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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Eighties

You cannot reform what must be abolished but this truism did not dissuade the NP government from endlessly tinkering with its constitution in the rather hopeless belief that it could devise a governance system that would somehow satisfy blacks, even if it fell well short of meeting their demands for universal suffrage. In 1983, this led the government to write a new constitution which made provision for a single Parliament with three chambers, one for whites, Coloureds and Indians. These chambers had the authority to pass laws governing the "own affairs" of each community. Matters that effected all three communities, or general affairs, would be discussed directly in a new joint chamber. The combined chambers would also be responsible for electing the State President. However, the election formula was so devised that it would be neither possible for the Indian and Coloured majority parties to outvote the majority party in the white chamber, nor to prevent the white majority from electing its choice as president. Hence, the new dispensation, hailed by whites as a major breakthrough in race relations, ensured that ultimately all power remained in white hands. Of course no provision was made for even a limited enfranchisement of Africans at the national level they were thrown the crumbs of the right to elect black local councils. Thus, rather than luring Africans into believing that their turn was next, Africans reacted with unrestrained anger, seeing the government's machinations as an instrument to co-opt the Coloured and Indian communities, more amenable to taking the government's side.1 Why the government did not anticipate the tidal wave of protect that inundated the anti-apartheid (the anti-apartheid what???) in reaction to the introduction of the 'tricameral' parliament remains a matter of conjecture -- either hubris, naiveté, ineptitude, or its failure to understand that Africans, despite the color of their skin, were in all regards equal to whites with the same entitlements and rights that incontrovertible proposition bestowed.

Opposition to the new constitution led in turn to the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF), an umbrella for some 700 anti-apartheid organizations that became the new front in the war against apartheid and the internal front for the ANC, touching off a country-wide wave of unrest in 1984/1985, the central object of which was to make the country ungovernable.2

Thus, in the mid 1980s, when the struggle within South Africa was being conducted with an intensity and tenacity heretofore not visible, PW Botha, the reviled State President among blacks of every hue, opened secret negotiations with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, the first brick paving the tentative pathways to(for???) all that would follow. The National Party (NP) government, under immense pressure from the international community, feeling the bite of financial sanctions, and the backlash of snowballing township violence, despite the imposition of draconian laws, came to the reluctant conclusion that the demands of the black majority for some form of enfranchisement would have to be accommodated. How this would be accomplished, they did not know. What form enfranchisement would take, they did not know. How power would be exercised, the rights of minorities protected and governance operated, they did not know.

In a little-noted passage of PW Botha's "Rubicon"3 speech to the Natal Congress in August 1995 overlooked in part because off the international furor PW's finger-wagging warning to the world to stop telling South Africans what they ought to be doing were the telltale signs of a policy shift, minor perhaps in the broad geopolitical context of South Africa's standing and of the expectations of radical reform the speech would articulate that had been widely anticipated in the international community, but seismic in terms of its implications for Vervoerdian apartheid: "Should any of the black national states, prefer not to accept independence," the testy State President intoned, "such states or communities will remain part of the South African nation, are South African citizens, and should be accommodated within political institutions within the boundaries of South Africa." 4 With that simple subjunctive sentence the building blocks of separate development, the pillars on which the edifice of grand apartheid had been so assiduously constructed began to crumble, although it would take some time for them to come crashing to the ground.

In 1986, the government's Special Cabinet Committee, developed a number of broad proposals that, in the view of De Klerk "represented important and essential shifts in the thought process of the Government and its supporters."5

In the Special Cabinet Committee, we realized that a formal change in policy would be a prerequisite for meaningful negotiation. We subsequently made a concise formulation of our new policy framework which constituted a 180 degree change in policy forever away from apartheid, separate development, and racial discrimination. The proposed framework accepted the principles of one united South Africa; one person, one vote; the eradication of all forms of racial discrimination; and the effective protection of minorities against domination. It ought to strike balance between having one nationhood on the one hand, and the reality of our cultural diversity on the other.6

The key words here, of course, are "the effective protection of minority rights against majority domination." The words would become a lasting source of discord between the ANC and the government, with the former regarding them as sophistry of the first order, the latter as an attempt on its part to protect what it would regard as the legitimate interests, concerns and fears of the white community in the context of a more encompassing constitutional framework. Part of the problem was the ANC's unshakable conviction that governance arrangements that "protected" white interests were little more than apartheid under another name since it would freeze the existing order of things, give legal sanction to the status quo and entrench white privilege -- a direct product of apartheid making the elimination of the social, economic, and political disparities of 50 years of institutionalized oppression and racism all but impossible.

