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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

From Buthelezi IFP to Third Force theory

When Buthelezi launched the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in July 1990, he declared that, " We will not allow the ANC and its SACP partners to crush all opposition and emerge as the only viable party."1 The killings began in earnest in 1983 when the UDF "invaded" KwaZulu/Natal, Chief Buthelezi's home "turf." After Mandela signed the Pretoria Minute in August 1990, having unilaterally declared that the ANC would suspend the armed struggle, violence escalated dramatically. KwaZulu/Natal became a killing field as supporters of the ANC and the IFP engaged in ferocious competition to secure and expand their bases of support. Villages changed hands and the inhabitants changed allegiances in order to save their lives. Secured territory was immediately designated as no-go areas for one party or the other. More ominously, the violence spread into the Transvaal, encompassing Pretoria, Witwatersrand, and Veeriniging -- the Vaal Triangle that was littered with some of the most deprived townships, squatter camps, and hostels for migrant workers, most of whom were IFP supporters from KwaZulu/Natal.

Mandela became convinced that De Klerk was doing nothing to bring the violence under control there were few arrests, the police were reluctant to intervene, eye-witness accounts provided prima facie evidence that the police were abetting the IFP, and yet there was no follow-up on the part of the authorities. In view of this sinister turn of events, Mandela came to the reluctant conclusion that a "third force" was involved in the violence and that the government's apparent unwillingness to get the situation under control and weed out the roots of the violence was working to its tactical advantage.

When Mandela confronted De Klerk with his concerns, with what he regarded as substantial confirmation of security force involvement in the violence, De Klerk would, according to Mandela, ask him to produce concrete evidence of police complicity, and go to unnecessary lengths to explain that he could not act on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations of police improprieties.2 Again, according to Mandela, De Klerk's demeanor was one of "don't come to me with your claims of police involvement in violence when you cannot get a grip on the violence that emanates from within the ANC itself."3 (The TRC did find that the ANC had to shoulder part of the responsibility for the violence insofar as it had "contributed to a spiral of violence in the country through the creation and arming of SDUs"4 local paramilitary Self -Defence Units that were supposed to protect the communities ANC supporters came from).

Whites, who were rarely the targets of the violence, allowed themselves to indulge in gratuitous vindication and reacted with dismissive contempt: South Africa, they had repetitively predicted, would, under black rule, descend into internecine chaos and simply go the way the rest of Africa, a situation that appeared to have metamorphosed before blacks had even put their fingertips on the levers of power. But the contempt was mixed with fear, fueling support for the right- wing and adding to a climate of uncertainty about the future that was slowly beginning to envelope the country.

But the TRC was scathing in its denunciation of the violence perpetrated by the IFP, the security forces, and the two in collusion.5 ANC intelligence supplied information to Mandela which indicated that the IFP was not the only instigator of violence -- so too was the ANC, but that was a matter which ANC Intelligence could hardly be expected to address. Elements within the security forces, often acting as agents provocateurs, according to the intelligence reports Mandela received, were actively engaged in fomenting and orchestrating violence, and on a number of occasions were themselves the perpetrators of violence that they would later accuse the ANC of having organized.

Whether the "third force" the ANC referred to was a formal structure within the labyrinths of the state security apparatus, or an informal network of elements within the security forces acting with either the implicit or complicit blessing of the government implicit if the government's failure to take decisive action to stop the violence was indicative of the government's benign attitude towards the violence; complicit if the violence was the result of a conscious decision by the government to use violence as a tool to erode support for the ANC, since its supporters would view its inaction as an inability to mobilize the means to defend them, remains unresolved.

