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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

26 Feb 2002: General George Meiring

POM     You just mentioned Roelf Meyer. You served under a number of Ministers of Defence. How would you rate Roelf as a minister. You served under him even though he was there for quite a short period of time.

GM     He wasn't there very long. I cannot remember exactly how long it was but I served under him as Chief of the Army, not directly as Chief of the National Defence Force as I did with - We still had a lot to do with him. He was quite pleasant to talk to, he was not a difficult man to speak to, was quite easy-going. He tried very hard. I think he was a bit out of his depth as a Minister of Defence because that was not his training, that was not his forte, but he was quite – for the little bit that he was there, the little bit I had to do with him, I didn't find him very wrong in his doings. I think he conducted himself to his ability and that he really tried hard.

POM     Was he respected by the military establishment?

GM     Yes and no. People thought of them, that he was a bit young, didn't have enough experience and he had no time really to prove himself so I think it is unfortunate that he stayed such a short time but therefore I don't think it's very reasonable to try and play him off against one of the other ministers because he wasn't bad in doing his job. I didn't work directly with him, as I said, but I came into contact with him quite often. We were quite comfortable with him.

POM     I'm going to go back to a point, this is when we were talking about the souring of the relationship between the military and de Klerk after the 'night of the Generals', when the 23 Generals were fired.

GM     Listen, sorry, it wasn't 23 Generals, 23 people.

POM     My question was: Do you think he always felt that he could rely, that the military were in the end his final fall-back card? And you said, "He didn't think so, he came to that conclusion on the day of the inauguration when he said to me at the inauguration of Mandela, 'But with all this we needn't have given everything away'. I said, 'But we told you that a long time ago, you didn't listen.'

     Would you elaborate on that? The thread in our interviews has been that de Klerk never understood that his ace in the hole was the strength of the military and that he never used that ace against the ANC in an effective way, that in effect the ANC didn't have an army. The idea of the ANC going back to an armed struggle was more myth than reality and that if he'd used his fist a little bit tougher he could have gained more, as you said that in your negotiations with Modise and Kasrils over military operations, you said you gained 99% of what you wanted and you were able to play hardball because they knew your strength and they knew their strength and they knew your strength quite overwhelmed their strength.

GM     I think Mr de Klerk in all fairness did not understand the military. His book that he wrote, I think he quoted the security forces as two dogs on the leash which he had to control, which I think is unfortunate because it was no ways that the military or the Police wanted to usurp his power. I think they wanted to present to him the fact that they were able to give him the necessary foundation from which to conduct his negotiations further, a firm base if you talk in a military term, a firm base in which to go forward from. He did not like the previous so-called securocrats. That was a name that came later, that's why I say the 'so-called securocrats'. He did not like the previous President and the previous Minister of Defence. He thought that they were too much in cahoots, like a kitchen Cabinet. I spoke to you about that, how it was conducted, how the affairs of state were conducted at that time.

     I think he wanted to break down the perception he might have had that the military, among others, were trying to prescribe to government what to do and in the process not understanding exactly what they were trying to do he did not understand them well enough to enable him to make full use of what they could have presented him with. So, if I could elaborate, I think that was about how we perceived the President at the time.

POM     What did you prescribe to him that he ignored?

GM     It is not so much what we prescribed to him. With the previous Minister and the previous President the voices of the security people were always heard and well prepared intelligence briefings were always given, people were requested to give opinions. The Chief of the Defence at the time had to give to his Minister a review how he saw the security state at the time, how he saw the future in terms of security against a threat to security against the state and those things were taken into account when decisions were made.

     When de Klerk came in we suddenly found that decisions were made without really taking into account the existence of the military, he just went ahead and did things. He never asked us for any opinion and some of the opinions that were given, I'm sorry I cannot remember all of them –

POM     But "We needn't have given this all away", that's his words, and you said, "I told you that a long time ago."

GM     We as the military had said that we still had to conduct certain operations. When uMkhonto weSizwe was unbanned and the Communist Party was unbanned at the time we had to cease all covert operations in the country and outside the country, cease it completely. We had to manage it to a close. We at times objected to this, saying but it is not to the benefit of the state that these things should happen. We should use this as a strength, we should use the military as a strength. He said, 'No, this is not a military operation any more, it's a political operation". It is things like this, it's not a very good example but it's things like this that we told him about and I cannot give you the exact example now, I can't remember, but it was in communication with one another over time in the Security Council and places like that that this came about and that we were always sidelined as military.

POM     When you say in that connection that the military could have been used better when there was rolling mass action, that it could have been stopped and that the actions of the ANC that led to the dissolution of Bophuthatswana that that could have been stopped, and the Ciskei that that could have been stopped. In political terms if the SADF had been used for those purposes what would it have meant politically, not militarily but politically?

GM     You ask me now to give an opinion as a politician which I never was and I am still not. I can only give my opinion which I might have at this point in time. Could I give you examples? We as military had the ability without using mass force to stop certain mass movements in the streets and things like that but there were such a lot of provisos to use this force that we never used it. We had the new generation tear gas which we could have used. We were prepared to do that, you dissolve it in water and you stop an operation just like that. Nobody wants to go anywhere once they've been subjected to that. It's not lethal, it was just very irritating. You could have built a wall of foam with this sort of thing that you couldn't go through. If they tried to go through they would go home. This is the sort of thing that we had. We were never requested to use military force. We assisted the Police inside the camp. We never used military force by itself. So the question actually never came up what would have happened if we did use the military. The point is one could put the question the other way round, what would happen if this rolling mass action were stopped in time or sooner without achieving its objectives. What would have happened then? Would it not be a better political solution - ?

