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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Mac Maharaj on the fall of Bophuthatswana

Regarding Bophuthatswana and the fall of Mangope, I have three questions.. One, Constand Viljoen maintains that he had a sufficient corps of former Commandos in place, disciplined, well-trained, who were prepared to seize a piece of the land or take military action, but that he had made it clear he wanted no involvement of the AWB and that when the AWB went into Bophuthatswana he said, 'This is it, I'm out, I'm out of here, I will not deal with these people, simply will not deal with them'.

In that sense not to put it argumentatively -- should one thank Eugene Terre'Blanche and the AWB for being such a messy, horrible group of undisciplined thugs that they made Viljoen's side pull out of Bophuthatswana and thereby sealed Mangope's fate and averted the threat of the white right?

Two, do you think that, had Viljoen decided to press ahead with whatever armed forced he had at his disposal, it would have proved a problem?

Three, I understand that you had a role to play, that you accompanied General George Meiring, head of the SADF, on his trip to Bop to restore order and effectively, on the instructions of the government or the TEC or whomever, to tell Lucas Mangope that his days were up and that he should start packing his bags?

I do not want to rob General Constand Viljoen of an important role that he has played in this transition, but I think the statement that he is making is too narrow to be confined to a militaristic standpoint. There was evidence long before that that a whole set of forces on the white right were gathering together with a view to blocking any change to democracy and that Constand Viljoen had emerged as a critical element in that equation because of his access to the Defence Force and particularly to the Commandos. And it is clear that they were organised. But there were all the signs for a political person to see that those forces that he was gathering together and who had put him in the lead were doing it with different agendas, including Eugene Terre'Blanche.

As part of this, one of the critical persons was General Viljoen's right hand man, General General 'Tienie ' Groenewald -- -- very pale face, very soft-spoken voice. He was head of Military Intelligence when Viljoen was head of the SADF; he was in Parliament for the first round. He was the conduit for the training wing in various parts of the country, not just of the white right. They were training IFP members at Mhlaba Camp; they were training people in Northern Natal; they were training people in Northern Transvaal; they were training people in the North West, and they were linking themselves with anybody amongst the Black puppets to get access to training capacity and get into a relationship that would give them a military strategic advantage. All this was going on before the Bop incident.

Was the government sharing this with you, the TEC?

The government was denying it. The government was saying, 'you guys are exaggerating, don't worry; it's under control'.

So this was coming through your own intelligence sources?

Our own intelligence but it was common knowledge that this was going on.[ common knowledge has the same coinage as known 'facts'] Since then [when?] the fall-out inside the IFP, Walter Felgate has confirmed that payments were made by the IFP for Constand's group and the white right to train the IFP people ????. sought for by the Namibians was training people in Northern Natal, Ladysmith and Newcastle. But this particular General was the lynchpin of those arrangements and he was second to Constand. There was a real threat. But I am saying that politically the forces that were being hammered together as an expression of that threat and giving the umbrella under which that threat manifested itself was COSAG, which was Viljoen and company Mangope and Oupa Gqozo. The IFP was caught whether to align itself with COSAG because the IFP was now smarting since it had been ditched by the NP. They were following a twin track: stay in the talks and block them and create the space for the paramilitary force they were racing to build up.

So it's not just the Bophuthatswana raid. Gqozo collapsed. And the TEC raided the Mlaba Camp where 5000 trainees, who were being trained by Philip Powell, had to flee. That raid disrupted their training, but those trainees were then spread out across KZN and became election agents, manning the polling booths in the rural areas and supposed to be incorporated as cover in the KwaZulu Police.

So this was all happening and we were struggling how to get on top of this in the TEC and we were struggling from the ANC side how to engage these forces in political discussions to neutralise them. So we were talking to Mangope's government. We were talking to Constand. We were seeking to talk to Buthelezi, and we were even seeking to engage Oupa Gqozo.

I say Constand's version is a pure military one that says that had he taken over Bophuthatswana he would have had a base: an airstrip, a territory and a clear position from which to consolidate his power and launch it. That's how he saw it in military terms. And he saw that accompanied by similar possibilities in KZN, in the Ciskei, in the north and that his group would then become a formidable military opposition. COSAG as a political force was not seen as crucial to that opposition, but as an umbrella that would tie the people. His own forces were divided. The white right were running a radio station inviting people to join.

What really happened was a major question of politics because politics is not just a science. A huge component of politics is an art and part of that art is to be able to seize a moment. Others may call it opportunism. I think on that basis you will call Lenin the biggest opportunist of the 20th century. What really happened was that they gathered forces to move into Bophuthatswana on the grounds that the Mangope government was threatened by a spontaneous uprising in Mafikeng. So they saw this as a military and political opportunity to move in, to bolster Mangope and consolidate support for his opposition to the negotiated process.

