Brothers in War and Peace: The war that could have been

War and peace: Twin brothers Constand and Abraham Viljoen.

War and peace: Twin brothers Constand and Abraham Viljoen.

Although it is commonly held that time heals all wounds, certain words and accusations can cut so deep as to leave scars that not even the passing of years can heal.

Being rejected and branded a traitor by fellow Afrikaners still burns Constand Viljoen. Few outside his inner circle suspected the strain he was under while with the Afrikaner Volksfront. When he got involved in 1993, it was because he had been asked to give strategic guidance to the volk; it was a task into which he threw his heart and soul.

“For nine months we worked flat out on this [political, economic and propaganda strategy], also preparing the military strategy itself,” Viljoen said later.
“I always said: ‘I may be preparing for a military option but I will decide whether and if it is the time to launch an offensive.’ I always said I was prepared to wage a war and was prepared to sacrifice lives if I regarded that as the only and last possibility.”

He held on to the option of war, hoping to use it to extract more concessions from the ANC. But when he made his momentous decision to put his party’s name on South Africa’s first democratic ballot paper, men such as [Conservative Party leader] Ferdi Hartzenberg gave him the cold shoulder. “Some of them called me a traitor because they somehow thought I was in a position to keep the old South Africa standing,” he said.

While his character was being ripped apart and his reputation sullied by his erstwhile comrades, Viljoen felt increasing pressure from the ANC.

At the time, Viljoen still had his dream of a volkstaat, a place where Afrikaners could live according to their own culture and be independent. It was a view that did not fit in with the ANC’s determination to end race-based structures in South Africa. 

With hindsight it is easy to see that the ANC never had any intention of granting Viljoen his volkstaat. Their goal from the beginning had been to trap the general into taking part in the election. How else could he show how much support he had except through the ballot? The negotiators had smiled affably and praised him, but ultimately sought to outmanoeuvre him.

But Viljoen would not have been the leader he was if he had not had a sharpened intuition when it came to traps. Viljoen’s suspicions that he was being cheated at the negotiating table were exacerbated when various others told him that the ANC would con him. 

Uneasy, filled with a growing disquiet and doubtful of the liberation movement’s real intentions, for his own protection and as a guarantee of the ANC’s commitment, he called for a written agreement that would recognise the Afrikaners’ wish for self-determination and sanction the establishment of a volkstaatraad to examine the possibility of establishing an Afrikaner enclave. To bind the ANC, he insisted the accord be signed before the election.

The agreement was ready by April 12 1994 but the ANC kept postponing the signing ceremony, thereby adding to Viljoen’s stress. Frantic and losing confidence in the liberation movement, he began to think they were playing him for a fool, pushing him closer to April 27, when he would have no other alternative but to accept that the election was happening and that he was not going to get anything from the ANC. His credibility and integrity were on the line.

He eventually snapped under the mounting pressure and reverted to threats. Angry, he went to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to deliver a message to Pik Botha: Was the National Party government aware of the heavy emotions running through Afrikaner veins? These emotions could lead to a bloodbath if Afrikaners stood their ground. Already some were preparing themselves for such an outcome by stockpiling canned food.

Botha countered that he could hardly believe Afrikaners would take up arms against a democratically elected government. Dissatisfied, Viljoen left, but not before warning the government to tread softly.

On April 16, 11 days before the election, the crisis had not yet been resolved. Viljoen was at his wits’ end with the ANC’s apparent inability to sign off on the accord.

This time he had been pushed far enough and was ready to take up arms. “I have to let the dogs loose, the ANC is difficult,” he told his wife Ristie. Even as he spoke the words, he recalled his promise to [United States ambassador Princeton] Lyman that he would see him before he resorted to any military action.

Viljoen phoned Lyman, recalling their conversation of December 1993: “You remember, between you and me, we had a gentleman’s agreement. We met quite often and you said, ‘Before you do anything, promise me you will first come to me.’ And I said ‘Yes, I will do so’ and you remember we used that eventually ... I came to you and said: ‘I’m going to let the dogs loose,’ and you said: ‘Give me half an hour.’”

Lyman had been around long enough to know that the election would be sabotaged. He took action immediately, calling [ANC leader]Thabo Mbeki’s office and explaining that Viljoen believed he had been betrayed. All their hard work at the negotiating table was in jeopardy.

The gravity of the situation sank in. Finally.

Yusuf Saloojee, the man who had taken Lyman’s call, phoned back within minutes. The accord would make provision for a volkstaatraad, which would be appointed after the election to investigate the feasibility of an Afrikaner volkstaat. It would be signed at the Union Buildings on Saturday April 23, three days before the election.

The general had been serious about going to war. “As a matter of fact I had the war machine ready,” he said later. “The final decision not to go to war was taken just after April 23 1994.”

During his application for amnesty on May 16 1997, Viljoen told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that during the election phase in 1994 there were many who had plans to use violence.  His followers, however, were in a commanding position as far as military capacity was concerned. They were ready to die for their cause. But he thought about the situation rationally. He was haunted by the devastating effects that the Anglo-Boer War had had on Afrikaners, and therefore decided against war, even though his decision disappointed many of his followers.

A few years later, in an interview with Hilton Hamann, Viljoen said that a large portion of his forces disintegrated when he decided not to go to war. He had planned to use a so-called thick arrow — one big operation — followed by a thin arrow, the type of warfare waged by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. 

Both strategies collapsed when he chose the election over war.

“I don’t regret the decision, but maybe I should say give me another five years then I’ll tell you whether I regret it, because the situation in politics doesn’t change that quickly and whether I made the right or wrong decision may only come out in another five or 10 years,” he told Hamann. “Things in South Africa might turn like that in Zimbabwe — then I would certainly regret it.”

In August 2013, 13 years after Hamann’s book was published, I asked the general again: Do you regret your decision? 

“You know, I thought today that we made a mistake in 1910 when South Africa became a union,” he told me. “We did not take the realities of people’s emotions into consideration. We made the same flop in 1994. I was involved in 1994. I think I should have fought harder. I often think we should have gone to war.”

Brothers in War and Peace is published by Zebra Press. Cruywagen, Glenn Moss (New Radicals, Jacana) and M&G news editor Charles Leonard will be in conversation on Saturday August 30, 11.30am to 1pm


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