught on your economy, it's onslaught on your politics, it's onslaught on your culture, it's onslaught on your stability, etc., etc., so that was in a very diluted way perhaps an answer to that question.

POM     I'll tell you why I'm asking it, one of the things I'm trying to determine in my own mind is: was the South African public, by that I suppose I'm talking about white SA, were they more afraid of communism and a communist take-over than they were of there being one person one vote, a government in which blacks were a majority but which wouldn't be a communist government?

GM     For a long time those two were synonyms. For a long time these two were the same in the minds of people. One man one vote was to them synonymous with a communist take-over, this for a long time was exactly in the minds of all people.

POM     So the government was very successful in doing that. I'm asking it because I'm trying to look at fear as being a determinant of how groups behave and fear of like in Northern Ireland Protestants fear becoming part of a united Ireland because they think they would be absorbed by a Catholic state.

GM     Yes, I think that existed for a long time in this country.

POM     Do you think it would be valid for me to make that kind of analogy that white - ?

GM     It is indeed a factor, whether it was the prime factor or not I'm not sure, but that it was a factor in the reasoning, that fear of being usurped by the masses and, as I said, that fear was synonymous with the fear of communism because it was in the minds of people very basically similar things, because openly the ANC associated themselves with the SA Communist Party. It was proclaimed from both sides that yes, we are communist in nature, socialist in nature and that was a major factor in the whole thing. Whether it was the prime factor I wouldn't know, I don't think so but it was definitely a factor.

POM     Do you think the military were ahead of the politicians in coming to the conclusion that there had to be a negotiated settlement to the situation?

GM     We have said that in the seventies already. The military, I was not in the command structure so high up as I was later, but it was being said that we can only go as far as to allow the government to negotiate a settlement in this country. This was said very long ago. So, yes, I think that minds in the military have thought about this for a long time but on the other hand the military was prepared to assist government as long as possible to get the stability of the environment to such effect that they could come to a negotiating process, come together to negotiate.

POM     I've talked to Niel Barnard on a number of occasions and he said he had agents in the ANC all over the place. In fact I'd love to tell an anecdote from a book by a man named Joseph Liliefeld who used to be the New York Times Correspondent here and he came back after 16 years and he did a Pulitzer Prize winning book. But he tells the story of he saw, I can't remember some General in Pretoria, for some reason the name Coetzee passes through my mind but I don't know who it was, but the General said, 'You know MK, ANC, we've got them riddled with agents. It's so easy, it's unbelievable.' So a year later Liliefeld got to see Oliver Tambo in Lusaka and he says, 'General such-and-such in Pretoria tells me that they just infiltrate you left, right and centre, it's no problem.' And Tambo's response was, 'Oh he is so right! We put up all kinds of screens and they come right through and do you know what? Some of our best and most disciplined members are agents.' My question to you would be, had the SADF parallel operations going in terms of infiltration of the MK?

GM     Not much because that was done basically by NIS and also by the Police. We conducted tactical intelligence. Also we conducted intelligence on our supposed threat which we did not conceive the ANC to be. We never fought against the ANC, never. We chased a few of them that planted mines but we never fought against them. Perhaps they would have thought otherwise if we did. Not like SWAPO, we fought against SWAPO and this became better as years have gone by. SWAPO don't think anything about MK, they say they're not fighters, they're politicians. It was on a political level that the infiltration took place more than a military one because there was no military to infiltrate really. What we did, we had some people in their camps to see how they trained, what they do and that sort of thing. We had people in the camps in Uganda and in Tanzania but not really on a tactical level to say how their military training was, what sort of weapons they used, what the level of their equipment was.

POM     What was your assessment of their capability as a 'fighting machine', even as a guerrilla machine?

GM     They had no guerrilla machine, they had a terrorist machine because people coming in, planting a bomb and leading out is perhaps on the verge of being either a terrorist or a guerrilla, but the guerrilla fighter he can attack the military. They never attacked us, they never dared to. They would plant an odd mine on the road, yes, but they never fought against the military.

POM     So in essence you dismissed their capability.

GM     What I have seen later also after, their standard was not very high.

POM     I was going to ask you, when it came to the integration of the SADF and you had to take MK cadres, what was the level of military professionalism?

GM     No, it wasn't very high. It was very difficult to get them to understand what military aspects mean and then they always fell back and said, yes, but we fought a guerrilla war. But even on guerrilla aspects they know very little. I spoke to some Russians that trained some of their higher level people and he had no very good praise for them. Personally, we had them on exercises, we had them on courses, we gave them every assistance possible and they struggled to keep head above water. The level of their military competence is not very high to say the least.

POM     So is this, and I'm not trying to this won't be published until the year 2002, so again you can say it on the record or off the record but it has struck me that part of the trouble at Tembe

GM     No discipline.

POM     - was that the black soldiers were not behaving according to the strict standards of military discipline, that they weren't used to it and they interpret actions against them as racism rather than as listen, this is the way a professional army, no matter where it is, this is the way it works.

