The ‘secret war’ gets ever more dirty

The middle-woman at the bar counter of Hotel 77 in Arusha Tanzania, wanted to talk about Cape Town. She had left more than a decade before, and listened with that hunger for detail which one often sees in the faces of exiles when they meet people recently from "home". The thing which several people remarked on after an evening with Dulcie September was how gentle and ordinary she was and how little of her Athlone accent she had lost.

On Tuesday, September, the African National Congress representative in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg, who had struggled to learn French, was gunned down on her way to work in Paris. Even in such an increasingly dirty war, the shock waves which flowed from the assassination reflected what Dr Tom Lodge, of the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, described as "killing of a completely different order".

Lodge commented that where the actions directed against ANC people in the frontline states could not be condoned, Pretoria at least could claim they were in one way or another involved in ANC activities in South Africa. "But when people like Dulcie September – a diplomat based in Europe – start getting killed, then that is a signal that diplomacy really has taken a back seat." Lodge said it was not unreasonable to assume that Pretoria was responsible: "There is enough circumstantial evidence that one way or another the attacks against the ANC can be traced back to South Africa".

South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha denied that South Africa was responsible, but Lodge asked: "Who else would want ANC people out of the way?" Little more than 24 hours before, South African commandoes struck across the Botswana border, killing four people they claimed were ANC guerrillas, incinerating a house on the outskirt, of the capital Gaborone and provoking an international outcry.

The South African Defence Force claimed that the Botswana raid was a follow-up action using intelligence gleaned from a skirmish the previous Friday in which three suspected guerrillas were killed by a patrol on the border. A Volkswagen combi was found abandoned near the house, having run into a tree stump, while the raiders were evacuated from the scene of the attack in a helicopter.

The office of Botswana President Quett Masire said three Batswana women and one South African refugee had been killed in the raid. A week earlier, an ANC guerrilla, Mazizi Maqekaza was shot dead by unknown gunmen while he lay in a hospital bed in Maseru, Lesotho. Though the Botswana raid was the first cross-border incursion which Pretoria had owned up to since the mid into Livingstone, Zambia, in April last year, in recent months there have been repeated crossings of the Swazi border, bombs in Zimbabwe and indications of continued South African support for Mozambique's Renamo in its war against Frelimo.

The overriding impression of the past few days is Pretoria is less concerned than ever about world opinion and is seeking to eliminate ANC operatives wherever they can find them. As one diplomat described it this week: "They're in FU mood." This implies the military is gaining even more ascendancy within the state while the diplomats in the department of foreign affairs are left to mop up the pieces.

According to a recent edition of the journal, Africa Confidential, South Africa's special forces are now one of the dominant factors in the geo-politics of Southern Africa. "Their task is to run South Africa's secret war using techniques of clan-destine activity first developed by the Portugese authorities in Angola and perfected in Rhodesia," said the newsletter. "In effect, the special forces are the operational arm of South African military intelligence, which wrested control of the secret service establishment in the early 1980s after a protracted struggle with its civilian counterpart, the National Intelligence Service (NIS)."

The ascendancy of soldiers within the state is clear in Angola where the international diplomatic initiatives of recent weeks have been shattered by the military's determination to protect Unita and hold on to Namibia at all costs. The outcome for South Africa, though is a profound mess: more than 6 000 troops, a large number of them conscripts, are said to bogged down deep into a rainy Angola, unable to extract themselves and waiting for the next dry season offensive in June when things will get even more uncomfortable.

Pretoria's diplomatic handling of the Angolan war has driven a conservative American administration close to agreement with the Marxist MPLA government, the Cubans and the Soviets, and left Pretoria almost completely isolated. The apparent tactics of the past week raise the same questions for Pretoria of the efficacy of forceful methods at the expense of diplomacy – of saying FU to world opinion.

What was happening, said Lodge, was soldiers and policemen had an increasing influence within the state and "among them we have psychopaths – people involved in running the state who have murderous instincts. "Their aim appears to be to take out the ANC wherever they come across them – to solve the ANC problem by obliterating the ANC. "I think what we have is that the official attitude is being interpreted on a lower level as the ability to do what one likes. Soldiers can get away with extreme violence. "To ask why is to pose the wrong question. You really can't analyse such people in rational terms".

ANC long warned West of dangers

The Tuesday shooting of the African National Congress' representative in Paris, Dulcie September, highlights consistent ANC warnings to Western governments of assassination plans against its members. Over the past 18 months the movement has in particular warned France, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United States, Sweden, Italy and Australia that it had information Pretoria was planning to use hit squads in their capital cities. September (no relation of senior ANC member Reg September) was shot five times at pointblank range by a gunman as she was opening her fourth floor office in a modest part of the city. Neighbours heard no shots, indicating a silencer might have been used. She is second ANC chief representative to have been assassinated.

Soon after Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe won the 1980 independence elections, chief representative Joe Qabi was riddled with bullets from a machine pistol in the driveway of his Harare home. Qabi and September had both been jailed in South Africa before joining the ANC's overseas mission. Chief representatives of the ANC are always in potential danger because of their public profiles. September, who came from the Cape, worked in the ANC's London offices for about 10 years before being assigned to a senior job in the treasury department in Lusaka. She was appointed to her Paris job in 1983. – Peter Wellman

This article first appeared in the Weekly Mail.

 

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