And while evidence of the security forces involvement continued to emerge, the full accounting of who was responsible for what and the issue of whether the violence was officially sanctioned as part of a strategy to discredit Mandela and the ANC, and weaken support for the ANC or the work of rogue elements within the security system remains unanswered. The TRC reported in 1998 that it "did not make significant progress in uncovering the forces behind the violence in the 1990s.6 It found little evidence of a formally constituted third force, of a structure acting under the direction of the SANF or the SAP or their satellite agencies, but it did find that: "a network of security and ex-security operatives, acting frequently in conjunction with right-wing elements and/or sectors of the IFP, were involved in gross violations of human rights, including random and targeted killings."7

According to the malign scenario, espoused by the ANC, government strategy was predicated on driving a wedge between supporters of the IFP and the ANC, splitting the black vote (a more sophisticated variation of the old colonial "divide and conquer" routine.) Then, the NP in an alliance with the IFP, and the colored and Indian communities, who believed they had more to fear from the perceived threat of future African domination than the actual domination by whites they were presently subjected to, and with the support of homeland and TBVC leaders who were either despised by the ANC as collaborators with the ruling regime or not co-opted by the ANC, would be properly positioned to outvote the ANC in an election held on the basis of a universal franchise. In short, the government was not only not preparing to surrender or even share power, but still clung to the belief that in the right circumstances it could actually hold on to power, while meeting the democratic test of one person one vote.

This is what Mandela and the ANC leadership believed: that De Klerk used black lives to score political points; they were expendable in his pursuit of clinging to power at almost any cost. While he may not have ordered the carnage, he could have put a stop to it and in Mandela's view that was the measure of the man.

According to the benign scenario, espoused by De Klerk and the former NP government, the violence was primarily a matter of the deadly competition for support between the IFP and the ANC, which escalated after the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC when the ANC mounted a campaign to marginalize the IFP and Buthelezi, with a relentless barrage of propaganda to portray him as a collaborator with the apartheid regime, a puppet of successive NP governments, and an opponent of the liberation movement. Rather than ignoring Mandela's pleas for action to get to the source of the violence, De Klerk argues that he did precisely the opposite,8 appointing the Goldstone Commission, which did not uncover evidence of secret conspiracies and hit squads operating within the security system until 1994, and an investigation under the direction of General Pierre Steyn, which did uncover evidence that units of the SADF were involved in unauthorized and illegal activities to destabilize and discredit the ANC, sabotage negotiations, and were involved in the instigation and perpetration of violence, including the train massacres that had traumatized the country. In all cases, De Klerk would insist his government took immediate remedial action. In the latter case he retired sixteen officers including six top ranking generals, and instructed General Steyn to continue with his investigation.9 Goldstone himself is categorical; nothing his commission investigated implicated De Klerk in any way in the violence that took place in the 1990s; in this regard De Klerk had a clean slate. With respect to what De Klerk knew about the nefarious activities of the security forces during the apartheid regimes he was part of in the 1970s and 1980s, Goldstone is equally forthcoming: there is no way De Klerk could not have been aware of what was going on in South Africa, but he adds a rider there was no way that anyone who served as a member of the apartheid governments during that period could have been unaware of what elements in the security forces were up to.10

A footnote to the who who knew who was killing who, who was ordering the killings, and on whose instructions these orders were being carried out, and who might have been in a position to call a halt to the carnage saga. It should be recalled that immediately after his release from prison, Mandela had telephoned Buthelezi to thank him for the unconditional efforts he had made to secure his release. Buthelezi responded by inviting Mandela, on behalf of the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, to visit them both at the king's palace in Nongoma and to lay a wreath at King Shaka's grave.11

Mandela replied that he would be honored to make the visit. The oral invitation was followed up with a written one to confirm the arrangement, and again Mandela responded in gracious terms that he looked forward with great pleasure to making the visit and the pilgrimage to Shaka's grave. But when Mandela raised the matter with the ANC NEC, the KwaZulu/Natal members, under the whip of Natal Midlands leader Harry Gquala, an irredentist Stalinist, raised such a raucous of objection that Mandela backed down, being as he was prone to say at that time "a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC." Later, he explained that had he gone ahead with the visit, the ANC "would have throttled me"12 a refrain Buthelezi would use time and again to underscore the point that Mandela "was not his own man but a puppet of the ANC."13 It was one year before a formal meeting between the two leaders took place, but by then the damage had been done. Their relationship would be cordial in the formal sense but strained and would remain so. Mandela in subsequent years would go out of his way to say kind things about Buthelezi, but this was more a reflection of Mandela's way of wooing people to his way of seeing things rather than a heartfelt manifestation of his inner feelings. The Madiba mask was part of the Mandela magic.