POM     A better political solution for whom?

GM     For the entire country.

POM     Do you now think – I will take Belfast as an example where over the years I have observed many street rioting where the Police have used either teargas or rubber bullets or plastic bullets and invariably the impact has been you stop it, the next day you have double the number of the people. You've doubled the problem, not halved it. They come back and you've got to use double the force, there's an escalating factor attached.

GM     There was an escalating factor attached in this because of the success that was achieved. When the first type of rolling action achieved success the next one was going to be much easier. Look at the Ciskei. At the time of the so-called massacre Ronnie Kasrils led the people out the stadium into the Ciskei which he had no authority or freedom of action to do so. He thought nothing would happen. These people were, if it was seen that there was a will to stop these things that sort of massacre actually wouldn't have taken place because they would say we can't do this because we would be fired upon. Nobody thought that they were going to be fired upon. So there was never in that past a complete will observed by the people inducing the mass rolling action and things like that where people against them objected strongly enough to stop them or to stop the force and throw it back. So they succeeded more and more by success, success breeds success.

     I'm not sure where we can contemplate even, you can look back at Ireland, I can look back at this where it never happened. I said because it wasn't stopped completely, just a few rubber bullets here and there and then they continue and at times the Police drew back and they just run through the streets. If you take the thing that happened in Jo'burg where a lot of Zulus got killed, it grew out of hand because there was no strong action at the time where you could stop them before it started to happen. A mob has got a spirit of its own, a will of its own, more than the combined will of the people. It's a complete living thing. So if you stop people before they become a mob it's much easier than to try and stop them once they become a mob and once they get a success at becoming a mob it's inducing the people's minds, they say this is the way that we can obtain success, let us do it.

POM     Did you as an operating assumption, going back to the first point that I raised, did you believe as the SADF that since throughout your remarks it's clear that the SADF had scant regard for the MK as an army, that you never had an encounter with them, never had a face-to-face encounter with them, that any kind of threat on their part to resume the armed struggle was in fact an empty threat because there never really had been an armed struggle?

GM     Sure. We were not confronted by an armed struggle, we were confronted by insurrection inside the country, stone throwing, mass action, action against people living in the townships, to control the mines by means of violence. We had mass terror inside – people were burned alive, they were killed by means of this necklacing action, to turn their minds and to force people to go along with these actions. Of course there are two sides to it but what I was saying, the whole point when you first started talking to me about this now is our perception was that if you were able to use stronger force in the beginning it could have been possible that you could have a better way in which to conduct negotiations than to really start talking out of a position of weakness. The whole action was allowed to run out of hand completely.

POM     Do you think that the government began to talk out of a position of weakness because it, won't say talked itself to being in a position of weakness, but didn't recognise the tools it had at its hands to operate out of a position of strength?

GM     It is very difficult for me to answer that question because I simply don't know but if you just think what happened, that because of mass action, because of the insurrection, because of the terror in the country, things outside also got out of hand. We also, at that point in time we normally talked about a total onslaught which was the actions inside the country as well as co-ordinated actions outside the country inducing the nations of the world, they used to act against the government of SA to threaten and also to enforce various bands and various measures economically and otherwise. So it's difficult to say what really brought the government to the point that they would start negotiating. People were starting to talk long before that but it wasn't a concerted effort. It was only after de Klerk came into being and when the ANC were unbanned that it was possible to start these actions in a concerted way but I don't know what induced the government to do it at that point in time. I think that if you had exerted a stronger will the negotiations would have been conducted easier.

POM     When you say a stronger well do you mean - ?

GM     People like room and I think also de Klerk thought that it would be easy to talk to the ANC under the table and it wasn't. They were very well prepared, their negotiators were very well trained, they were well drilled, they came to the negotiating table with very strong objectives and they kept to it. Mandela oversaw these things although he was never there. Every night he went into it with his negotiators and he was brought into the picture the whole time and he and the others controlled the whole thing, where in the case of the government various ministers didn't even know what was going on. They were not really interested. Kobie Coetsee was never there, de Klerk was never there. They had a meeting once or twice a fortnight to be told by Roelf and others what was actually going on but it wasn't such a concerted effort from the government's point of view. They thought they were in command but they weren't. So I say if they were better trained and they used all their facilities, among others the military and the security strengths of the country to best advantage it could have been a better conducted negotiation.

POM     Let me ask you two questions on that. One would be a military analogy. On the one hand you seem to be saying that the ANC came into negotiations with a very clear defined objective in mind and that they never took their eye off the ball, they knew exactly what they wanted.

GM     That's our perception, yes.

POM     While the government went into negotiations without any clear perception of exactly what it would settle for so it had its eye on a number of balls but no particular ball so in a sense, I wouldn't know how to put it in military terms, the army with a clear objective just walked right through an army with no clear objective as to which way it was really going, one. And two, that the government underestimated the ANC completely.

GM     That is for sure.

POM     That despite all the intelligence they had gathered over the years and their infiltration at different levels of the ANC, as you said they thought they were going to talk these people under the table whereas it turned out the opposite happened.