In the circumstances, the NP government was in a no-win situation. Separate development was perceived by whites as a noble experiment in trying to accommodate differences among multicultural nations. But when it finally saw the futility of the "experiment" in social engineering that was supposed to blossom into a plethora of independent black states, each able to nurture its cultural norms and traditional values and develop at rates commensurate with their societal structures, without being subjugated to the norms and values of others, it found that its attempts to accommodate multicultural differences within a single nation state that would continue to allow it to maintain its position of preeminence, under the rubric of whites being a "minority" group and hence eligible for the special protections international law increasingly affords such groups a perfectly legitimate demand in "normal" circumstances the legitimacy of the demand was undermined by the fact that unqualified adherence to special protections for groups would be based on racial grounds. Thus, their every effort, on the basis of labeling themselves as a group that was something other than white, to wriggle their way out of the racially based categorizations they themselves had legislated everybody into simply reinforced the racialism they professed to have shed. When the NP became advocates of "minority rights," "group protections," "human rights," and "no one group being in a position to dominate another," the ANC and its supporters viewed the NP's promulgation of these concepts, not as some Paul-on-the-road to Damascus-like conversion but as a cynical ploy on the government's part to appropriate the vocabulary of liberation movements the world over in order to entrench the maintenance of white power by subterfuge. Thus, white efforts to dismantle apartheid's vertical structures without tampering with its hierarchical framework became ingrained in the black consciousness with attempts to usurp the language of the oppressed to entrench white supremacy. Whites could bring no moral armament to their "struggle" to preserve their cultural ethos since they had already sacrificed that ethos in their efforts to perpetuate it. Even when negotiations between the government and the ANC did get out of the starting block, they were initially fundamentally out of kilter: One side wanted to negotiate a settlement that would ensure its dominance using the ruse not consciously it would protest -- of the rights of minorities for special protections and hence the necessity for a panoply of laws securing their positions in a new dispensation, while the other side was intent on negotiating a settlement that would remove a white minority from its position of total dominance and absolute control of every instrument of state power to ensure their continued dominance of the majority. With its late conversion to the plight minorities often find themselves the victims of, the white minority forgot that majorities had rights too or perhaps it had not forgotten since its "culture" had long resisted the notion that blacks had any rights at all, other than those benevolently apportioned to them by whites.

The new policy framework was accepted by a special Federal Congress of the National Party in Durban in August 1986.7 De Klerk says he asked Congress to give the NP "a powerful mandate to develop a new dispensation that would satisfy two demands: firstly, for cooperation, joint decision making and power sharing between the peoples of South Africa; and secondly, for the protection of communities, to ensure that they could continue to educate their children as they saw fit and to lead their own community lives without the fear of domination by any other group."8 Congress gave the leadership the mandate it sought.

The new policy framework was conspicuously deficient in its references to the need for either an inclusive democratic dispensation or the compelling need for whites to come to grips with the grim realities they would have to face when they thought through the consequences of the actions they appeared willing to commit themselves to. But they were not encouraged to think through the consequences, but rather assured that the tranquility of their Christian lives would remain undisturbed.

This was the policy framework the National Party asked the electorate to endorse in the May 1997 elections. Again, it should be noted, that the new policy was sparse on particulars regarding who would wield power and how in any new arrangements, wisely leaving it to the imagination of the white electorate to envisage some new arrangement that would amount to little more than an extension of the tricameral parliament, or in any event one that while accommodating African demands for a vote would leave the essential levers of government in the same hands. And, perhaps, from the government's point of view this was all for the better since the target of the NP in the election was the CP, which it sought to emasculate to the point where the election results would give the NP free-rein to test the waters it had warily stepped into.