But, given Mandela's royal upbringing, his understanding of hierarchy and adherence to traditional protocol, indeed, his continuing involvement with royal authorities while he was in prison, his actions giving the thumbs' down to the Zulu monarch and the monarch's invitation to share with him the great honor of laying a wreath at King Shaka's grave in order to show the esteem in which he held Mandela were an unpardonable breach of conduct and an insult to the institution of the Zulu monarchy and the hallowed place it occupied (occupies???) in African lore.14

For Buthelezi, for whom adherence to traditional precepts of how to address others in positions of authority was an integral component of his persona, the rebuff was unbearable: his admiration for Mandela was genuine, Mandela's place in the hierarchical structures that were the bedrock of traditional African authority was recognized and respected; his stature as an elder, a wise leader to whom deference was due was acknowledged. Hence Buthelezi's bewilderment and anger at what he could only interpret as a deliberate snub designed to have him seen as loosing face -- a snub he could not condemn Mandela for, if he too were not to fall prey to acting contrary to the protocols he so dearly clung to despite the encroachments of the filthy tide of less gracious modern ways of doing things. Adding to the insult was his own perception that Mandela was making the journey to visit him to thank him personally for his crusade for Mandela's release and his refusal to negotiate with the government until Mandela was released.15

The two, in Buthelezi's view of the unfolding world, would work in concert to charter South Africa's future and shape its destiny. Both, in their own right were the stuff of history, the founding fathers of the new South Africa. Without Mandela to blame for the humiliating treatment he had been subjected to, Buthelezi turned to the familiar for refuge: The ANC had manipulated Mandela with their unending stream of lies, their fear that Mandela and himself might hit it off, as well they should, given their association before Mandela's incarceration, their joint mentoring by Chief Albert Luthuli, and the authoritative stature they enjoyed among their peoples.

And so the war between the ANC and the IFP intensified with Buthelezi's determination that he would not allow the ANC to marginalize him and preclude his meeting with Mandela, a meeting between equals, not of supplicant and master. Had the two met in the circumstances originally envisaged, and had they had the opportunity at that crucial point to apply themselves to the differences between the ANC and the IFP, had the two the chance to address their supporters as comrades in a common struggle for freedom, had any rapport developed between the two, one can only speculate about what might have happened, how many lives might have been saved and violence avoided. But whatever the might-have-beens, the machinations within the ANC that made Mandela's meeting with Buthelezi impossible for Mandela to make and the consequences of that failure do not have the imprints of a third force. Only the ANC itself is accountable and to a lesser degree Mandela perhaps. He can be forgiven for listening to and following the advice of the ANC NEC, since it had its fingers more firmly on the pulse of things, and he, after all was only shortly returned to a world he had not known for 27 years, and likely, therefore, to be more hesitant in taking steps that might be construed as out of step with ANC policy, and certainly out of character for "a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC." One cannot help but to reflect on the passage in his autobiography where, in the solitude of Voolsmoor Prison, he took the lonely decision to explore ways to engage the government and wrote his fateful letter to Kobie Coetsee. In the silence of his cell he wrote:

I choose to tell no one about what I was about to do. Not my colleagues16 upstairs or those in Lusaka. The ANC is a collective, but the government had made collectivity in this case impossible. I did not have the security or the time to discuss these issues with my organization. I knew that my colleagues upstairs would condemn my proposal, and that would kill my initiative before it was even born. There are times a leader should move out ahead of his flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.17

The decision whether to meet with Buthelezi so soon after his release was another one of those occasions. The conflict between the ANC and the IFP in KwaZulu/Natal was causing thousands of deaths; it had torn apart the African people in the province, inflicted untoward hardship and the destruction of hundreds of villages and thousands of homes. It had pitted Zulu against Zulu in a brutal contest for control of land and the people who occupied it. Massacre was met with massacre; savagery with savagery, with each killing creating an exponential momentum that threw all distinctions to the wind. Between July 1990 and July 1993, an average of 101 people per month 3,653 men, women and children in total -- were hacked, mutilated, shot, or burned to death, due to "politically related incidents" as they were euphemistically referred to.18