GM     A very good example of that, of both of these actions, was amnesty. There was an open window to talk for general amnesty. The ANC wanted it, the government wanted it, but because of the fact that two ministers were at loggerheads about when to use this as a weapon, when to use this as a coercion, when to use this as trying to get something – the opportunity closed because the ANC saw that they were going to get what they want without having to compromise on this. We had the TRC, we had all those actions that never really worked for reconciliation of the country, but quite the opposite. So if we had general amnesty like Namibia had it would have been much better for the country as a whole than all these actions of the TRC afterwards and the crying and the shouting and the one says it's your fault, the other one says no it's your fault, all this nonsense would have been stopped and it would have been much better for the country as a whole than what transpired later and just because there was no clear cut policy about that at that time. De Klerk was then President, Kobie Coetsee was Minister of Justice and of Defence, Roelf was the Chief Negotiator and between these two they bickered about this very important aspect and de Klerk never, as far as we could see, as far I perceived, never really made a stance on that specific aspect. A leader had to lead. If this is so important, let us say it was very important to us, why couldn't we have used this because we knew that the ANC also wanted this. But someone wanted to pull it back and the other one wanted to use it at a different opportunity and nothing happened. So it is an example of what you were just saying of both these two aspects of the points that you put to me.

POM     Is this also an example of strategic misjudgement on the part of the NP, that in the beginning when indemnities were being granted and whatever, the balance of power as it were lay on their side so they could use indemnities and the question of amnesties as a bargaining chip, but as the balance of strategic forces changed, moved over to the ANC, and they said 'Gotcha!'

GM     I can only suppose that this is what happened but this is how we perceived it. We perceived it as that there was an opportunity that was completely lost – to everybody, not just to us on our side at that time but also the ANC on their side …

POM     In fact at the Pretoria Minute an amnesty had been drawn up that was agreed upon by both Niel Barnard, I think, and I don't know who on the ANC side, had drawn up a draft and Kobie tore it up. He was mad he wasn't consulted about it.

GM     Strange man. Let us now just extrapolate on that. How could a minister, if you were now negotiating for the future of the country, how could a single minister have been able to tear a thing up or to throw a spanner into the works, so to speak, in such a delicate matter if there was good leadership? It wouldn't have been possible. If de Klerk was a strong leader at the time and he was with it the whole time it shouldn't have happened. An individual minister couldn't or shouldn't have been able to do a thing like that. Is it not true? Don't you think something like that is unheard of?

POM     Especially when two sides agree.

GM     Of course. Kobie is dead now, you can't go and ask him why he did it, but the point of fact is that he didn't like it and because he didn't like it, he wasn't consulted, a very delicate thing was thrown out of the window. And later with the negotiations about amnesty, the World Trade Centre agreements were also thrown out because at that point in time it took too long and the ANC said the door of opportunity closed.

POM     On amnesty, just say it's coming up to the finalisation of the interim constitution, the question of amnesty has not been addressed and the interim constitution is about to be passed and a date for the election has been set, you as the military are being asked to ensure that there are free and fair elections, order and stability in the country on election day and at the same time you're faced with a sword over your head that the day after you ensure free, fair and orderly elections the new government might instigate a whole series of Nuremberg type trials. What incentive would there have been for you to ensure? Did you not have a bargaining chip too?

GM     Can I just put something straight a bit. It wasn't as if there was nothing done with amnesty. In the post-amble of the constitution there is a paragraph describing that general amnesty had to be – or shall be introduced but it was never decided how. The terms of reference for this were never decided. So later on it came about that the TRC was now going to be this general amnesty sort of thing but it was conducted in a way that wasn't suitable for all sides at that point in time so there was something in the interim constitution that did look to this. We, as military at the time, believed that because of the fact that we acted as soldiers that we did what our orders were in terms of international law, international rules and regulations concerning combats and combatants, that because of the fact that you did not over-extend your orders that you did not over-extend yourself in terms of that, you should not do what you're supposed to do within the realm of things like the Geneva Convention, that nothing really could be happening to us because we believed that we did not conduct anything unlawfully and wrong. This was basically fact.

     What then happened in Namibia at the time, there could have been a lot of actions brought against SWAPO at the beginning because SWAPO conducted a terror operation in Ovamboland and it was perceived that because of this fact and because of the fact that any Nuremberg type trial and anything afterwards would not be to the betterment of the country as a whole, to the people, it was decided let us forget everything, let us forget what 'they' did and we said these two 'theys' are now one, they're now 'us' and that worked well. But because of the terms of reference here in this country it never was the same, it wasn't agreed to before the time like in the negotiation process. It left it hanging in the air to be acted on later and that I think was the mistake. You believed that things could go better but it wasn't necessarily correct.

     And again when the TRC was introduced in the beginning it looked alright but as it progressed it became a wailing house. People tried throwing stones at one another and it brought things back that were long forgotten on both of these 'they' sides. These two 'theys' never became an 'us'. Very difficult because of this fact. Now that the TRC is a thing of the past, so to speak, not completely but it's not in the news any more and things like that, people tend to get along better now because nobody is now hampering on these old things. But if there was a proper way in which this was conducted from the very beginning then it could have been much better.

     But to answer your question again, we as a military didn't perceive us to be included in any Nuremberg trial and it was better for the country to remain calm and collected and everything because then it is much better to conduct the governance of the country than it would have been if there was chaos. So that is why we actually did it.

POM     In fact the language of the post-amble, "There shall be amnesty", suggests a certain unconditionality, as though there shall be amnesty. It didn't say but there will be A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H –

GM     For sure.

POM     That just struck me just now that it was a very in fact straightforward statement. They didn't say there will be or there might be, it said there shall be.

     To move on to General Viljoen and this goes to General Viljoen when he talked about having 40 000 commandos well trained and equipped and you said, well he thought he had but it wasn't really so. I said, :Well how did you know that?" and you said, "I know, I was Chief of Army at that time and we had long discussions, him and me." What type of discussions did you have?