What did we see? Personally I saw a great threat to the transition in military terms. But I said, how do we checkmate this? Two strengths. The population of Bophuthatswana has spontaneously risen in revolt. The white right has moved in there and, embedded in that white right, is racist conduct. Viljoen could not argue with me that the Commandos that he was commanding were now stripped of racism. No way. That would be closing his eyes to the politics of the problem. Each of them thought, 'we are now going to rule this country, we're going to stop the democratic process, we're going to overthrow de Klerk and we're going to rule'.

That's the AWB?

AWB and the white right, even the Commandos, because look at the Commando leaders. The difference is that they would do it with a different face. When this revolt took place and the AWB moved in, a sense developed amongst those of us in the ANC at Kempton Park that this was an opportunity that would either be a setback or you had to exploit it fully.

The Management Committee of the TEC agreed to allow Fanie van der Merwe and me --because they were now dithering about what to do -- to put a proposal to Cyril. I was frantic and I may have spoken out of turn, but I said to Cyril, 'Cyril, you had better move the TEC to Bophuthatswana'. He said, 'It's not working out'. I said, 'Well then send Fanie and me on an urgent mission to go and bring a report on the ground of what is the reality there." The Management Committee of the TEC supported that.

Fanie and I prepared to go over. Fanie had to do the logistics. I think Roelf and them were pretty confident that they were in charge. Fanie comes and says a helicopter will take the two of us to Mafikeng. When I get to the airstrip, it is a military helicopter. Not a problem. But when I get into the helicopter, who is sitting there? General Meiring of the SADF and General van der Merwe of the SAP. Clearly they are not part of our mission and I wonder what was happening.

We get to Bophuthatswana and we listen to the reports. General Meiring calls a meeting and then he has the General in charge of the Bophuthatswana forces --I forget his name -- give a report. So we are sitting in this meeting, The South African High Commissioner is there; a whole set of military and police brass are sitting there; the Commander of the Bophuthatswana army is sitting there. His report essentially says 'our forces have lost control, the Bophuthatswanan army has lost control; the police force has collapsed'.

General Meiring behaves like he's chairing this meeting and he says, 'Right, number one, the South African Defence Force will now stabilise the situation. Two, it will now restore law and order. Three, it will reinstate Mangope put the Defence Force of Bophuthatswana back in charge."

I say, 'No, you can't do that. We have just had a report that the administration has collapsed, that the police force has collapsed, the defence force of Bophuthatswana is not in control, the civil service has collapsed and Mangope is hiding out. We have not come here to reinstate Mangope. We have come here, Fanie and I, to get a reading of the situation and give a report to a FW and Madiba meeting at the Union Buildings. They are meeting there right now and it's our job to give a report '. Meiring says I can't give him orders. He only takes orders from FW de Klerk and his orders are clear. He has the power to stabilise and reinstate. At the South African High Commission, I see defence force tanks under the trees. So they have moved in tanks to support stabilisation. To me that's reinstating Mangope. So we have a stand off.

The first thing that happens when we get out of the meeting is that I go to the phone with Fanie. I say 'Let's rush to the phone to give a report to Union Buildings.' We call Cyril and I give him a report in Fanie's presence. I give him my reading and I say, 'General Meiring wants to reinstate Mangope. You will have to get a countermanding order from Madiba and FW to stop him'. Then I hand the phone to Fanie so he can speak to Roelf and I decide to leave the office. I gave my report in the presence of Fanie but I have decided he's got to report to Roelf and I must leave. But Fanie says, 'No, Mac, don't leave the room. I have heard the report you've presented and I want you to hear my report'. Fanie's report is identical to mine Meiring wants to reinstate Mangope.

Rusty Evans from Foreign Affairs is also present and Rusty can see that there's a huge tussle going on here between the army, Meiring, and myself. Fanie gives a report, which is in his own words, but is fundamentally in alignment with my assessment. Rusty Evans disappears.

Was he in the room while both of you were giving your reports?

Yes.

So it was the three of you?

He disappears. Fanie and I go back to the High Commissioner's house and we see a helicopter. What's that? It's got no markings. It's not military but it's flying over the South African High Commission compound. Then, from the sound of it, it lands somewhere nearby. So I say, 'What helicopter is this? No markings'. Fanie says, 'I don't know'.

We go to the High Commissioner's residence: no Meiring. If I remember correctly Fanie disappears and later comes back. He says, 'Mac, I had to meet Rusty Evans, he's got something to say'. Rusty meets the two of us. He says, 'Gentlemen, I don't know what is happening but I feel I'm obliged to tell you people, the two of you, you're from the TEC, that helicopter has just brought in Constand Viljoen. Constand Viljoen and General Meiring are having a meeting on the premises of the High Commission. It has landed in the High Commission territory and the two of them are meeting in another cottage. And he says, 'I've been there sitting in the meeting. They are planning to fly together to Motsuene, the palace of Mangope, to engage in discussions with Mangope'.