After years of struggle, the wholesale imprisonment of the top echelons of its leadership and the exile of those who had escaped arrest, and an armed struggle that became more difficult to sustain when the South African government exacted severe retribution on neighboring countries that harbored ANC training camps and used them as springboards for attacks on South Africa. The African National Congress (ANC) was also coming to the reluctant conclusion that the South African government could not be defeated, that the armed struggle was more a gesture of defiance than an offensive military juggernaut that would lead to national liberation, and that a negotiated settlement might prove to be not just one of the ways forward, but the only way forward.

Convinced in the latter half of 1989 that a negotiated settlement was feasible, the ANC drew up a document the Harare Declaration -- that set out its vision of a transition to democracy. It outlined a basis for negotiations and set out the issues that would have to be addressed to create a climate conducive to negotiations. These conditions included, inter alia, the unconditional release of political prisoners and detainees; the lifting of bans on restricted organizations; the removal of troops from the townships; the ending of the state of emergency; the repeal of repressive legislation; and the cessation of political trails and executions. According to the ANC's scenario, once these conditions had been met, representatives of all parties could sit down to negotiate a new constitutional dispensation, which would have to be agreed on universally agreed constitutional principles.9

The process had to commence with initial discussions to achieve a suspension of hostilities, which would then facilitate agreement on basic constitutional principles to underpin the new dispensation. The parties could then define the forum that would draft the new constitution. An interim government could be formed that would supervise the drafting and adoption of the new constitution and govern the country in the interim period. Once the new constitution was adopted, all armed hostilities would be formally terminated. For its part, the international community would then lift sanctions and South Africa would qualify for membership of the Organization of African Unity (OAU).10

This situation prevailed in South Africa since the mid-eighties -- the government slowly coming to the conclusion that its security apparatus, despite the magnitude of the resources at its disposal, could not "defeat" the liberation movement; the ANC slowly coming to the conclusion that the armed struggle and the internal campaign to make the country "ungovernable" could not "defeat" the government.

In South Africa, too, the NP governments of the late 1970s and the 1980s treated black demands for empowerment, for the right to vote, for a parliament that would be elected on the basis of one person one vote and be representative of the people as a whole, for repeal of the laws that discriminated against the majority in favor of white minority privilege as a security issue not a political one. Hence, when the foundations of separate development began to crumble, the government developed the concept of the Total Onslaught.

South Africa, according to the new dogma, was under siege from Soviet expansionism, surrounded by hostile Marxist neighbors, which were little more than Soviet-backed puppet states. The ANC, the government's propaganda alleged, masked its true intentions under the pretense of being the party that would bring democracy to South Africa and free the black masses. In reality, the ANC was a tool of the South African Communist Party (SACP) which had infiltrated the ANC at every level, controlling its operations and dictating its ideology, infiltrating South Africa with its agents whose primary loyalty was to the SACP, which itself was an instrument of a Soviet imperialism that epitomized the enslavement of the masses. In this sense, South Africa was the bridgehead between East and West and white South Africa, the custodian on the African continent of western values and mores, and of the freedoms associated with them. The ANC had been duped, and rather than representing the interests of the disenfranchised black masses it was at the vanguard of the sinister and evil ideology that would enslave the masses and emasculate their Christian values and beliefs.

General Magnus Malan, who succeeded PW Botha as Minister of Defense when Botha became State President propounded the doctrine of the total onslaught, and masterminded the state's response in the form of a total strategy.