GM     Look, in the time leading up to the 1994 elections we in the military had lots of intelligence and perceived intelligence, or what we extrapolated was that could happen in the future, to indicate that if the country went haywire whether it be instituted from the left or the right it could have resulted in utter chaos. We could have had a Bosnia, which at the time was still relevant. We said that from the military point of view it is better to conduct your negotiations in a peaceful way.

POM     You said this to Viljoen?

GM     No, we said to ourselves at the time. And that we should be prepared to step in and reassert the government of the day whenever things got out of hand, whether it be instituted from right or from left. Then we as the military initiated a number of talks, I talked to a number of people. I talked to Hartzenberg, I talked to Viljoen, I talked to Buthelezi, I talked to the NP, many of the ministers. We tried to tell the people at the time that you must be calm, it is better to conduct a peaceful election, to continue with the negotiations, get an election going and conduct it peacefully than to try and usurp power from whatever side.

POM     Would you say, for example, to General Viljoen, Constand, or whatever you call him, you're a military man, you say you've got 40 000 commandos, for God's sake how long can you maintain a war with –

GM     I never spoke to him like that but I said to him he mustn't do anything wrong because we will not allow it. He said, "Will you stop me?" I said, "Yes, General, I will stop you." I served under him a long time and still today he's a friend of mine. I've got a lot of respect for him but I told him at the time that what, "You are trying to do, if what I think you're going to try and do is correct, is wrong, because I can take the government over tomorrow." As the military it was the easiest thing in the world, there's nothing to it, but like the little fox terrier dog, once he's caught the bus what's he going to do with it? It would be utter chaos because the entire world would be against you, so for the sake of your children how can you contemplate to try and take over a government, going against the stream, hence the tide at that point in time, and saying OK we've now done it so let's continue with it, but there's no point in it.

     We spoke around this, I can't tell you exactly what we said because there were a number of conversations we had. Ferdi Hartzenberg I could never talk to, he just said, "No this is wrong and I will do my thing and I'm not going to go into the election." He phoned me at three o'clock one morning and he said to me, "I've got good news for you, we are going into the election, we're going to fight."

POM     This is after Bop right?

GM     Yes that was long after that when he phoned.

POM     Do you think he made calculations of not only what was good for the country but that military operations – ?

GM     He's a very level-headed man and he might be able to conduct operations with a number of people that he possibly could put in. I think perhaps, I'm not sure whether he did, that if he started taking the lead people will follow him generally. I told him it's not true.

POM     That's from the army?

GM     Yes, from the whole Defence Force. I told him it's not true because, "I know the Defence Force and I'm not going to be the instigator of fighting against brothers, I will not do it. I'm telling you now I don't want it because if I've got to do it I will do it but I'm not going to instigate it." And that is – I think I contributed towards his decision eventually that he must conduct it in a peaceful way. But it's difficult to say exactly when and where and how. I'm just telling you that we talked a lot and I think because of this – you will remember that Buthelezi was also one who didn't want to go into the election from his side and also in that case they turned around and said that they will now continue with the elections. That was also a godsend at the time because what Viljoen thought I think at the time was that he and the Zulus could go along which could have worked but again, so what? Once it worked then what do you do in the future?

POM     Let me go back to Bop for a minute. If Mangope had been retained in power rather than removed, you were there with Fanie van der Merwe and Mac Maharaj and Pik Botha and whatever, and if he had had his legislature meet the following week and decide not to participate in elections, would that not have created a crisis scenario?

GM     I think it could have but not necessarily because similarly some other people like Buthelezi, like Viljoen, were convinced later to continue and to be part of the elections. I don't think Bophuthatswana was a big enough factor to really put everything – I think the government of the day could have achieved what it wanted to without having to oust Mangope, but that's my personal opinion it's not necessarily correct, but my personal opinion.

POM     If Mangope had not taken part in elections or refused to would the army not have had to go in? Remove him from power?

GM     I don't know. I don't know what could have or should have or would have happened. I never gave it any real thought.

POM     To go back to Operation Vula, we talked before. My question to you was: 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 that existed more in the minds of the senior people in the ANC? And you said, 'It was a planned operation, it existed in the minds of a lot of senior people. We thought at one stage it had some significance. It never had because we know so well what the operation was supposed to have meant at that time, that there was no real threat. I think the threat was more psychological than such a thing being planned.'

     You go on to say that you knew –

     (End of side 1 of tape)

POM     You go on to say that you knew that Operation Vula existed before it was actually uncovered by the Police or whatever in June of 1990.

GM     I can't remember the exact dates but before it became general knowledge that Operation Vula existed we knew it existed.

POM     Now you knew it existed in what form?

GM     As a plan to be conducted.

POM     Now they had a communication system that was described in that book, The Days of the Generals that came out recently, that was system that intelligence agencies here never cracked over a two year period. So Operation Vula was operating in the country, Mac Maharaj was coming in and out for two years, Mandela was actually in touch with Oliver Tambo in Lusaka through their communication system, they were running it through London, they were in communication with their cadres in the country, they were bringing people into the country. You were not aware of this?

GM     Yes and no, not the complete details but that the operation existed, that many of the aspects and things taking place we knew. It was sometimes easier to not track down in the beginning of an action. It is now difficult, my memory is not so good on times now. I can't tell you exactly when did we know what, but a lot of their actions and the fact that Operation Vula existed and the fact that what it was supposed to do, I am not sure that at the time we knew long before the time exactly how it operated but what it was standing for, what was going to happen.

POM     What did you think it stood for?

GM     The overthrow of the government, that's what it was supposed to do. It was the overthrow of the government at the time, to take possession of the government of SA.

POM     Now Operation Vula continued right through the end of 1991.

GM     It continued after Mandela was set free.

