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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The end of the seventies

These developments coincided and increasingly interacted with the reconstruction of an underground presence of the liberation movement. Regionally, the end of Portuguese fascism hastened the assumption of power by FRELIMO and the MPLA in Mozambique and Angola respectively; while in what was then Rhodesia, Smith's illegal UDI regime was under increasing pressure from ZANU and ZAPU. Internationally, hostility to apartheid deepened. In 1973 the United Notes taken during a Cabinet meeting by Jimmy Kruger, at the time Minister of Police, reveal an extraordinary level of self-delusion or the deliberate denial of reality in order to justify murder:

As the decade came to a close, there was an attempt on the part of the state to employ a new approach grounded in "total strategy", an explicit commitment to mobilise military, economic, physical and psychological resources in defence of the existing order. It brought senior police, Defence Force and intelligence officers directly into the formulation and implementation of government policy, through the State Security Council and the National Security Management System.1

In 1977, PW Botha, then Minister of Defence, mapped out the terrain in which the NSMS would be operating when he introduced the Defence White Paper:

The resolution of the conflict in the times in which we now live demands inter-dependent and coordinated action in all fields: military, psychological, economic, political, sociological, technological, diplomatic, ideological, cultural, etcetera. We are today involved in a war whether we like it or not. It is therefore essential that a total national strategy (is) formulated at the highest level."

This extract from a paper titled Some Possibilities in Counter-Insurgency Operations, written in 1977 by SADF officer and writer on military affairs, Helmoed-Romer Heitman, is relevant; many tactics of this nature were adopted against the ANC:

"Operations can include the sabotage/doctoring of discovered arms or supply caches. The resultant difficulties will sap confidence and morale as well as creating distrust between the insurgency and its suppliers. (...) They could range from doctored foodstuffs, via mixing petrol with paraffin for lamps and tampering with medical supplies, to the placing of instant detonation fuses in, for example, every tenth hand grenade. The preference here would be the inflicting of illness or injury, not death, the former having the added advantage of sapping morale and straining logistics.

"The intelligence services can also create some havoc by the supplying of false information, particularly the type to create mistrust. Thus a leader of the insurgency could be made to appear as a police informer (..) Further, some extra-legal operations may prove beneficial both in eliminating certain key members of the insurgency and in sowing suspicion. Needless to say, such operations would need to be well-disguised."2

The National Security Management System (NSMS) was instituted in 1979 as the instrument to co-ordinate all state actions and implement reforms in line with "total strategy". Over the years the government had built a large network of Security Police and upgraded the police force in general to deal with mass protest. BOSS, the civilian intelligence agency, expanded its operations. Torture, recruitment of activists, employment of agents' provocateurs, propaganda against anti-apartheid forces, and the employment of vigilantes became the stock-in-trade. The NSMS aimed to achieve maximum efficiency and co-ordination of all these methods, and drew in the additional capacity of the SADF, particularly its intelligence wing.

The NSMS, and its later versions, were premised on the belief that it is possible to manage change through the redefinition of political, military and economic constructs in a manner to the advantage of those who hold the levers of state power. The underlying conceptual framework of the NSMS was that 80% of actions to contain the security threat should be political, and only 20% military; it was believed that the majority of people were politically neutral, and only a small radical elite of "agitators", "communists" and "terrorists" existed, who should be killed. In this scenario, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the status quo. The apartheid state sought to create political stability through limited reforms to apartheid combined with a variety of measures to counter the influence of pro-democracy groups and the liberation movement; these ranged from setting up a range of "counter-organisations," to attempts to brainwash or psychologically influence target groups, to measures designed to defuse material grievances by upgrading infrastructure and the provision of services, particularly in those areas considered trouble spots or "oliekol" (oil spot) townships.

This period saw the genesis of the trend towards increasingly sophisticated covert operations, continuing into the 1990s, which included illegal methods (even by the regime's own standards) to suppress and disrupt the resistance movement. In addition to attempts to bolster the discredited bantustan and community councillor systems in general, there were renewed attempts to find or create "credible" alternatives to the ANC.

Such initiatives included psychological pressure and misinformation directed at the leadership of Inkatha to drive them further away from the liberation movement. These methods drew on theories developed on the basis of experiences of other wars against national liberation movements, and from methods to destroy dissent adopted by other right-wing regimes, particularly in Latin America.

The NSMS became fully functional in the mid-1980s as the apartheid state attempted to destroy the mass popular resistance which had taken root by this time. As the crisis deepened, the intelligence services, particularly Military Intelligence, increasingly assumed political influence and even executive control over this shadow bureaucracy, which in some respects duplicated the existing administration and displaced its decision-making structures. The State Security Council (SSC), although technically a committee of the cabinet, usurped many of the cabinet's executive functions. The SSC effectively ran the country as a super-cabinet without any such statutory power, giving credence to the notion that a creeping military coup was taking place in South Africa.

The 1980s saw successive States of Emergency in which all resources of the state were harnessed by the NSMS to smash new forms of popular resistance that had emerged. The leadership of the UDF and its affiliates was ruthlessly rounded up and restricted. Scores of thousands of people were detained without trial; and many more were shot dead, maimed, whipped, tear-gassed and baton-charged. Open political activity by legal anti-apartheid groups became virtually impossible.

Besides the more conventional forms of state harassment and repressive laws, anti-apartheid activists and organisations were increasingly subjected to new terror tactics: "vigilante" groups which sought out and murdered activists, or launched mass attacks on communities with the tacit or overt support of the SAP; pseudo-revolutionary groups which sowed confusion and death in communities; criminal gangs which appeared to operate above the law as long as most of their victims were pro-democracy activists; assaults, arson, slashed or over-inflated tyres, dead cats nailed to doors, bricks crashing through windows, bombed and burgled offices, kidnappings, increasing attacks on exiles and activists in neighbouring states, and the ever-present threat of death as mysterious "hit squads" stepped up their activities.

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.