De Klerk describes the mood in government:

[Although] it has become fashionable to ridicule PW Botha's view that there was a total onslaught against South Africa, during the mid1980s fortnight after fortnight the intelligence that we received in briefing after briefing in the State Security Council underlined the very grave situation that confronted us. We were faced not only by a concerted campaign to make South Africa ungovernable as the prelude to a general revolution, we also had to contend with extremely serious external threats. Seldom had such a comprehensive international campaign been mounted against a single country so relentlessly for so long a period, as the campaign that the international anti-apartheid campaign had mobilized against us. The sanctions net was beginning to tighten around South Africa in almost every sphere of its international relations. The Soviet Union and Cuban allies had established threatening positions in some of our neighboring countries. We were involved in a low intensity war in northern Namibia and southern Angola that had brought the South African Defence Force into direct conflict with Cuban and Russian-led forces. Guerrilla groups, based in neighbouring countries, had begun to launch attacks against South Africa.11

The "total onslaught" demanded a "total strategy," which in turn required the necessary tools to mount both the internal and external offensives that would frustrate the "total onslaught," infiltrate its structures, and ultimately defeat its attempts to overthrow the South African state. The National Security Management System (NSMS) was created to systematize, organize, and provide the strategic vision for the "total response." In short measure, it spread its tentacles into every nook and cranny of South African society, creating militarized governance structures presided over by the securocrats -- the senior security personnel and like-minded ministers with key security portfolios. Every intrusion into the public domain, the organs of civil society, and the private lives of individuals was justified on the grounds that the state was fighting a faceless enemy which was establishing its own clandestine network throughout South Africa to facilitate and coordinate the overthrow of the government.

Blacks were not the enemy; communism was. Black demands for ending apartheid were a front, a convenient vehicle for agents of the SACP and the ANC to mobilize the masses and spread the doctrine of communism, an ideology dedicated to the upliftment of the masses and the destruction of monopoly capitalism, which exploited the people in the name of ungodly profit. The government itself was exploring ways to open the dispensation to blacks. Thus, in a situation where a new form of revolutionary had emerged which did not pit armies against each other on a battlefield, but one in which "revolutionary forces sought to overthrow incumbent governments by mobilizing the masses; by making countries ungovernable; by fomenting strikes; by involving churches, trade unions, and civil society in their campaigns; by using propaganda to destroy the image and undermine the confidence of governments; by eliminating opposition through the use of terrorism and intimidation; and by continuing to mount attacks against its enemies."12 The state responded in kind. The clandestine and covert activities carried out by the enemy were met with the clandestine and covert activities carried out by the state. Infiltrating the enemy's networks was everything.

When PW Botha opened Parliament in January 1996 with the declaration that "We accept one citizenship for all South AfricansThe peoples of South Africa form one nation,"13 the "moral" underpinnings of Grand Apartheid jettisoned in short order. Verwoerd had given apartheid a "moral" coherence by introducing the concept of "separate development" as a way out of the legitimacy straitjacket the NP had strapped itself into in 1948. South Africa was not one country but several, each linguistically, culturally, and ethnically different. Each nation would be given its own territory to correspond with its historical boundaries; each would have its own government, governance institutions, and citizenship requirements. Each would issue its own passports. Each would be free to develop in its own way, according to its own values and norms without being subject to the norms and values of other "groups." Rather than entrenching colonialism, Separate development would accomplish the opposite by "freeing" "native" populations to pursue their own aspirations without having to submit themselves to the prevarication of the white man's predatory interference. Because it involved a wholesale rearrangement of society and people in no way detracted from its "moral" obligation to doing "right" for the black man -- practical difficulties could be overcome if the proper administrative structures were put in place.

Hence(take out this hence?) democracy would flourish in each state in which citizens would be free to vote for the party of their choice. Hence the fact that South Africa denied citizenship to blacks was not a question of color but of national origin. Once this rational was rejected by the NP, it had to face, once again, the moral dilemma Grand Apartheid had supposedly resolved: if all South Africans are citizens of the same state, should not all citizens enjoy the same rights, and in particular, on what grounds could one deny the right of some citizens to vote for the party of their choice, which was the basis for all democratic dispensations? In the "bewilderment"(take out quotes?) that followed in national party circles with the verligte(italicize this word?) and the verkrampte at each other's throats, divisions within the NP more bloodletting and more personal, a resurgent Conservative Party nipping at its heels, Botha turned to the securocrats to restore order not just in the country but within his party. The former resulted in the state of emergency to break the backbone of the resistance of the UDF and organizations aligned with it with sweeping mass detentions of resistance leaders down to the street level, the latter by simply by-passing its incorrigible structures with the now more refined structures of the NSMS.