POM     That's right. And Mandela knew that.

GM     Yes he knew that.

POM     Was Mandela playing a double game, negotiations on the one hand - ?

GM     Of course he was. Mandela wrote the end plan. What was the end plan is the Mandela plan, that was the very beginning of the entire operation of the ANC, the infiltration, the rolling action in the townships, all those things were written in with and by his instigation and by his concept. So the end plan was named after Mandela and he did a lot of these things out of prison. So, yes, he knew about this I am sure.

POM     This goes further –

GM     He couldn't otherwise, he couldn't not know about it.

POM     But he knew about it when he was in prison which meant that the ANC actually had a presence in the country that was communicating with Mandela.

GM     But of course the ANC had a presence in the country. This is so otherwise nothing would have happened in the country. Of course the ANC had –

POM     This was when they still banned, this is senior leadership?

GM     But look the ANC structure was that they had machineries, one for the Cape, one for the Western Transvaal, one for the Northern Transvaal, one for Natal, one of the Free State, one for the Eastern Cape, that they conducted from outside the country, smuggling people in and inciting people here. This was going on and we knew about this.

POM     Yes but that's different from Operation Vula.

GM     I'm just making this point to tell you that the ANC was in the country. Some of them went to and fro into the country.

POM     The ANC would say that the purpose of Operation Vula was to bring the leadership of the ANC into the country covertly because what you had was a situation of where the foot soldiers were sent in and out of the country or to carry out operations whereas the Generals were sitting in Lusaka and what you had to do was to bring the Generals into the country to co-ordinate the activities and in order to do that you had to have a communication system that allowed for effective co-ordination of activities, their rationale being that in order to conduct a successful conflict of any kind you have to have a superb communication system and what they lacked was s superb communication system and they developed a superb communication system that –

GM     No, it wasn't superb. It was a communication system but it was by no means superb.

POM     But it was not cracked?

GM     No it wasn't cracked but it was known to exist. It wasn't cracked as such but it was general knowledge that it was there. People knew, maybe not exactly at each instant in time, but they knew if a bloke was coming in, yes, if a bloke was going out, yes, we'd know about it.

POM     So you're saying that you could unencrypt their messages?

GM     Many, many of them, yes.

POM     So you knew that they were sending, say, people like Nyanda into the country?

GM     Was here once in the Eastern Transvaal, stayed here for three days and moved out. We were just not quick enough to catch him.

POM     Mac says he was here for two years with him.

GM     Mac could say many things. Perhaps he's right but the thing that we know that he was here once for three days and then he moved out into Swaziland.

POM     OK. They would say that they had an encryption system, that they used computers and telephones to send messages back and forth almost instantaneously between SA, London and Lusaka, (a) were you aware of that and (b) were you able to crack the encryption that - ?

GM     We as military didn't crack it. We knew about it, the people that were doing the interception of those communication because they did satellites and telephone interception was the Bureau of Intelligence at the time, NI as it was later known, National Intelligence. They did at a station outside Pretoria where they intercepted satellite and telephone traffic, everything that went on trunk lines. They did also decryption. Yes, let's of the stuff coming in was coming from them as a source, yes.

POM     So then you knew that the ANC were moving their senior leadership into the country, you knew that they were moving arms into the country.

GM     Arms we knew yes.

POM     And yet you did nothing?

GM     No. We never knew exactly when, where and why. We conducted a lot of operations with the Police and you must remember again we in the military were assisting the SA Police in operations inside the country. We never conducted autonomous operations inside SA. We found lots of caches just soon after they were strung and taken away. We got a lot of caches. A lot of these things were taken, caches were taken and never mentioned, we just took them away. We found caches a lot and we found – how many AK47s did the Police burn or crack up the other day? The lot that was taken recently. They had lots and lots, stacks of them. We had mines and hand grenades and limpet mines and ammunition and AK47s by the ton which we collected all over the country. Sometimes we were lucky, sometimes not.

POM     Let me get back to the point of the communication system. It wasn't until General Nyanda, Gubuza, was arrested with the unencrypted disks, Vula papers rolled out, that the Police and security forces could only unencrypt those papers that already been unencrypted. They couldn't unencrypt the rest because they didn't know how.

GM     I'm not sure. I can't agree or not agree with you. I don't know.

POM     That's kind of a sparring point in a way. You're saying yes on the one hand we knew there was an operation called Vula, we knew that there was a communication system, we were able to unencrypt messages through that system, it wasn't as sophisticated as they thought it was. We knew about the movement of arms into the country, we knew about the movements of leadership into the country and yet we did nothing.

GM     That is not doing nothing.

POM     But that's allowing them to build up their stockpiles an to build up their leadership. Was this an entrapment thing?

GM     I'm not sure what you're trying to ask me now. I knew about Vula, I knew a long time about it.

POM     You knew about Vula before Mandela was released?

GM     Yes, yes. We also knew at that time that these things led up to … but again during that time we were hampered a lot by government to use certain operations which we wanted to do outside the country, outside the operation areas, because most of these caches were built up just outside in Mozambique and brought in, filtered in. They were put into places like Zimbabwe and they were filtered in and many of these things were taken as they came with the carriers, with people that knew nothing. But a lot of these things we were pre-warned and we'd ambush and catch them with the Police because we assisted the Police in that. They were very jealous about the entire operation, the Police were, Security Police, because that was their operation, they had it. We saw many of these transcripts which they told us that had –

POM     You saw them before or after Nyanda was arrested, and Mac was arrested?

GM     Listen, we were doing these things – I knew about Vula when I was in Northern Transvaal Command. Now what time was that? Back to Pretoria in April 1989, so it must be 1988, 1989 that we knew.