I said, 'Thank you very much', and I said to Rusty, 'Who else is there with Constand?' He said, 'Colonel Jan Breytenbach, he's from the RECCE units and he's aligned to Constand'. So I said, 'Has he been in Bop for some time?' He said, 'Yes he's here, he's on the ground'. This is right in Mmabatho; Jan Breytenbach is there. He hasn't come in the helicopter. He's on the ground like a Field Commando of

I said 'OK. I want to see General Meiring'. This is about five or six in the afternoon just before it starts getting dark, 'I've got to see Meiring; don't tell him why'. At about six, half past six, Meiring walks into the lounge and he simply says 'We've got to leave now. It's getting dark. The helicopter is not equipped to take off in darkness so we've got to leave now'. I said, 'No. Sit. Sit, we need a meeting'.

He reluctantly sits and I say to him, 'You have been doing things behind our backs. We have phoned Union Buildings for instructions from FW and Mandela and the steps that you are taking are impermissible. I am not prepared to fly back. I am going to sit here on the ground reporting to Union Buildings and, right now, I am saying that if that helicopter is to take off it must wait until I go and make a call to Union Buildings'.

Meiring is taken aback but Fanie is quietly supporting me. I go to the foyer in the High Commissioner's house and phone the Union Buildings. I get Cyril on the line and I say, 'Cyril, this is what's happening. Unless you can get FW and Madiba to countermand, I am sitting here, I'm not moving'. Cyril comes back. He puts Roelf on the phone and Roelf asks for Meiring.

Meiring goes to the phone in the foyer, makes sure I won't hear what he's talking about, comes back furious and says, 'Well, let's fly back'. I say, 'Have you got your instructions?' He tells me that's his business. I say, 'No'. Then I say I'm going back to the room and I want to hear what instructions have been given to him. He says, 'I don't have to obey you'. I said, 'No, the instructions that you are receiving from FW can only be your instructions from my point of view of the TEC if they are instructions that are also agreed to by Mandela sitting with FW at Union Buildings'.

Fanie pulls him to one side, comes back to me and he says, 'Mac, please cool it. Their instructions have been given'. I say, 'Are the SADF prohibited from going out of this compound with their tanks to reinstate Mangope?' He says, 'Yes, they can't 'Good', I say, 'We'll try that'.

That was the Friday. Got back quite late that night, Cyril and Madiba were at Union Buildings. I contacted Cyril on the phone and he said that the TEC Management Committee was meeting the next day. On Saturday morning, we went to the TEC offices and I told Cyril and Joe Slovo: 'Chaps, it's touch and go.' Joe Slovo said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'Adjourn the meeting of the TEC and hold it at the High Commissioner's premises'. 'What's your aim?' I said, 'Chaps, we haven't got the military power but if we are on the ground, all of the Management Committee including Colin Eglin and Roelf, we will be able to countermand actions. It's in our power to do that'.

I say, "It's there. We can do it. "Cyril walks out of the meeting. Pravin Gordhan is chairing. He goes and has a one-to-one with Roelf. This kind of thing is happening all the time and every now and then I'm being called out. Joe Slovo is called out by Cyril. I say, 'what are you doing, Cyril?' He says, 'I am sitting on Roelf. I am sitting hard on him and I am saying we overthrow Mangope'. Roelf comes back and says to Cyril, 'It's agreed. We remove Mangope'. Cyril says, 'How? How?' 'Like you're saying, let's adjourn the Management Committee and fly by helicopter to Mmabatho immediately. Roelf says, 'What will happen with Colin Eglin and the others? They don't know what's happening'. So Roelf comes back and says, 'FW is saying that if Mangope is out, it is the job of Pik Botha to handle it and they say Pik is on his way. They called him wherever he is in the country, so Pik is flying to Pretoria'. I say, 'Roelf, is it a deal now that we are going in there. You are going in there to overthrow Mangope, to depose him'. Roelf says, 'Yes, it's a deal'. This is between two and three in the afternoon. How are we going to do it? This is happening outside the TEC Management room. I say, 'Send Fanie and me with Pik Botha and General Meiring to unseat Mangope. In the meantime let's take a resolution at the TEC Management Committee that the Management Committee will adjourn to Mmabatho'. 'Why?' Tell the Management Committee that Mac and Fanie are being sent in advance on an earlier flight to create the facilities for the TEC to meet'. Roelf said, 'Don't tell them you're going to overthrow Mangope'. I say, 'OK, deal'. Then I say, "Are you also giving that instruction to General Meiring?" He says, "Yes."

So, Pik Botha arrives at Wonderboom in his plane. Meiring, Fanie and I board it and we fly off to Mmabatho. I can see Meiring is uncomfortable. We get to Mafikeng Airport and go into the VIP lounge. I look at the airport: the right wing is already controlling part of the airstrip.

