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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

South Africa - Total strategy

It was becoming clear that Vorster's deployment of the police couldn't solve South Africa's problems, and in 1978 he was deposed by his defence minister Pieter Willem (P.W.) Botha in a palace coup. Under Vorster's premiership, Botha had turned the South African Defence Force into the most awesome military machine on the African continent and it became central to his strategy for maintaining white power. Botha realized that the days of old-style apartheid were over, and he adopted a two-handed strategy of reform accompanied by unprecedented repression. Believing there was a total onslaught on South Africa from both inside and outside the country, he devised his so-called Total Strategy.

In June 1980, MK, the ANC's armed wing, made an unscheduled reappearance when it successfully attacked the heavily guarded strategic oil refinery at Sasolburg, taking the government by surprise. The 1980s saw the growing use of sabotage against the apartheid state. During 1981, there were over ninety MK armed actions against police stations, railway lines, power plants, military bases and army recruiting offices. Attacks were often co-ordinated with protest campaigns: for example, buildings at the British Leyland plant were bombed when workers were on strike there. Botha began thinking about reforms and moved Nelson Mandela and other imprisoned ANC leaders from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in mainland Cape Town.

At the same time, he poured ever-increasing numbers of troops into African townships to stop unrest, while using economic incentives to attempt to draw neighbouring countries into a "constellation of Southern African states" under South Africa's leadership. Between 1981 and 1983, the army was used to enforce compliance on every one of the country's neighbours. An undeclared war against Angola reduced a potentially oil-rich country to war-ravaged ruins, while a South African-sponsored conflict in Mozambique brought a poverty-stricken country to its knees. Nor was Botha averse to sending commando units across the borders into Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho to attack and bomb South African refugees.

Botha hoped that by making a few reforms that tinkered with apartheid and by creating a black middle class as a buffer against the ANC, he could get the world off his back and stem internal unrest. On both counts he was wrong. Unrest continued unabated and he found himself having to rely increasingly on force. Detentions and executions of political activists increased (in contravention of the Geneva Convention) and heavy sentences were handed down in political trials. Used to maintaining control through the barrel of a gun, Botha was lost for any real political initiatives. Nevertheless, in 1983 he concocted what he believed was a master plan for a so-called New Constitution in which coloureds and Indians would be granted the vote. But before anyone got too excited he qualified this with the revelation that each group would be represented in separate chambers, which would have no executive power. Meanwhile, for Africans, apartheid would continue as usual.

Botha hoped for a tactical alliance between whites, coloureds and Indians in opposition to Africans. The scheme was a dismal failure that only served to alienate right-wingers, who saw it as selling out white privilege. As Botha was punting this ramshackle scheme, 15,000 anti-apartheid delegates met at Mitchell's Plain in Cape Town to form the United Democratic Front (UDF) at the biggest opposition gathering since the Congress of the People in 1955. Under a leadership that included ANC veterans, the UDF was a multiracial umbrella for 575 organizations. It endorsed the Freedom Charter and became a proxy for the ANC. Two years of strikes, protest and boycotts followed. But there were sinister stirrings when Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu bantustan and leader of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha movement, told a rally of migrant workers in Soweto that "the UDF seems to be another force for disunity and cannot succeed without Inkatha. From now on Inkatha will adopt the attitude of an eye for an eye." Attacks by Inkatha members on the now defunct UDF and ANC supporters became commonplace, and have continued to the present, although on a far diminished scale. (Evidence in the 1990s pointed to support for Inkatha from elements in the apartheid security forces, including the supply of weapons.)

In the face of intensifying protest, the government looked for ways to respond, and between March and December it offered to release Mandela no fewer than five times, provided he agreed to banishment to the Transkei bantustan. Five times he refused and this cat-and-mouse game continued right through the 1980s as the pressure mounted and South Africa's townships became ungovernable. Towards the end of the decade, the world watched as apartheid troops and police were shown regularly on TV beating up and shooting unarmed Africans. The Commonwealth, despite the concerted efforts of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to stop them, condemned the apartheid government. The United States and Australia severed air-links and Congress defied President Reagan and passed the comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act which promoted disinvestment. In 1985, the Chase Manhattan Bank announced that it would no longer be prepared to roll over its loan to South Africa. Over the next two years, ninety US firms closed down their South African operations. An increasingly desperate Botha now modified his conditions for releasing Mandela, offering to "release Mandela if he renounces violence".

Mandela issued a moving reply, read by his daughter Zinzi to a crowd at Jabulani Stadium, in Soweto: "I am surprised by the conditions the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man. It was only when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha show that he is different to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. Let him renounce violence. I cherish my own freedom dearly but I care even more for yours."As events unfolded, a subtle shift became increasingly apparent: Botha was the prisoner and he desperately needed Mandela to release him. On the one hand black resistance wasn't abating, while on the other Botha was facing a white right-wing backlash. At every by-election the ultra right-wing Conservative Party had been eroding government majorities. In the 1987 general election, the government polled just 52 percent while, so far to the right that it had slid off the political spectrum, the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement, aka AWB) broke up National Party meetings and threatened civil war.

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.