POM     But no action was taken? I don't get the –

GM     I cannot tell you no action was taken because it was part of the entire action plan. It was information that came in which was acted upon many times and there were many successes but we in the military did not control or contain the entire operation. We knew that the operation existed, we knew that we were now doing things against certain aspects of that operation but we never had the entire operation because it was a land-wide one. I was at that time in Far North Command. The operation against Vula was not a military operation so I cannot answer all your questions because I just don't know. I'm telling you what I know, I can't tell you more, I'm sorry.

POM     Because I'm trying to get at, and you are so far my best source, is that on the one hand Vula didn't break into the public headlines until July 1990 when General Nyanda, who is now Chief of Staff, was arrested and the computer disks were in his car and the computer disks were unencrypted and that led them to the safe houses and they found more stuff there and that's how the Vula papers came out of what it was supposed to be. But before that when there had been no talk at all about Vula and according to the resolutions of the ANC passed in 1986 which began preparations for Vula, the purpose of Vula was to move the senior leadership of the ANC into the country, members of the NEC itself, so that they could take control and set up co-ordinated structures but in order to do that they first of all had to develop a communication system that would be almost invulnerable to the authorities and they would maintain that the system that they did set up was in fact invulnerable until the day –

GM     I cannot tell you exactly yes or no but I can tell you that we as military, who assisted the Police and the Security Police in operations, knew about Operation Vula and I said I knew about parts of it when I was in Far North Command and that was round about 1988 when I was there, from Namibia. I was let to believe that we got these things from National Intelligence of State Security but we got them from them because they did certain interceptions, that this was a nation-wide operation controlled by the Police in actions against them and that we assisted against these things. So that we knew about it, that we knew over a long time about Vula in the ways that we conducted operations with the Police is correct. The detail of what you are saying, I didn't work with it, I'm not completely aware of.

POM     Did you know Mac Maharaj was in the country for the better part of two years?

GM     I was told that he was in the country. I didn't know that.

POM     Running around and nobody could find him.

GM     I don't know. I was told that he was coming into and out of the country at various times, yes.

POM     How did he manage to do this almost at will?

GM     I don't know. It's a big country, I don't know. As I told you before there were a number of things from the government side that were not functioning well. The one was the co-ordination between the intelligence agencies. I told you that last time. It was the Bureau of State Security, it was the Security Police and it was the Military Intelligence. There was no good co-ordination between those three organisations. There was jealousy between the Police and the military in conducting operations. Everyone wanted to catch the limelight, specifically the Police and in this it was difficult to co-ordinate operations properly. Many times that the military wanted to be in charge of operations they said, 'No, you can only assist in these operations'. So things could happen, yes, that were not completely controlled, not completely looked after, not completely acted as a military operation because the operations inside SA were not military operations. This is correct. So you could get your answers from that, that, yes, things like this could have happened because of the mal-functioning of that part of the government security structure.

POM     If you were aware of the existence of Vula would General Johan van der Merwe, the Commissioner of Police, have been aware of it?

GM     At the time he was Chief of the Security Police he might have been. I don't know, I didn't speak to him at that time. He might have.

POM     He should have.

GM     But he should have known about it. I can say he should have known about it. I didn't speak to him so I can't say, I can't talk for him but perhaps he did. He should have. If we'd known it on ground level they should have known it. Look, I don't know whether they wanted to put this operation to continue so as to be able to capture red-handed a lot of people once they were all inside the country. I'm not sure whether that was part of the entire plan, I'm not sure. I don't know, it could have been because if I contemplate I can say it might have been so because of the fact that we knew about Vula and in your words we did nothing, it could have been that they were trying to get hold of people to conduct operations in such a way as to get more of them –

POM     Setting a trap.

GM     - and not only arresting one or two. It could have been.

POM     Did you ever hear of a KLM courier called – she was an air stewardess?

GM     No.

POM     Antoinette –

GM     I later heard of her. Once the whole Vula thing came about I heard of her. But I didn't know.

POM     For two years came in and out of the country with laptop computers and money?

GM     No I didn't know about that.

POM     Would you call that an awful breach of security?

GM     It could have been because, again, it's not very difficult to bring anything into a major airport, it's not too difficult. People from the USA every so often they don't know anything about it, so it is not too difficult at a major airport. It wasn't my kettle of fish, I don't know.

POM     OK, we've exhausted Vula.

GM     Sorry, Vula is one of the things I know very little about.

POM     But it was not – you're saying in the longer run it did not pose a serious threat to the government, that there were not structures in place at any time that could have mounted any kind of armed insurrection against the - ?

GM     This I'm quite sure of, yes.

POM     That if anything it was in its infancy and at best a poorly weaned infant.

GM     We were never convinced that if the entire ANC came into the country all at once and started to move in a big way that it was any threat towards the security of SA. The thing that was a problem was the way they did conduct operations as mass moving action, as terrorism in terms of getting people to do what they liked to do, that sort of thing. But as a major effort it was never considered as a real threat. In other words it was not a military threat.

POM     Just to go on your own logic to pick you up on a point you talked about, how world opinion would perceive certain things, and to go back to your point of if you had used military action like teargas or plastic bullets or whatever to stop rolling mass action do you not think that the pictures of that appearing around the world during a period when negotiations were going on would have created an uproar that would have reverberated against you in a political way far more than any political gain you might get from it?