The "tricameral" system of government, Botha's answer to the irresolvable problems of apartheid, had produced a gigantic bureaucratic monster swollen with a voracious appetite for resources that had ground it to a standstill.

The central government bureaucracy included departments to manage "general affairs," as well as three departments to manage its(?) "own affairs" African, Indian, and Coloureds. Each of the four independent states and the six self-governing homelands had departments that duplicated the national bureaucracy at every level, one department for every line function at the national level. Thus you had 16 departments of agriculture, industry and trade, health etc. -- an endless proliferation of bureaucracies, multiplying exponentially in response to every contingency. Thus, the 47 proposed Regional services Councils, the 15 interdepartmental committees, and further proposals for 9 black Regional Councils. South Africa had five Presidents, nine chief ministers or chairmen or councils of ministers, 14 cabinets or ministerial councils, close to 300 Cabinet ministers, over 1,500 members of parliaments or other legislative bodies, and tens of thousands of local councilors.

More than 10 per cent of South Africa's labor force worked in the central government, and over a third of all employees worked in the public sector. By 1988, the total wage bill for the public sector came to 60 per cent of the national budget and almost one quarter of GNP. 14 In the 1987/88 budget, a "conservative" estimate of security spending pegged it at between 25 and 30 per cent of the national budget, or between 8 and 9 per cent of GNP.15

The NMS was superimposed on, complemented by, and ran in parallel with these mind-boggling layers of bureaucracy. After 1986, it assumed what virtually amounted to absolute control of government. It oversaw 12 Joint Management Centres (JMCs), 60 sub-JMCs, 448 mini-JMCs, and thousands of Local Management Centres (LMCs), each covering the area of jurisdiction of a local police station.16 Through the LMC network, about 600 key officials, tightly coordinated by the SSC, ran the day-to day operations of government.17 Civilian politics were effectively marginalized. Ministers reduced to carrying out the orders of generals who now dictated policy. Civil Servants became the lackeys of the LMCs. The word "Security" was dropped from the nomenclature NSMS. It was renamed the National Management System (NMS) to reflect its intrusion into every aspect of South African society, public and private. Management. It managed "everything."18 South Africa had become a state run by securocrats; whatever pretenses it had regarding itself as a democratic state had become unstuck.

When De Klerk was appointed State President in August 1989, he set out to dismantle the NSMS and the powerful security structures the securocrats had created. He was in effect changing the balance of power within the highest echelons of government, sidelining the powerful secretariats that had served the interests of the security branches for over a decade, particularly since the mid-eighties, and restoring the Cabinet as the preeminent decision-making body. In doing so, he was opening Pandora's Box. But those to whom he entrusted the task kept a firm lid on the box.

De Klerk, after all, was doing away with individual fiefdoms of power, undercutting entrenched lines of authority that were seen by many who exercised it as personal domains of influence. They set policy and got their own way without the constraints of having to justify or even inform others of their actions. While the chiefs of the SSC remained in their positions, the about-to-be-deposed securocrats could cause waves with powerful undertows that could drag under many of their superiors who had pooh-poohed the idea of taking swimming lessons.

Thus, entrusting the task of dismantling an order of doing things to the very people who had created that order, were familiar with its innermost workings, and, above all, used to enjoying the power and privileges their positions gave them, could be likened to putting the fox in charge of guarding the chickens. As the state consolidated its securocratic foundations in the late eighties, it was less susceptible to the constraints of the meager checks and balances that had given some semblance of accountability to state institutions in the past. To expect that the tight and interwoven agencies and functionaries who had accumulated great power in the latter years of the Botha era would suddenly undergo "born again"-like leaps of conversion to ethical standards of accountability and transparency, or meekly surrender their vast powers without finding numerous ways to evade or reinvent De Klerk's edicts would require an existential transformation in ethos and values that human behavior simply does not countenance, not for the lack of wanting to, but because of the nature of the beast itself a beast which was at the best of times slow to adapt, and at the worst of times instinctively reactive to the imperatives for survival. The securocrats, according to at least one well-placed observer of the unfolding political intrigues, concluded that rather than meekly accepting the return to "civilian" rule that De Klerk's initiatives were intended to achieve, the securocrats were planning "to go on playing a central role according to their own vision."19