GM     Absolutely. There is a large percentage of them that did that. Let me tell you why, when we started the transformation process, getting them into the military, they proclaimed there was an agreement that the names that were on a list on the date of the election in April 1994 would be the names that would be in the military afterwards, and they put a hell of a long list of names on and we couldn't find all of them. We couldn't even find some of the names and they filled the lists with people that threw stones in suburbs. They were not really military people. So I am saying to you today, we found that 40% of them are not bad, are trainable, are good people, potentially, and we could go a long way with them and we did and we are going with it. But there are 60% that are completely not military people, not military material at all and they were there to fill the lists and that is how they got there. This is for sure, everybody will deny it from their side, but this I can tell you I have proof that it is true. So that is the thing. If we could form up a natural interaction it would have been beautiful thing, but to force people from the outside that were not military people, to get them into the military is a bad thing and that's why you have things like you have in Tembe. It's not just from the ANC, it's also from APLA, ANC and APLA, both tried to fill their name list because they had a small nucleus of people that were good and some around them that were not bad but the big masses that they brought in were not military material. They never had real military training.

POM     These would have been part of the township struggle rather than people who received any military training abroad.

GM     Sure.

POM     Niel Barnard keeps on his desk, it's very funny because I saw him in Cape Town and during our conversation he walked over to me and he came back with a little paperback and it was called The People's War by General Jiap(?), the North Vietnamese General, and he said, 'I always keep this on my desk'. Going back to that the external ANC, perhaps Oliver Tambo or Thabo Mbeki went to North Vietnam, Tambo did, and saw how the 'People's War' worked against a conventional army like the Americans and developed the concept of the bush to hide the guerrilla who would peer out of it and make the conventional force stumble around. He doesn't know where the enemy is because the enemy isn't wearing a uniform to identify himself. That was the beginning of the essence of the campaign to make the country ungovernable. Now had the SADF a counter kind of revolutionary to deal with that kind of war?

GM     Yes for sure and it worked very well. We called it 'the non-shooting war'. It's a phrase I coined but it's not just my story. We had a whole thing going just before de Klerk came into being in having a management system on the basis that the British used in Malaysia, the same sort of thing where

POM     This was the National Management System?

GM     Yes, and that NMS worked exceptionally well, it worked very well until such time as the government allowed the different departments to bicker among themselves and then it sort of disappeared. When it was good and strong leadership it worked exceptionally well but, again, because the only people that were really trained in the outskirts were the military, they were normally the Chairman of the sub-structures at various military levels, and the other departments didn't like it and that put the nails in the coffin of that, but that was a very good system.

POM     Was this the campaign to win the hearts and minds - ?

GM     It was part of it, hearts and minds of people, yes part of it. But the whole Management System to get good governance at the root of all people and this worked. We had military people preparing sewers and doing training and being teachers and doctors all over the show and it worked and we got lots of and wherever we operated successfully, like in the final days when I was in Namibia or Ovambo, a terrorist couldn't move and you know about it in the northern part of Namibia, in Ovamboland. The terrorist couldn't move and that was real bush for the terrorist, they were their people. He couldn't move and we know about it because we had that whole place in good governance, there was governance right to the ground level and people talk and you got very good intelligence. Because of this the bush was disappearing fast and it was doing that here until such time as our own government neglected to conduct this thing in a good a proper way, because you've got to do it with good leadership otherwise if you allow government departments to fight one another about who's doing what, what with and who pays, then it wouldn't have happened.

POM     So in one sense the SADF were involved in creating grassroot government?

GM     Yes we were, we were at that point in time.

POM     God, they need you over at Constitutional Affairs! They could do with some help.

GM     Sometimes yes.

POM     In a sense you're saying that when de Klerk dismantled the securocrat system and the NMS, with it he dismantled the structures, whatever the military presence, that were in effect delivering structures to communities that was resulting in good government and after he dismantled those structures, those local structures that you had been successful in putting in place began to collapse.

GM     They dissolved. You see what he put in place was a vertical type governance. In other words from the Health Department right through to the lowest health bloke, we never changed that, we only co-ordinated it. In other words it was now a co-ordination at Cabinet level. With the NMS it was co-ordinated at each level so everybody knew what everybody else was doing and co-ordinating it to a specific goal. Now this bloke is building a hospital and that one is building a garage and the two don't meet up with one another, or this road isn't going where the hospital is supposed to be and this water isn't going where the people are supposed to be. So it was unco-ordinated and National Management levels at each level co-ordinated all these happenings, but then if a department didn't bring his side he was spoken to and they didn't like it and this is why

POM     Internal bureaucratic bickering, bureaucratic power.

GM     For sure, bureaucratic nonsense.

POM     Two things, and I would love to come back and talk to you again if you would not mind my doing so because you're interesting, is Operation Vula, one, and two, when you talked about Angola and you said that in Angola the SADF had to be pro-active, that meant going into Angola. Now what was the goal of going into Angola? It wasn't to march to Luanda, it was to what?

GM     Let us start from the beginning and it might make sense. The border of Namibia is very long and it's only a wire fence, it's about 1000 kms of wire fence over a flat, bushy area which is uncontrollable, it's not possible. You have parts of the population living on both sides of this border and naturally going to and fro over this border. So when the terrorist action through SWAPO appeared in the northern part of Namibia -

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.