On the big army day, the churches debate violence

The South African Defence Force’s 75th anniversary this week was marked by a major military parade and show of firing power, a sword-rattling speech by the Minister of Defence, and warnings by its critics of a “quiet coup”.

Addressing his soldiers, airmen and sailors at the celebratory parade this week, the Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan defended the need for a total strategy to counter “revolutionaries and terrorists”. “We need not apologise to anyone if our counter-strategy is all-embracing,” he said. On the same day, the SA Councilor Churches annual conference in Johannesburg was fiercely debating its attitude to armed struggle.

The outgoing general secretary, Dr Beyers Naude, issued a briefing paper he had presented in Lusaka discussing the possibility of martial law. And at a conference in Stellenbosch, PFP researcher James Selfe warned that years of government “total onslaught” had paved the way for a “quiet coup”: the military take-over of local government structures through the shadowy National Security Management System (NSMS).

In the view of a number of analysts, the SADF is already at the centre of a complex system of control, not only over the lives of more than 40 000 people who can be mobilised in the event of all-out war but also, over civilians in the wider society. Some even contend that South Africa is already ruled by a defacto military dictatorship: that beneath the facade of civilian rule the generals run the country, sharing power only with their peers in the police and’ intelligence service. That is disputed by some pundits of military affairs, who counter that the final authority is still civilian.

But what is not in debate as the SADF celebrates its 75th anniversary under the proud motto “Never defeated” is that it has become a central force in South African society. In his briefing paper, Naude warned: “If the government fears that its present measures of controlling the Emergency are ineffective, I have no doubt that the government will not hesitate to impose martial law in some or other form and that thereby military rule will be established in South Africa. “The process of militarisation, already so efficiently prepared through the para-military structures which have been set up, could easily be implemented and the facade of a democratic parliamentary body simply pushed aside,” he said.


The prominent SADF role in the NSMS is of vital importance. There is a strong military component in the State Security Council, said to he the real nerve centre of government. The Minister of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Force are both permanent members. The secretary of the SCC is General Pieter van der Westhuizen, the former Chief of the SADF Department of Military Intelligence. He replaced another military man, General AJ van Deventer. American scholar Kenneth Grundy contends the SADF supplied 70 percent of initial personnel who served in the SCC secretariat. His figure was rejected by Van Deventer. But there is no doubt that the SADF is an important factor. How else does one explain why the key position of SCC secretary went to military men under Botha’s administration?

The SADF’s central role in the national security management system is underlined by JMCs. Of the 12 JMC chairmen, 11 are SADF officers. The JMCs, sub-JMCs and mini-JMCs interpret security in the widest sense to include rent and consumer boycotts and the supply of water and electricity, with the result that the influence of the military percolates into every level of society. 

According to PFP researcher Selfe, who addressed a national student conference last weekend organised by the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in SA, unrelenting propaganda over more than 15 years meant most while South Africans believed the government was in a life-or-death struggle with communist forces. A “militarised system of political decision-making”, the NSMS operated in secrecy through the Joint Management Centres (JMCs), its officials answerable only to an executive state president. Decisions were made on the basis not of what people wanted but what would keep them quiet.

Crucially, it aimed to make democratic challenges to the status quo seem part of the total onslaught. Respect for democracy could be undermined and communities at the receiving end could become cynical and dismissive of democratic solutions, Selfe told the conference. Because the NSMS was largely invisible, debate over it was often poorly informed or even paranoid. For a start, it was not a new development coinciding with the State of Emergency, but had been carefully planned over more than 15 years. 

President PW Botha started selling “total onslaught” strategy to his colleagues, the state administration and the South African public as far back as 1970 when, as Minister of Defence, he first spoke of a “communistic onslaught under the cloak of religion or freedom or whatever” manifested in boycotts, illegal strikes and student protest. “Under Botha, SADF officers courses introduced “total strategy”, producing a “new breed” of military men who believed South Africa was fighting a revolutionary war-and realised military prowess was not as important as political, social and economic action geared to win the hearts and minds of the people.

The system started operating in 1979, the year after Botha became prime minister. Its most important innovation was a secretariat: a permanent staff to effect the decisions of the State Security Council (SSC) at the top of the security management pyramid. Of about 100 officials seconded to the secretariat, 56 percent were from the National Intelligence Service (NlS), 16 percent from the SADF, 16 percent from the SA Police and 11 percent from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Three of the secretariat’s four branches were “extremely significant”. The National Intelligence Interpretation Branch provided “sophisticated, comprehensive” intelligence to the secretariat and the SSC, its raw intelligence coming from constituent departments and JMCs.

The Strategic Communication Branch sold the idea of a total strategy to the public. Politically the most significant was the Strategy Branch, which constructed “total strategies” for recommendation to the SSC, first presenting them to any of 13 interdepartmental government committees, each dealing with an area of government activity falling under more than one government department. This, said Selfe, ensured total strategy was comprehensive and coordinated.

The lack of respect these “security apparatchiks” had for democratic values was compounded by endemic conflict and lack of consensus in South African society, where security services were seen as props of a fundamentally unjust dispensation. “When the security forces then involve themselves in civil government (or replace it) the conflict takes on a more serious dimension. In the process, the security services become hopelessly compromised and identified as part of the problem,” he said. Several indicators chart the rise of the SADF from its formation in 1912 – the same year in which the outlawed African National Congress was founded – to its present pivotal position: its rate of spending, its escalating size and the rise of the NSMS that has given it a massive say in civilian issues.

From a modest R44-million in 1960-61, the defence budget rose to R6,68-billion for the current 1987-88 financial year. These figures do not include the Special Defence Budget and further allocations not open to parliamentary scrutiny. The latest issue of Africa Confidential estimated the real defence budget could be as high as R7,5-billion. Another indicator is the escalating demands of the SADF on young whites. Once young men were chosen by ballot for training in the Defence Force. Today there is compulsory conscription for white men. At the same time, the period of full-time training has doubled from one to two years.

Afterwards they have to serve a further 720 days, spread over 12 years. Even after serving in the Citizen Force for 12 years, they may be called up – or, as the Official Year Book puts it, “activated” – first as members of the Citizen’ Force Reserve and then as commandos. Their liability ends only after the age of 55. In tandem with the process of extending the scope of conscription for whites, the state has closed loopholes which allowed young white immigrants to escape the draft and extended its recruitment of black volunteers.

Another pointer to the SADF’s role as a central factor in South Africa has been the deployment of soldiers in black townships. The rise of the military, as distinct from the police, was facilitated by the election of Botha, who served for 12 years as Minister of Defence, to succeed BJ Vorster as Prime Minister in 1978. Botha blurred the boundary between military and civilian authority in October 1980 when he appointed Malan, then Chief of the Defence Force, as Minister of Defence. The SADF’s importance will continue to rise as South Africa’s conflict deepens and widens.

Malan seemingly foreshadowed a more active SADF role on the sub-continent and at home last weekend. He warned in a statement that South Africa would have to consider giving aid to “pro-Western groups that are confronted by Soviet expansionism in Southern Africa but do not have the ability to survive on their own”. His statement was interpreted by the Afrikaans press to presage possible open support for Renamo rebels in Mozambique, a move which would be consistent with the view that top men in the SADF have never been happy with the Nkomati Accord. Shortly afterwards Malan defended the SADF’s covert involvement in the publication and distribution of a document attacking the ANC.–– Patrick Laurence and Gaye Davis

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper

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