That none could fathom the labyrinthine interconnections among different strands of the multitudinous dimensions or the scale of the interweaving networks that had come to represent the sprawling machinery of state is not surprising, indeed, it is a compliment of sorts to the architects of intrigue the efficacy of clandestine networks is that they are created in ways which leave the creators themselves in doubt as to how the disparate parts fit or even what their exact relationships to each other are.20

De Klerk himself was not impervious to the need not to alienate the SADF. Plots against him were "commonplace" in the Special Forces Command and other "dirty tricks" units after he released Mandela and unbanned the ANC and more ominously the SACP.21 He was aware that members of both the SAP and the SADF were opposed to his moves "to put an end to the special influence in decision-making" his predecessor "had given to the SADF, in particular." There was, he says, rather casually, "resistance to my initiatives in this area," but that like a good boy scout, he "was determined to press ahead with them."22

Nevertheless, one finds it more than a little ingenuous on De Klerk's part to believe that after he addressed some 800 senior police officers in January 1980 at the South African Police College and told them it was their duty to be absolutely impartial; that they should no longer be required to promote or oppose any particular cause; that they should refrain from any political involvement; and that they should restrict their activities to combating crime and protecting the lives and property of all South Africans,23 that he would actually believe that the assemblage would follow "orders" to the last letter, and that he could rest assured that all was well with the world.

Given that Mandela was still in prison and the ANC and its affiliates banned organizations, his announcements must have come as something of a shock to the police officers who listened to him, especially to those who were up to their armpits in covert activities and the extra-legal corollaries that inevitably accompany them. The leaking of his remarks, which were confidential, to the press, which printed them in full, at least confirmed to him that part of the security forces were not in sync with the reforms he had adopted, perhaps because of the novelty of his suggestion that they should devote their energies to "combating crime," an activity for which they were woefully unprepared.

A month later, he tells us, he repeated the same message to the senior officers of the SADF at Voortrekkerhoogte, the main SADF base outside Pretoria. But here the atmosphere was "slightly tense," and he could sense "that a substantial percentage of the officers present were skeptical or apprehensive."24

That these elements might resort to subterfuge to short his reforms and their marginalization never seems to have crossed his mind. That Mandela might have been on to something when he recounted stories of security force members being involved in violence and the fermentation of violence also seems to have gone over his head, despite his own acute observation that he did not have the full backing of the security departments of government, and in particular, that he lacked the backing of some of their most senior personnel.

That those in the security forces out to "get" might cover up their illegal acts, lie about the investigations they were supposed to carry out, and follow their own agenda seems to have never dawned on him. In the "old boys" network, honorable gentlemen do not lie to each other, and in a "democratic" state where the military are under the control of civilian rule; officers do not disobey orders, even if they find them difficult to follow. If they found them impossible to follow, they would do the honorable thing and resign. But to commit treason? -- out of the question.

Moreover, if De Klerk was sensitive to the disaffection among some of the senior ranks, to say nothing of the known sympathies, especially in the police, with the right wing, and that "this was a factor [he] would have to watch very carefully throughout the whole transformation," why was he so willing to exonerate the police from allegations of collusion, and dismissive of Mandela's warning that there were people around him who were up to no good,25 since Mandela's observation was a reflection of his own?

Perhaps the answer lies in De Klerk's own words: for the reforms he envisaged to succeed, it was essential, he says, "to retain the support of the broad leadership of the security forces."26 And hence the trade-offs that would irrevocably haunt him; the not wanting to know that would facilitate his own agenda, a Faustian compromise which would leave an indelible stain on his own historic achievements. Or perhaps his not wanting to know was reflexive: a conditioned non-response whites had created to protect themselves from the consequences of terrible acts committed in their name. For De Klerk to act, he had to be able to distance himself from the immediacy of the consequences that would smother him, if proof of the allegations was forthcoming; he had to subordinate himself, as it were, to the dispassionate investigations of an independent commission, and hence take himself out of the security forces' line of fire.

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.