GM     What we could also say is that if there was no insurrection no uproar inside the country as an opposition to what it actually has been, it could have been that people would also conceive SA as a more stable country, that the negotiations were going well. I don't know, it's a very difficult question to answer. One is now looking backwards with the power of hindsight and it's not possible to say exactly how things could have happened. One can just look at things like in Bosnia, like in Herzegovina, in those places, where in times of negotiation and absolute chaos that existed there the whole world opinion was against it and in times of more stable conditions people tended to think that it was going well. I'm not sure how it could have been, it's difficult to say now. One shouldn't have stopped it, one shouldn't have let it get out of hand until the negotiations, one should have stopped it before the time and get to the negotiation table without the insurrection having taken place.

POM     Leon Wessels made a remark to me once and it was during the emergency in the presence of President Botha who said, 'We have detained 30 000 people and all I get are more people who want to be detained.' He said it in frustration, recognising that the more people he detained rather than containing the situation, he was creating a situation where in fact more people were coming out willing to be detained.

GM     I can't comment on that. I think that was part of the way we handled things because he didn't handle it strongly enough.

POM     He didn't handle it strongly enough? You detained 30 000 people and it doesn't work?

GM     That's the point, why did he detain them? Why not use measures that it's not necessary to detain people or want them not to continue again. It's also possible.

POM     It would be better not to detain them than to detain them?

GM     Perhaps, I don't know. If you had to contain – if you had to stop rolling mass action before it started it wasn't necessary to contain people. Why did you arrest them if they're not breaking the law at the time?

POM     My point would be that here there's this mass rolling action, the UDF are on a roll. You go out, you detain close to 30 000 at one time, you close down their operation and rather than having the desired effect of closing off the operation it just serves as a spurt –

GM     When the UDM started the military made … that this is a very dangerous organisation, it must be stopped before it gets out of hand. We were told, no, it is a good organisation, we'll let it go because it is an outlet for the people. If it was stopped at that point in time nothing could have happened, or maybe nothing would have happened. The point is they continued with the operation until it got a threat towards them so then they started to try and detain people because in the beginning they could have detained tens and not thousands. This is the sort of thing that we're talking about. Every time things were let go too far before it was clamped down on. So this is but one example that I can give. But again we've got the power of hindsight, at the time one didn't know.

POM     I come back, I know I'm being repetitious, but I'm trying to emphasise a point, the emergency, PW said, 'I'm going to stop the UDF in their tracks', and he did. He took 30 000 people into detention at one point and he went around complaining, 'This damn thing isn't working. All that's happening is that there's more dissent rather than less dissent.' So if you've a political situation that is the essence of political – an outlet, it's like the Leipzig Option that at a certain point if you detain 30 000 people, 60 000 people will appear on the street. If you detain 60 000, 100 000 will appear on the street just as happened in Eastern Europe.

GM     It is easy now because we've got again, looking back at things that happened. If you're going before the time it was not necessary or it shouldn't have been necessary to have to have these emergencies. Everybody did their work inside SA well enough. It might not have been possible, necessary to have to have -–and because of the fact that for a long time the powers to be inside the country specifically the Police let things go for far too long that was when it started rolling on itself, feeding on itself. Once the state of emergency was proclaimed it was a long way beyond the fact that you could really do anything about it, you could just curb it. You couldn't really dismantle it. You could have dismantled it before the time, long before the time. And there were instances in time, I could remember when I was a Commander in Jo'burg, where I listened, I sat in and I listened to a Military Intelligence briefing where these things were handed up, that the UDF is a problem, that we should at this point in time start detaining these people to prevent them to continue instigating people and then you could solve a future problem. And it was said, no, it is not correct, we have got everything under control (that's from the Police side). So for a long time people were too complacent in SA. Things were allowed to run out of control and then to clamp down on an action as to say it's now a state of emergency is far too late, to try and curb a stream of a dam that's already burst, you can just divert the water, you can't stop the stream.

POM     When you're saying people were too complacent, you mean that the government was too complacent, that the authorities were too complacent?

GM     The authorities were, the security people were. They were not just complacent, they were incompetent. They instituted this type – there was Bantu Affairs, things like that, at the time where they tried to control the townships by means of administrators which they introduced who were not necessarily people who were very competent in doing their jobs, trying to do good governance at ground level and achieving the opposite, where people were not able to look after the well-being of the black people inside the townships. I can recall numerous problems in Sebokeng when I was in Jo'burg, in Alexandra, in Soweto itself, in Tembisa and places like that where we conducted and we started off at that time and which we spoke about the last time, these small ground level bodies that tried to co-ordinate the work of all the government bodies, to do better governance at ground level. But if we are always frowned upon by other departments who think –

POM     This is the National Management System?

GM     Security Management System yes. That we were always frowned upon by the other ministers and the other department heads and the department people on the ground that we were trying to do their job, but we were trying to show them where they went wrong and they did nothing. All these actions were contributing towards the later rolling action. It was a good ground for them to build on to these things. Now as I say we are very wise at this point in time but we as the military made these recommendations a very long time ago and we were always frowned upon.

POM     You made a distinction the last time, quite a stinging distinction between the SADF and the Police, the way the security branches could have been unaware of things like Vlakplaas. In that sense was a third force, if you like, you had senior elements in the Police or the security forces condoning or ordering or being aware of actions that were downright criminal, would you agree?