It would be the right wing in terms of - ?

Constand's right wing. Constand's right wing is controlling the airstrip. I sit in the VIP room and Meiring is running around. I say to Pik and Fanie, 'What's happening?" 'Meiring is arranging for us to go to Mangope's royal palace.' Suddenly I realise, 'hey, wait a minute. Is Meiring playing some trick here? It's nearly night time. 'So I say to Pik Botha, "Pik I haven't had a report. You're in charge here but I haven't heard a report from Meiring to say how heavily armed Mangope's guards are. How many guards has he got at the palace?" And Pik says, "What do you mean?" I say, "Look, we're planning to fly in there. What happens when we land there and Mangope's elite guard, which in my estimate is 120 strong and fully armed, are camped on his site? What happens if they take us hostage?"

Pik of course screams, he says, "You mean to say we could die?" I say, "Why not? How are we planning to go there? I don't hear any of the logistics." Pik calls Meiring and he says to him, "General Meiring, what's the strength of the forces guarding Mangope's?" And Meiring says, "I'll go and check". I say, "Go and check! You as the military head should know that by now." Anyway Meiring goes away, comes back and he says there are at least sixty. Pik says, "How heavily are they armed?" He says, "They are fully armed." "Who are they?" "They are elite forces trained by the SADF."

It's now dark. Pik says, "What are you doing General Meiring? What are you doing? Are we going to die?" And Meiring says, "No, I'm trying to get ground forces from the SADF but they've got a long distance to travel. They're only coming at 2 or 3 in the morning." So he says, "When do we fly?" He says, "When I've got my forces' position." "No, that's not good enough. We've been sitting here for two or three hours already. By now you could have got three or four helicopters, fully loaded with soldiers, to fly in advance of us and secure the ground so that our helicopter can land."

We flew into Mmabatho at about 10 that night. Mangope was asleep; he was in his pyjamas. First a helicopter had to land with fully armed soldiers who took positions around our helicopter in Mangope's yard. We then landed and they escorted us to the door of the palace.

We got into this meeting: there was Mangope, his son the Colonel, his daughter-in-law and the other son, and then there was Pik, Meiring, Fanie and me. Mangope tried to buy time. "Look, I need time. I'm prepared to change my views about the elections but I need to discuss it with the IEC."

Mangope had planned a Legislative Assembly meeting to take place two or three days later on, I think on the Tuesday, and he was planning to do a radio broadcast and he said "I want help to do that". Pik was agreeing, but I intervened. I said, "No ways, sorry. You're not getting the message Mr. Mangope. The message is you are now out of power." So I said, "You're out. No more talks. No meeting of the Legislative Assembly. No address on the radio." And Mangope turned bitterly to Pik Botha and attacked him. He said, "I've been your friend all these years, I never knew you would be coming here with this message." We said, "You're out." We told him that we were leaving forces there to secure his safety -- which was a way of saying that he was under house arrest -- and we said to General Meiring, out of the hearing of Pik Botha, "General Meiring, this man is not to leave here. You've got to guard him day and night and you've got to get your forces and you've got to disarm his guard."

We now fly off to the High Commissioner's place leaving Meiring behind. When we get there, the TEC Management Committee has been sitting waiting for us for hours. The TEC meeting starts and we report where we have been: that we found a situation, we had to take action immediately and that is what has delayed Fanie and me and we have just come back from the palace of Mangope having removed him formally from power with Pik Botha and having placed him under effective house arrest.

So it is your belief that Meiring at that point was playing a double game?

Oh yes. Meiring was ready to put the SADF into deployment to reinstate Mangope to power.

And was he working with Viljoen?

He was in very close contact with Jan Breytenbach and Constand Viljoen.

Breytenbach at that point would have been retired, right?

Breytenbach was part of the SADF Commandos and he had the rank of Colonel. He came from the Namibian bush war and he was, in my view, the Operational Commander of Constand's forces.

Are you going so far as to say that General Meiring was on the brink of committing an act of treason?

He would explain his position as an all-way mandate, as the general mandate of the South African Defence Force to keep the integrity of the territory of Bophuthatswana safe. Previously when Mangope had been overthrown, the SADF had flown him to the stadium, rescued him in his pyjamas and reinstalled him. This had happened before so he would say that was his mandate "I saw law and order collapse and I saw my mandate as restoring law and order. The lawful government in my view was Mangope and I therefore saw my mandate as restoring Mangope." He would say that was not treason. He was operating in the old paradigm of South Africa and he would then argue that he neutralised the white right by working together with them

Mac Maharaj's account of the events surrounding the fall of Mangope and the collapse of Bophutatswana were corroborated in all substantive matters by Fanie van der Merwe.

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.