It would appear that seeking to bring this conflict to an end should have been among Mandela's first priorities, and that he should have taken whatever steps were necessary, even if this included visiting Buthelezi. Besides, no one had coerced him into calling Buthelezi in the first place, nor had anyone pushed him to accept Buthelezi's invitation to meet. To take such actions and then renege on the promise given were very un-Mandela-like, and his stomp rejoinder to questions as to why he left Buthelezi flat-footed i.e. that the ANC would have "throttled" him had he insisted on making the visit over the head of the NEC was uncharacteristic. Perhaps his statement that as a "loyal and disciplined member of the ANC" he would not nor had -- the authority to override a decision of the NEC is more telling. Whatever the true motivations for his change of heart, the opportunity to start mending fences, co-opt Buthelezi as a partner in the process that would see them jointly negotiate South Africa's future was lost.

In retrospect, Mandela's failure to put the conflict in Natal in the larger context to exercise that special sense of vision that shaped his strategic perspectives in matters that advanced the cause of liberation, which he so unsparingly relied on during the ANC's conflict with the government, his failure to see the conflict in Natal as one neither the ANC nor the IFP could "win," as he had so presciently concluded in the ANC's conflict with the government, as not offering the olive branch, albeit one that might have been strewn with thorns of negotiations, as he had done with the NP government, failure to persuade the Natal leadership to forego their rapacity for retribution for the rewards of reconciliation, as he had persuaded so many others to his point of view in the past despite formidable obstacles, is perhaps, the most significant failure of his political legacy. A man who devoted much of his tenure as the first black president of South Africa to reconciling blacks and whites overlooked the equal importance of reconciling blacks with blacks, perhaps in deference to the politically correct view that "black-on-black" violence was a phenomenon orchestrated and manipulated by unscrupulous and evil whites, not something blacks themselves had to explore, mine for meaning, and come to terms with. It is much easier to forgive the wrongdoing others do to us than to admit to the wrongdoing we do to ourselves.

Supporters of the IFP were quick to follow the lead of the ANC and formed Self Protection Units (SPUs) on the pretext of protecting their communities from onslaughts from ANC cadres. Once again, weapons proliferated in IFP strongholds, with consequences similar to those in ANC controlled communities. The violence took its heaviest toll in KwaZulu/Natal where the war between supporters of the ANC and the IFP, which had erupted in1983 when the UDF began to "invade" IFP areas the IFP regarded as being part of its territory. More South Africans almost 14,000 were killed in South Africa during the four and a half years following the release of Mandela in February 1990 and his inauguration as President of South Africa in May 1994 than had been killed in the previous 42 years of the apartheid.

The ANC, on the one hand, pointedly accused the IFP of fomenting violence in order to broaden its support base albeit, always in the context of the IFP being in complicity with the state security forces or behaving Uriah Heep-like at the bidding of the security forces reinforcing their relentless allegations that the IFP were stooges of the state, and hence in some manner in cahoots with the apartheid regime. In short, the IFP were enemies of the liberation movement and had thrown their lot with the oppressors of blacks.19 The ANC wanted to marginalize the IFP, the only credible black organization that commanded a substantial base of support and to keep "real" negotiations the exclusive preserve of the ANC and the government. In Anatomy of a Miracle, Patti Waldmeir writes, "Both men emerged from the [Groote Schuur] talks thinking they could cut a deal among themselves a sort of power fix between African and Afrikaner in which there would be no losers. The nation's mental timetable was drastically revised, to take account of their unexpected optimism. The idea was to present South Africa with a fiat accompli before radicals from both sides could mobilize against it."20 On television, Mandela admitted, "We have started some sort of alliance already21. De Klerk's account of the meeting hardly lends credence to such unbounded expectations.22

Buthelezi had no intention of being left out of the pre-negotiations loop. Hurt by Mandela's refusal to accept his invitation to visit him -- on receiving the invitation, Mandela had responded that he would be honored to meet with both Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelithini, King of the Zulu nation, to lay a wreath at the tomb of the legendary King Shaka, founding father of the Zulu nation. Buthelezi publicly stated that there would be no cessation in the violence until he and Mandela met. Buthelezi expected to be thanked personally by Mandela for his efforts to secure Mandela's release, his steadfast refusal to engage in talks with the government until Mandela was released and the ANC unbanned, and his resistance to the government's attempts to coerce him into accepting independence that, had he bowed to the government's overtures, would have given Grand Apartheid a degree of legitimacy it hitherto lacked.