GM     No I cannot agree there was a third force. I think that people allowed things to happen. Again, look at the military way of operating. You never operate as an individual, you always operate as a band of people. The lowest level of a band of people is a section of troops or a squad in American terminology. The next higher group of people is a platoon, then you get a company and then you get a battalion and then you get a brigade and then a division and so on. So you are always working in conjunction with other people. You always conduct operations together. You always are controlled from the top, you've got command and control, proper command and control to the soldier on his two feet the whole time. The Police are not like that. They are trained to operate, and it's good for them because they've got to do it this way, they're trained to operate as an individual, the Bobby on the beat he must arrest someone that is doing something wrong now, must arrest him. But many a time it is easier not to prevent something but to let it happen and then to arrest him. So it created inside the policeman's mind that he is an individual, he can do things by himself. He would either be frowned upon or he will be praised, so if he gets away with it to do a thing that's not completely right and he's not being frowned upon, he's not being disciplined, he's either praised or just let be, he might continue to do things in a certain way. Then you could find bands of people who are not or who could conduct criminal-like operations which in the perception of the people at the time were beneficial for the country as a whole and they just let it go. It wasn't a co-ordinated force. So there never was a co-ordinated third force as such as was led to believe by the media and by the other people around. But that there were things happening that were either just glossed over or tactically agreed to have it done or it just happened, you can just turn a blind eye on it, I don't know. It could well be but that is not a third force. But things like that did happen that's for sure.

POM     Senior people were aware of it and did nothing about it?

GM     As I said, people could well be aware of it. They must have been aware. If they're such good policemen as they said they are they must have known about it.

POM     I've done with you. I hope you're having a good time!

GM     Mr O'Malley I still owe you that thing but as I said it's in Afrikaans and I'd like to have it translated so that I can –

POM     I'll be here for a number of months.

GM     - and get the gist through to you.

POM     The whole situation with regard to Bophuthatswana, do you think that the ANC and Mac Maharaj used the instability in Bop to manoeuvre Roelf and de Klerk into a decision to remove Mangope rather than allow him to stay in power and his legislature vote in participating or not participating in the elections in the following weeks?

GM     No. They started the instability in the country, the ANC actually started it. They didn't use it, they started it and then they used it on purpose. Our intelligence told us at the time that all the homelands, like Venda, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Transkei had to be toppled or induced to come around to their side. So Transkei they had no trouble with because Transkei at the time was assisting and abetting the ANC. Ciskei was Oupa Gqozo and he had to be removed or his government had to fall. Bophuthatswana was a tough nut to crack because Mangope was perceived to be a strong man. Venda was not really an issue because it was a small place and wasn't really an issue. So what actually happened was that they tried to topple the dominoes, so to speak, one by one, of these homelands, to remove that base from outside of the present, at that time, government. So one of their actions was to act against Ciskei and that's a thing that happened, that led to the massacre as well. They wanted also to have a mass rolling action into it, it didn't happen.

     The other one was then Bophuthatswana. Because of the fact that people were perceived to have had problems a strong force was sent in to start instability, start insurrecting people, start to motivate people to act against the government of Mangope. We must now know the people in this area, in the Bophuthatswana area. The Tswanas are not a belligerent people. They would rather go home than do anything so a small band can get a long way, small organised band making a mark in a town or a township or a street, you will get the odd one that runs around and once a window's broken steals something out of the window and that sort of thing. The others just went home. So the major people didn't take part in this whole thing but it was perceived, there were a lot of people on the streets that are burning, that are looting, that are doing things and that is the cause of the insurrection. Many people just went home. Many of the people in the Bophuthatswana military just left. They didn't take part at all. They came in later again, once everything was quiet they came in ones or twos back to the camp, but they just left. They saw things were getting out of hand and they just left. The Bophuthatswana Police too. A few of them assisted the whole thing, a few of them didn't. They just left and went home.

     But this whole thing, yes, I think your answer that you put to me now is correct with the exception of, I think, they instigated it, they just didn't only use it. It didn't happen and then they used it. They instigated it and then they used it, yes.

POM     Just finally, do you think that Mangope had in fact lost the support of his government, of his people? That in the end even though the ANC may have instigated it they instigated it against a man who was an easy target because he had no real base of support? As you said, it disappeared.

GM     Yes I think to a degree –

POM     And had he lost his legitimacy as a leader insofar as he had lost the support of his people?

GM     I think so, I think it was because of the fact that the whole Bophuthatswana – it was a mistake from the very beginning from my point of view because Bophuthatswana existed as lots of little blocks of country, as one so-called independent country but there was a little bit here in the North West Cape, there was a bit in the old Western Transvaal, there was even a blob down at Thaba Nchu in the Free State and in the Transvaal there were three or four blobs of this country. Every one of these groups did not really consider themselves part of the entire Bophuthatswana. He worked very hard to make them a people but I don't think he really succeeded. To a degree yes but not completely. It was like Shaka, the only spot where the Zulu nation were together, he didn't finish his job. It's like Shaka a long time ago, he just spot-welded the whole tribes in Natal together but he never really got them as a nation.

POM     OK, thank you very much. Thank you for the time.

GM     I'm sorry that I couldn't answer your questions today very well because they were things that I didn't know enough of.

POM     I wanted to find out about – the Vula thing intrigues me because either people were unencrypting these messages that came through or they weren't and you were saying, well they were being unencrypted. That means that the system that the ANC thought they had concocted that was infallible was in fact open to Intelligence in the country.

GM     A large number of codes, we had a –

POM     Is there somebody you could suggest I should talk to?

GM     I don't know, offhand I can't think. One of my friends that worked in … they did decryption … I didn't co-ordinate that whole operation.

POM     I'd really appreciate if you could get in touch with your friend.

GM     He could know about anyone that was –

POM     Because the ANC believes that it was one of their proudest achievements, that they created a communication system that was unbreakable and if they achieved nothing else they created an unbreakable communication system.

GM     If it were it wouldn't have been them. They got it somewhere.

PAT     Some chap in the American Embassy who's working both sides!

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.