Magnus Malan: The demise of a strategist

The death this week in Cape Town of former general Magnus André de Merindol Malan (81) severs a link with arguably the darkest decade in the recent history of both South Africa and the region.

This was the period between 1978 and 1989, the era of the so-called “total strategy” during which apartheid security forces waged war not only on domestic opponents but across a vast swath of Southern African territories.

At its height in the early 1980s, the South African Defence Force engaged in conventional warfare in Angola and Namibia, as well as in unconventional operations and covert warfare through surrogate forces in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique.

It was the brutality of South Africa’s destabilisation of the region that led the truth commission, in its final report, to note that the majority of the victims of the apartheid regime’s efforts to cling to power were the people of Southern Africa rather than South Africans themselves.

It is a fact largely forgotten in South Africa’s townships, where citizens of a region that for decades played host to the ANC now live in fear of xenophobic violence. The apartheid regime’s security strategy of the 1980s was shaped by the military doctrines of pre-emptive interventionism and counter-revolutionary warfare—and Malan was a key architect of a local variant of these.

He played a central role in drafting the 1979 white paper on defence, which identified the Soviet Union as South Africa’s principal threat, requiring a new state-management system that centralised power in a shadowy State Security Council comprising a mix of politicians and security officials. At the centre of its deliberations were Malan and PW Botha.

That Malan should have attained such influence was no surprise to his generation.
In many ways he was to the National Party a Chris Hani-type figure. A powerful personality and riveting orator, he combined a passion for military life with a cerebral preoccupation with politico-military doctrines.

Although he told Parliament ferociously in 1986 that his security forces “will hammer them, wherever they find them — we shall settle the hash of those terrorists, their fellow-travellers and those who help them”, he also understood that peace in South Africa ultimately required a political solution. The total strategy he conceptualised was only one prong of a political reform package.

Malan was born in Pretoria, his father an academic turned politician, a professor of biochemistry who became a National Party member of Parliament. Malan attended the elite Afrikaanse Höer Seunskool (“Affies”) before matriculating at a physical-education school in Kimberley.

After a brief period at Stellenbosch University he transferred to Pretoria University, where he obtained a BSc in military science, one of the first Afrikaners to earn the qualification. Thereafter he joined the navy before transferring to the army.

From early in his military career he was picked out for high office and was sent on numerous overseas courses, including one at the United States army’s illustrious general staff college at Fort Leavenworth, where he was thoroughly immersed in Cold War doctrine. He rose rapidly in the military, becoming head of the South West Africa Territorial Force before becoming chief of the army in 1973 and chief of the defence force in 1976. In 1980 he replaced PW Botha as defence minister, a post he held for 11 years.

The accession of FW de Klerk as president in 1989 saw Malan gradually slip from the pinnacle of power. De Klerk shut down the State Security Council and recentralised power in the Cabinet.

Following the Weekly Mail‘s revelations that the defence force had secretly funded Inkatha hit squads, De Klerk stripped Malan of his defence portfolio and demoted him to water affairs and forestry minister. In 1993 he retired from government.

In 1995 Malan, with several other military officers, was charged with involvement in a conspiracy that resulted in an Inkatha hit squad killing 13 civilians in 1987 in KwaMakhutha township, near Durban.

All were eventually acquitted in a case prosecuted so incompetently by the then attorney general of Natal—an apartheid holdover—that it was hard to believe the failure was not deliberate. An outraged President Nelson Mandela fired the attorney general.

Apart from an appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, when he was unrepentant about the SADF’s role in the regional and township wars, Malan spent his last years in near obscurity.

His biography, My Life with the South African Defence Force, published in 2006, contained no spectacular revelations.

He and his fellow securocrats can perhaps be grateful that their military careers predated the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the International Criminal Court. For the civilians of the region, his “total strategy” was undoubtedly a war crime.

John Daniel was a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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