"Put under pressure by the Natal leadership," writes Johannes Rantete, "the ANC was compelled to block a meeting with Buthelezi and Mandela on the grounds that such a meeting would accord Buthelezi the recognition he did not deserve."23 Ironically, the more the ANC dithered on the issue of whether Mandela should meet with Buthelezi, the more it undermined its own credibility, and the more it begged the question as to why Mandela who had committed himself and his organization to a peaceful resolution of the national issue would refuse to meet with Buthelezi since it was obvious that without Buthelezi's cooperation neither a peaceful nor stable settlement could be reached.

Eventually the two did meet, after much needless loss of life, on 29 January 199124 almost a year after Mandela's release -- but other than mollify Buthelezi's ego, the peace summit, despite coming up with a number of practical steps to bring about an end to the violence in KwaZulu/Natal, did little to change the situation on the ground. There were no "winners" in this prolonged standoff. Mandela's stature as a strong and decisive figure, as the key leader in the ANC, suffered since it appeared that he was willing to bow to the wishes of cliques within the liberation movement even when the actions they demanded were counter to the ANC's long term interests. His remark, that if he were to meet with Buthelezi over the heads of the ANC in Natal they would "throttle" him, provided grist for his enemies that he was not up to the task of negotiating South Africa's future, and conveyed the image of a leader who was either weak or could be easily pushed around by his underlings, or one who would be eaten alive by the National Party mandarins when real negotiations got under way.

De Klerk, stubbornly, even passionately, defended his government's reactions to the violence. Most of it, in his view, was being perpetrated by supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)25, the security forces were being unfairly pilloried by the ANC to undermine their authority, and hence the authority of the state, the ANC's constant reiteration of security force involvement in the killings was an attempt to undercut his growing popularity in the townships. In the early days, after the release of Mandela, De Klerk was treated as a liberator in many black communities and it was not uncommon to hear him referred to as "Comrade De Klerk". (Indeed, a number of opinion surveys indicated that De Klerk would, at the time the polls were being taken, command a relatively strong level of support among urban blacks and a smaller (smaller what?), who accounted for approximately 60 per cent of the black population. A Gallup-Markinor poll found that nearly half the urban black population could be classified as 'potential' NP voters: 6 per cent said they would 'definitely' vote for the NP, 22 per cent said 'perhaps', and 18 per cent said they felt 'quite good' about the NP even though they would not vote for it. The ANC, in contrast had a support level of 68 per cent among urban blacks.26

These were De Klerk's salad days. Received abroad as a statesman who had the courage to end apartheid and opt for a negotiated settlement rather than some violent cataclysmic confrontation with blacks, regarded by many blacks as one of their own for having released Mandela and unbanned the ANC, to De Klerk all things appeared possible even winning an election conducted on the basis of a common voters' registrar.

But Boipatong brought whatever support he had among blacks to a screeching halt.27 Every case was thoroughly investigated, according to De Klerk, where there was credible evidence of police involvement and prosecutions followed whenever there was a prima facie case for police collusion. He was always quick to point out, had issued a statement (this doesn't flow well) in December 1989 in which he instructed the minister of justice and the minister of defence to investigate allegations of politically inspired assassinations, and to use all means at their disposal to apprehend the guilty and bring them to trial: he had established the Harms Commission in 1989, and the Goldstone Commission on Public Violence28 and General Steyn's investigation of the Military Intelligence Unit of the SADF in 1992.29 De Klerk's view was that no stone was left unturned in the pursuit of wrongdoers in both the SAP and the SADF. In 1998, after the report of the TRC implicated him and his government in the gross violation of human rights, De Klerk would write that:

I reject without qualification that my government was ever behind the violence. Although it is now indisputable that some elements in the security forces were secretly involved in instigating and perpetrating violence, their actions were in violation of my explicit instructions In the end the actions of such elements within the security for that were as much directed against the government and its reform policies as they were against the ANC and its allies. The question that Mandela should have asked himself was why the government and I should instigate connive at violence which seriously jeopardized the initiative into which we had sunk all our moral and political capital?30

We, from our side, regarded Mandela's representations as the height of hypocrisy given the ANC's own deep involvement in Natal and throughout the country as well as its apparent unwillingness to rein in members who were clearly involved in violence. If Mandela was so concerned with violence why would he not agree to meet with Chief Buthelezi to try and resolve the issue?31

But despite De Klerk's disavowals, indeed, one might regard a number of his comments regarding the sources of violence and the covert activities of the state as a classic state of being in denial, something rotten had poisoned the roots of the Afrikaner's state apparatus. In the end, even De Klerk, while defending himself and his government colleagues all honorable men had to add the damning caveat: "The conclusion, he wrote, that I now, regrettably, have to draw is that somebody must have been lying to us or at the very least had not provided us with vital information to which we, in the cabinet, and I as commander-in-chief, were entitled." footnote

(Why is this separated?)It seems to me that there must be at least in the initial stages high level authorization for the establishment and funding of the units involved and of the general nature of the operations they were intended to carry out. It is possible that in the murky world of need and plausible denial within which these units operated, those higher up the chain of command were subsequently not fully informed of all their operational activities. It also appears that these units soon acquired a high degree of autonomy and often carried out operations on their own initiative.

At some further stage, probably about the time that I became president, these murky elements in the undercover structures of the security forces began to formulate their own policy. In particular, they appear to have been strongly opposed to the fundamental change of direction that I initiated. My colleagues and I were openly accused of being soft and of being traitors by our political opponents from the right. It is likely that some of the elements involved in illegal security force operations supported this view. Many of their later clandestine operations appear to have been directed against the transformation process that I had initiated. These operations included the instigation of violence between different segments of the population with a view to creating a general climate of conflict in which it might have become impossible to hold elections." Where are the opening quotes? He concludes, "It is difficult to understand how such aberrations could have been allowed to develop and continue within the security forces, despite my express orders and clear steps that I took to ensure conformity with accepted standards.

The revolutionary threat of the early eighties was countered, not by illegal clandestine operations, but by the lawful though draconian powers that the state assumed during the State of Emergency. The relative stability that it achieved created a platform for the commencement of comprehensive and inclusive constitutional negotiations."32

One wonders whether it has ever crossed De Klerk's mind that much of the information he relied on regarding the violence Mandela was incessantly begging him to do something about was coming through channels that involved some of those who were lying, concealing covert operations from him, themselves part of the "Third Force."

Yet, despite, the constant recriminations on both sides regarding the violence, both the ANC and the government remained as committed as ever to getting real negotiations off the ground. And it is this commitment that underscores the real miracle that occurred in South Africa. Both sides were under no illusions: a terminal breakdown in negotiations could only lead to a self-inflicted civil war neither side could win, with the added likelihood of further escalation of the conflict in KwaZulu/Natal to unmanageable levels that in the end would force the ANC, the government and the IFP back to the negotiating table, much having been lost on all sides, nothing having been gained by any of the protagonists. They would be presumptive heirs to an economy in ruins, commonplace destitution, and internal population displacements that would pose a consuming threat to peace and a powder-keg of instability. Even when the warring parties called a cease-fire, they would face the same problems that had led them to go to war with each other in the first place, compounded by the multitudinal new problems their armed belligerence had left them to deal with.

However, despite the bellicose noises coming from both the ANC and the government, both were more aware than ever that multi-party negotiations would not get underway unless both were seen to be working together to bring an end to the violence. A start in this direction was made in August 1991 when an initiative led by the Consultative Movement (CBM), an organization representing business and church interests, convened a meeting of all the parties who would participate in multi-party talks, if they ever got off the ground, which resulted in the signing of the first ever multi-party agreement, the National Peace Accord (NPA) on 14 September 1991,33 thus opening the way to all-party talks.

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.